Patches of golden poppies, purple-headed lupine bushes, fields of yellow buttercups: The Mission is filling up with wildflowers, part of the San Francisco superbloom following the city’s third-wettest winter on record.
Some clusters sprout up around sidewalk trees, others reach out from Victorian front yards, while still others decorate the ample medians on streets like Guerrero.
Mission Local recently photographed several gardens in the neighborhood: Community gardens, fenced-off areas hidden in parks and playgrounds, and sidewalk gems cared for by neighbors.
While some thrive with care from local stewards, others remain barren. The ownership and funding of each garden varies, as there are at least five nonprofits and city departments that oversee green space.
“Community interest and neighborhood interest is the primary factor” to get a garden, said Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of Friends of the Urban Forest, which has helped install more than 1,400 sidewalk gardens across the city. “And then, of course, we need to make sure that if we’re removing concrete from the sidewalk, there’s enough space to maintain the travel pathway.”
Sidewalk gardens free for many
A sidewalk garden can be installed free-of-cost for homeowners. Now, the project is completely free for the adjacent property owners in District 8 and 11, encompassing the Castro, Noe Valley, Outer Mission, Ingleside, and Exelsior. The city’s Environment Department, the Public Utilities Commission and budget set-asides from city supervisors cover the bill.
A 72-inch-wide minimum unobstructed path is required for most sidewalks, with some exceptions for narrow residential and alleyway sidewalks, according to the city’s Bureau of Urban Forestry.
In the first four months this year, Friends of the Urban Forest received 30 requests for new sidewalk gardens. Wiedenmeier said they consider community input when deciding on which species to plan, but often stick to their expertise based on each neighborhood’s unique microclimate: Yarrow, Foothill penstemon, California fuchsia, baby sage and common rush are the top five plant species commonly included in the sidewalk gardens.
Once a sidewalk garden is installed, its maintenance becomes the property owners’ responsibility. “Sometimes, when we notice that a particular sidewalk garden isn’t doing well, we have contacted the adjacent property owner with suggestions. In other cases, we have seen gardens that are tended quite beautifully, and that look even better now than when they were first created,” replied Ben Carlson, the spokesperson of Friends of the Urban Forest.
“I think that gardens and trees are green infrastructure for a city, and they’re going to help San Francisco become or continue to be climate-resilient in the face of all of the extreme weather that we’ve been having,” said Wiedenmeier, adding that more green space and less concrete can mitigate stormwater runoff and flooding.
As for other parts of the city, San Francisco Public Works has issued permits for sidewalk landscaping. As of July, 2022, the application fee for individual request per property is $322, with slightly lower fees for joint requests. If two to four neighboring properties within the same block or intersection apply, the fee is $277, and if five or more neighbors apply, the fee lowers to $239.
After submitting an application including a detailed location description and a plant list, a re-construction site inspection will be conducted by Public Works staff.
Raul Leon, who lives near 23rd and Shotwell, built two sidewalk gardens in front of his place with three neighbors. “There were no plants at first, and people just used it for garbage,” said Leon, “So we decided to build the metal boxes. Now the street is much cleaner.”
Last year, there was a conversation between residents putting out the planters to discourage encampments and homeless advocates. While neighbors called the planters “defensive architecture” to express their frustration against the city’s inaction on encampments, homeless advocates refer to them as a form of “hostile architecture,” a design strategy that targets groups that rely on public space.
Unlike sidewalk gardens, which can be initiated by a single homeowner, community gardens usually involve several neighbors contacting the city to receive financial support.
Sarah Katz-Hyman, the community partner network manager of the San Francisco Parks Alliance, said most community gardens start with a group of neighbors coming together to create a communal space.
“It offers an opportunity for folks to be able to have some garden plots, some personal vegetables. And, as far as funding is concerned, it really depends, group to group,” said Katz-Hyman. Her group, San Francisco Parks Alliance, offers fiscal sponsorship opportunities to different community groups, with which they can take tax deductible donations or apply for grants. This model is very common among park nonprofits.
Now, the parks alliance works closely with around 15 community gardens citywide, including the Connecticut Friendship Garden on Potrero Hill, Far Out West Community Garden in Outer Sunset.
Other community gardens are less official. The hotly-contested parcel 36, between 22nd and 23rd streets and Harrison Street and Treat Avenue, is partly claimed by several local groups, including gardeners, a preschool and a local business. Mission Greenway, a somewhat guerrilla gardening group, has cut locks to fences and installed planters on the seemingly unowned land, growing tomatoes, strawberries, and other edibles.
In total, there are about 100 community gardens in San Francisco, according to the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, which oversees 40 of them in city parks. Others are under the federal jurisdiction, like Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the school district.
Design by Will Jarrett.