Frontier Gardening – bringing green spaces to the urban jungle

Throughout the city of San Francisco residents are returning nature to the public fabric. Unlike the vast, open greenery of Golden Gate or other city parks, these spaces are cultivated directly by members of the community, on a scale which makes sense to the particular needs of people living there.

These spots blossoming around the city are not locked away for private use; they are part of public and community life. They are part of the neighborhood. They are not the projects of ‘New Urbanism’ and don’t come from any planning department, nor are they official beautification projects, though they do make the city more beautiful. They are not administered through the city and do not have professional groundskeepers. There are no budgets, boards, permits, or lawyers.

They are evidence of an emerging viewpoint in which nature belongs as a part of the city, where urban residents have a direct connection to natural processes and reclaim some of the space that has been devoted to other enterprises such as commerce, industry, transportation, etc.

These micro spaces vary in scale from a cultivated windowsill facing a public street to a fully-developed community garden. Private and community gardens are, of course, an established part of the urban environment. Emerging now are the often contested spaces, where “guerrilla gardening” and creative use of parking spaces are gaining interest. Some folks are even making a “claim” on parts of larger parks. The claim they make, however, is not for private gain. They do have an agenda, but it includes notions of biodiversity, community involvement, native plantings, food security, soil sanctity, etc.

Urban residents are encouraging do-it-yourself green spaces to enter the public environment.

The Life and Death of an Urban Garden

At the corner of Fulton and Stanyan streets, there is a lot where corn stalks grow among discarded Starbucks containers. A graffiti on the pavement reads :

Where did the garden go?

I saw it go

I saw it taken away

Fucking Bastards!

If you watch the site carefully at night, you might even see someone harvesting potatoes or gathering ingredients for a salad. What is going on here?

There once was a lot here which, as some of the residents say, was merely “Collecting trash”. The residents complained for some time about the blight of the trash-strewn lot to a largely unresponsive landlord. The lot in question had been sitting for 20 years. The bounty of the lot included “weeds, trash, dog shit, and heroin needles.” So some folks neighboring the lot decided to use it in a different way.

A small group got together and cleaned out the space, removing weeds, cleaning up the trash and other refuse, and creating a space they would be able to plant in. An abandoned lot was fast becoming a fledgling community garden.

Within twenty minutes of the first planting, one of the gardeners remarked, people from the neighborhood became curious. And some folks became involved — after all, it was their community.

When it was clear that the garden was to be a reality, the gardeners made contact with a property-management firm that handled the lot for the landlord, who lived out-of-town (way out — Hawaii, actually). The property manager intimated that he couldn’t see any harm in what was happening, and didn’t deem that “official permission” from the land owner would be necessary.

So it looked to the gardeners as if they had been sanctioned to keep up their activity.

Meanwhile the garden flourished. Plantings included artichokes, garlic, fava beans, potatoes, strawberries, lettuce, chard, tomatoes, and quinoa. The gardeners had street parties, music, and barbecues in the new community space, but unexpectedly, the land owner became aware of the situation and demanded that the garden be destroyed. The landlord wanted everything ripped out.

The site underwent a complete transformation, but the owner wanted everything put back the way it was.

When the site was set for ‘removal’, the gardeners occupied the garden for five days. Members of the community also came out to support the garden. A neighborhood watch was formed to look after it. Three and a half weeks went by before the property management company paid a crew to remove the garden.

As one of the former gardeners remarks, “Gophers were our second-biggest pest in the garden. They did almost as much damage as the capitalists.” The gardeners have become galvanized to look for other spots in which to plant, but the community does not have its garden anymore.

But plants have a tenacity that no removal crew can easily overcome. Many of them are coming back even as the lot fills again with the wandering garbage that blows through the city.

Space Reclaimed

Streets used to be a lot like the living rooms of the city, available to all the public for a variety of uses. Now most streets are treated solely as traffic conduits for private automobiles. What’s worse is that even more space is required for the cars that aren’t being used, the ones that must “park”. The going rate for a few feet of downtown space in which to leave your car can be up to three dollars per hour. What a deal! Parking is the dominant land use in many areas.

But what would happen if you put in your quarter and instead of rolling a car into the space, you rolled out some sod?

Last September, the group Rebar ( took several car parking spots throughout the city and made them into temporary green spaces. They transported their materials by bicycle and set up miniature parks in San Francisco’s downtown, in the South-of-Market area (SOMA), in front of city hall (in the Mayor’s parking spot, which was empty as the mayor wasn’t around) and several other locations.

The parks each had a different design and theme. Some were a basic public park with benches and trees, while others were elaborate garden paths or tea gardens.

The groups navigated their bicycles through San Francisco traffic, hauling everything they needed in trailers. Some items included fully-grown trees in large pots and full-scale benches. It is an inspiring sight indeed to see a tall tree squeezing its way through an urban traffic snarl without any hang ups.

The parks had an immediate positive effect. Once they were set up, they transformed the urban space dramatically. Passersby used the parks as places to relax, to have lunch, to meet and talk with others, to take the sun, and of course to think about how we treat urban space. When the meter ran down, they would just pop another quarter in and go back to reading, people watching, or laying on the grass.

Of course there is a two-hour time-limit for all downtown parking spots, so Rebar would take the trees and benches down, roll the sod back up, and move to another site once their two hours were up.

Rebar converted more than a dozen parking spots into parks in San Francisco, while other people did the same thing all over the world. It happened again this September as well. But arts groups aren’t the only ones reclaiming urban space for a green city.

Within the confines of the enormous Golden Gate Park, a gardener started a tiny native plant garden in a somewhat obscure corner of the park. This garden was accomplished by fiat, without going through the typical channels that community gardens often go through (after all, it’s already a green space — a park. Why make a garden there? Or so the thinking might go).

Green grass is great to play frisbee on, and big trees are very pretty and great for shade, but in terms of biodiversity, there isn’t much going on in the lawn. Ecologists have a pet-term for lawns: green deserts.

Over time, the gardener peeled back more of the grass as his garden grew. There is now a diverse mix of native plants in this little corner of Golden Gate park. And the amount of space in the park is
so vast that the native plant garden in no way diminishes the experience of the park, only adds to it. Plus, it is an in-tact seed bank for native varieties of plant life. A library of species, if you will.

The Garden in the City

Clearly people are thinking about urban space in new ways. There are even single-block neighborhood organizations dedicated to planting charming sidewalk gardens like the one on Fillmore street in the Lower Haight neighborhood. Residents are becoming emboldened to actively manage their own environment, whether publicly or privately “held”. There are even people planting seeds in soaked clay balls and throwing them over fences, planting gardens that way. Witness the “illegal” fruit-tree plantings or the vegetable-growing tradition of People’s Park in Berkeley.

Guerrilla gardeners are taking to the city with trowels and soaked beans, sowing new life into the urban environment with methods like those of graffiti artists.

All cities are built on top of what were once natural, intact ecosystems. But most cities, especially since industrialism, have kept an extremely tenuous relationship with nature — typically it’s a patch of green grass in a sea of development. Things got even worse after the automobile, when the streets themselves became largely devoid of life because life was too slow, too organic for the mechanized mobility that became an international obsession.

But as we all know, if we don’t constantly re-pave, things grow up through the cracks. Grasses grow inside of potholes; tree roots tear up pavement. Nature is still here demanding a reckoning. Perhaps the push toward “Garden Cities” should have been a push toward city gardens.

Many cities are now building their own soils, growing their own food, and rediscovering nature. Some have even argued that this is where the ever-elusive “frontier” is sprouting up once again.