SF Sidewalk Gardens in the Bayview

There are so many things I love about living in San Francisco. This was really the closest “big city” to where I grew up, so there has always been a draw to this place. I remember coming here regularly since the age of five, and love seeing some of the same places on my day-to-day travels around town.

One of the things I think is really cool about this city is the effort taken towards environmental stewardship. I know we’re often viewed from the outside as “damn hippies” trying to “stir things up”, but there really are some fantastic steps being made towards bettering the environment and abating the damages we do as a species before we even do it. It’s a continuous effort, filled with trial and error like any effort, and exciting to watch unfold. This recent effort in the Bayview neighborhood really caught my attention.

One really cool thing of the recent decade has been a move towards gardening in front of your house. Being a wall-to-wall, paved city means the only spaces historically have been planters and the little squares around your sidewalk tree.  Many homes over the years have had large swathes of sidewalk removed from around their homes, leaving just the minimum width required for easy passage and access to curbside car parking. People had to sell their first born, though, to navigate the paperwork and red tape of the permit process. Fortunately, a change in tactic has helped to ease the process.

A sidewalk garden, courtesy of a Google search.

I need to backtrack in time a bit for a moment. Some time back (ten years or so?) we voted here for a method to help prevent pollution reaching the bay. Whenever it rains, you see, the storm drains would divert the runoff down the gutters and out to the bay, along with the cigarette butts and leaked car fluids and whatnot that collects during the dry months. We voted to divert the storm drains to the water treatment plant along with our sewage, to be filtered and processed before being discharged. This is a good thing, but when we have a bigger storm it can overwhelm the system and send “undesirables” out the discharge pipes. Grody stuff.

Back to streetscaping. The problem with pavement is that all the rain that falls has nowhere to go but into the gutters. By reducing the amount of pavement that rainfall encounters, you can reduce the amount of runoff that goes straight to the drain. In a world with increasing population, it’s irresponsible to waste water so wantonly. It’s falling from the sky, free for the taking, so we should find ways to put it to use! Opening the pavement allows more open ground to absorb water, and reduces strain on the infrastructure. Furthermore, it allows water seeping into the ground to replenish the groundwater. We don’t use our groundwater here in SF (we get our tap water pumped over from the Sierra snow melt), but we can still influence the regional aquifer, and set an example of how beautiful it can be to improve the environment. We don’t have to start by ripping up the paved world, but we can start implementing these methods in new construction at least. Portland has been huge on this effort – a real stellar example of the success of replacing gutters with planted ditches.

Groups like Plant SF, Friends of the Urban Forest, and Pavement to Parks have been able to help streamline the process of opening sidewalks at private residences. Group efforts get organized by neighborhoods to do whole blocks at a time and reduce cost for the individuals in getting the sidewalk cut out, then individuals do their own plots.

Newcomb Ave, gutted and ready for planting beds.

Newcomb Ave, gutted and ready for planting beds.

There are also larger-scale projects. Earlier I alluded to a Bayview neighborhood project. The Bayview district is in the sunny southwestern corner of San Francisco, and is where the nursery I work at is located. In fact, my bus stop for my ride home is at the corner of this large public project, so I got to watch the progress firsthand on a day-to-day basis. It was cool, yo.

The Bayview is a residential neighborhood with atypically wide streets. One in particular, Newcomb Avenue, was chosen for this project because of its state of blight. Drugs, graffiti, dumping, all abound on the block. In addition to the environmental benefits of the project, part of the design was aimed at redirecting the flow of traffic to slow it, and creating beauty in hopes of deterring apathy among the neighbors about care of their surroundings. The sheer width of the street is in excess of what’s needed for the sidewalks, two parallel-parking curb lanes, and two lanes of traffic. The redesign reduced the paved walking surface of the sidewalks and increased the overall sidewalks for plants and 20 new trees. The street itself was reconfigured for parallel parking in portions and perpendicular parking in others, increasing the overall number of parking spaces in the process of increasing the plantings!

Watching the physical process was fascinating! This part of SF was historically a marshy estuary for Islais Creek, which supplied SF’s drinking water before the cross-state pipeline came along. When heavy rains come in, the nursery is reminded of the fact of the river course it is built in. Inland about a mile from here is Bayshore Boulevard, so named because it was the shore of this former bay. The Old Clam House restaurant was, in fact, built on a pier on the bay side of the street, but is now a good mile from water. Crazy. Anyway, that means some interesting steps were taken to ensure runoff would have a chance to get into the ground…

Permeable cobbles on six feet of drain rock, with overflow cutout into planting bed.

I mentioned the “sidewalks” were widened, but most of the paving was reduced to just what was needed for access to homes and cars and such, with the rest being left open for plants. Twenty trees were planted, along with a slew of other Mediterranean climate plants, including California natives and species from South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. The street itself had some amazing measures taken, too! First off, the part on the sides of the driving surface of the street, the parts meant for parking along the gutters, were repaved differently than the centers. The centers are typical blacktop paving, for durability and smooth driving. The sides are cobbles, which allow water to filter through. Moreover, they excavated about six feet down, and the full width of the parking strips, and filled it in with drainage rock! Basically, that created enormous French drains to allow great volumes of water to be stored as is slowly absorbs into the ground.

Cobbled parking strip with water overflow into planting bed.

This part was a nifty trick, too: at the downslope ends of the block, any water running along the curb will be diverted into a planting bed before overflow directs it into the drain. Lastly, the crossing sidewalks at both ends of the block are elevated, keeping the grade for the pedestrians. This means that any water that falls in the block will be in a reservoir, retained within the block to be filtered through the cobbles and planting beds, unless enough falls to then go into the storm drain. Pretty cool, huh? Between the elevated crosswalks, largely planted sidewalks, bump-outs with plants, deep drainage rock basins, and permeable paving, this block is a shining example of the future of rainwater management.

Related Links

  • SF Department of Public Works has a page about the project, including schematics of the plan.
  • SF Streets blog has a nifty post, including some good “before and after” pix, and more detail on the community involvement.
  • SF Chronicle covered the story of the gritty street back in May, and again for the opening day story.
  • PlantSF has a good page showing some other street garden projects.

One response to “SF Sidewalk Gardens in the Bayview

  1. Pingback: Urban Hike: Streets to Gardens | boZannical Gardens

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