A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2021


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Concrete Actions

By Kevin Bayuk

So often when speaking to urbanites in the Bay Area and beyond about growing food, I hear the resigned, nearly mantric lament, “my apartment does not have any access to any gardening space.” How frustratingly true for so many of us metro dwellers, or, perhaps not. Perhaps there is more space available than is obvious. What may be needed are concrete actions…

18th Street Before Transformation

City sidewalks seem to be one of the great overlooked and marginalized opportunities for the Bay Area Sustainability Movement to create immediate impact through direct action. Transforming concrete, impervious, grossly oversized sidewalks into beautiful, edible “green walks” while maintaining, indeed enhancing, adequate pedestrian pathways might just be the most radical acts any one of us can take while creating a myriad of benefits for the community.

That’s a bold statement, so I’d like to offer a quick problem/solution analysis, using San Francisco as an example urban environment, and an inspirational story of one of our sustainability heroines, Jane Martin of Plant *SF, to support this possibility.

Some of the problems we hear about in the urban environment:

* Food, health and social justice: Need and public desire for green space in which to grow fresh, organic, healthy food available to all and need for recreation activities accessible to all

* Watershed health: In San Francisco, on average, some 16 billion gallons of rain fall on the city every year and land on some 70% impermeable surfaces and run into San Francisco’s combined storm water/sewage system, overflowing it a few times a year at least on average, wreaking havoc on the homes (flooding), the ocean and bay ecology (fish, birds, other sea life), spreading detritus on our beaches and stressing our aging infrastructure

* Air quality: Fossil fuel car culture and the toxic-material-built-environment pollute the air we urban dwellers breathe

* Lack of cohesive community, crime: It seems many individuals in urban environments like San Francisco reportedly do not know any of their neighbors and feel isolated, creating conditions where violent crimes and theft are more likely to occur

* Deficit of green space: Green space has been shown to calm traffic, improve public health and offer opportunities for young and old to learn about and connect to natural ecosystems. Many might say that green spaces also fulfill an aesthetic need for colorful beautification of an, otherwise, drab, concrete infrastructure

* Carbon contributions to erratic climate change: Fossil fuel based automobile use in the city contributes gases to the atmosphere that have been linked to global climate change

Some solutions created when removing extraneous portions of concrete sidewalk:

* Immediately available green space for planting, low maintenance, drought tolerant, delicious perennial polyculture food gardens that provide fresh, local (as local as it gets) organic fruits and vegetables that do not need to be transported (at great cost, incredible produce waste due to spoilage and immense fossil fuel expenditure contributing to climate change), are not produced by industrial agriculture (known for destroying precious top soil, wasting precious water resources pumped at great cost and energy expenditure contributing to climate change and social minority wage slavery) and immediate opportunities for light exercise and outdoor recreation imperative to health

* More beautiful sidewalks by removing uniform (some would say ugly) concrete and increasing green space and vegetation incorporating art and beautiful design

* Improving the ecology of San Francisco by reducing impervious “hardscape” (sidewalks) resulting in re-hydrating the San Francisco aquifers which reduces the potential for costly/ecosystem-destroying/toxic combined storm drain/sewer system overflows

* Create new relationships in the neighborhood by involving local community in designing and implementing the project – resulting in health benefits and increased community well-being

* Showcase local culture and create opportunities for community connection through co-created community design – especially through planting-plan, including plants of cultural significance to members of the local community

* Reduce crime by improving community vigilance, awareness and ownership

* Reduce air pollution through vegetation

* Increase property values in the area through greening/vegetation

* Reduce wind speeds to create more comfortable microclimates through increased vegetation

* C02 sequestration through vegetation to reduce impacts of global warming

* Reduction of noise pollution through vegetation

There seems to be a compelling case for concrete direct actions to transform excessive sidewalk into gardens, but what can we do about it? This is where I’d like to share the story of Jane Martin, founder of Plant*SF. Plant*SF is a non-profit dedicated to promoting permeable landscaping by providing information to the public and by partnering with city and neighborhood organizations. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Jane and hear Plant*SF’s story, her story, and be inspired by the extraordinary accomplishments one person can make with a practical tenacity and a little help from timing.

Jane is “from the Midwest – Iowa, along the Mississippi river” and shares, with understated, subtle sarcasm, that when coming to the city, first New York and then San Francisco, she was struck by “a lot of opportunity for greening.” In 2003 Jane settled into a home in the mission district in San Francisco, a home with, a not too uncommon, “non-existent backyard, a 14 foot wide concrete sidewalk out front and no place to garden.” She explains that she is a “kid from the country and wanted to dig in the dirt” and as a professional architect and designer she saw the “untapped potential of a sidewalk that was acting as a parking lot for cars, was actually four feet wider than standard driving lanes on the street and was flush to the property line.” Moreover, Jane expressed her concern for the 16 or so neighborhood kids, and 350 at a school around the corner who were unsafe on the sidewalks because cars were taking advantage of the excessive sidewalk (the city ordinance for sidewalks in San Francisco is 48 inches).
So in winter of 2002 Jane took it upon herself to wade through the city permitting processes to install a garden in front of her house by applying to remove concrete. What she found was a cumbersome, undue permitting process for sidewalk encroachment for landscaping – possibly a legacy artifact from a time when well-intentioned policy-makers wanted to protect public space from private developers by making it difficult to encroach on sidewalks. But Jane, an architect, “knows how to deal with permits.” And so, her garden came to be. At the time she approached the San Francisco Neighborhood Parks Council about leveraging this permitting process to remove sidewalks to create additional park space and the idea “was received favorably, but went nowhere.” The timing was not yet right.

Then “a year later, in February 2004, the sewer system failed in my neighborhood. I was knee deep in fecal water in my home and had an epiphany as I waded to my door, went outside and saw that the ground was dry.” Jane was not the only victim of flooding on her block. “My neighbor’s car tested positive for eColi. Because of that backup and the extensive repairs and administrative processes involved, I got the attention of the mayor's office. There was high visibility around this problem and I realized that permeability of surfaces was a solution to such storm water, sewer overflow issues. City officials and policy makers were visiting my home and I was able to point out to them how, despite the otherwise invasive destruction of the fecal water, my garden had actually responded well to the backup,” which had, of course, seeped into the soil to recharge San Francisco’s aquifers and reduce the stress on the sewage/storm drain system.

It seems the timing was then right to address the burdensome, then expensive ($800+), process to apply for sidewalk landscaping permits. Greening was beginning to come into vogue. So Jane started Plant*SF with “the main goal of creating an easy mechanism whereby people could just do this [sidewalk landscaping] and the deeper goal making it an expectation and not an exception.”

18th Street During Transformation

Thus began a process of working through city policy makers to change the permitting structure on the books. By the spring of 2006 Jane had changed the laws. The new "Permeable Sidewalk Landscape Permit" passed through the Board of Supervisors and was signed into law by Mayor Gavin Newsom on June 8, 2006. It is available for use through the Department of Public Works, specifically the Bureau of Urban Forestry. You can find out how to take action here. Submitting for a permit costs $215 (discounted to $160 if you get neighbors involved) and, with a few reasonable restrictions, almost all the excessive sidewalk in San Francisco could be turned into edible green walks! The city is even beginning to crack down on property owners with sidewalks requiring repair. Jane points out, “many owners do not know that, according to the city, they are accountable for maintaining and repairing the public sidewalk in front of their buildings.” What a great opportunity to more permanently repair the sidewalk by removing hazardous broken concrete and install beautiful foodscapes. The planting plan must be documented on the permitting application. Selecting multi-functional water conserving plants is imperative for our Bay Area climate, unless the microclimate suggests otherwise. Jane discovered the value of drought tolerant plantings through sheer practicality, “I sometimes traveled and left my garden for up to two weeks without any watering in the summer. I learned from the experience of noting what survived." Many choice, low-maintenance edibles are drought tolerant. Jane shares, “edibles I've received permits for so far include Meyer lemons, basil, cilantro, fennel, fig, lavender, lemon balm, lemon verbena, mint, parsley, peppers, guava, pomegranate, sage and strawberry.” Why Jane’s story is so inspiring to the Urban Alliance is her ecological awareness. Removing impervious sidewalk for storm water infiltration is wonderful, but to plant edibles and other useful plants in that space is radical, and of course just practical and sensible. Perhaps more important to some, “the beautification coupled with the sustainability is really hard to resist." By stacking functions, with one effort we get to harvest water into our urban aquifers, grow food, clean the air, beautify the neighborhood and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. This is ecological planning – recognizing the relationship amongst solutions. How much more effective could we be if we approached planning with ecological awareness? Jane laments about current city planning, “there is no comprehensive plan for the local ecology. We need to rethink our cities as natural systems in the urban context.”

18th Street After Transformation

The effect of Jane’s heroic effort is inspiring, but not unique. Many neighboring Bay Area cities have such permitting procedures already written in their planning code. I imagine similar concrete actions occurring all over the Bay Area urban and peri-urban landscape - compelling, beautiful foodscapes arising in every neighborhood in every town providing delicious, fresh nourishment and delight. Each one becoming a beacon of hope. Should all the urban environments on Earth begin to cultivate unused impervious space with food and turn their urban park forests into food forests we can begin to imagine the decline of industrial agriculture with its crippling effects on watersheds, soil and wildlife habitats for species proliferation, not extinction. We could envision cutting our fossil fuel bills by requiring less transportation costs for food and pumping of precious water resources for agriculture. The ripple effect of such concrete actions, actions that you can take today, could transform this world into a healthy, joyful, sustainable environment for you and your children and all life.

From The Urban Alliance for Sustainability


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