About five years ago, architect Jane Martin glanced out the window of her design studio on Shotwell Street to witness yet another car careening down the sidewalk and parking smack in front of her door. As the ignition shut off, she had a "minor epiphany" that led to a major change in the San Francisco landscape: "Why couldn’t there be a garden outside—–instead of a vast sea of concrete? Besides," adds Martin, a wiry, intense woman with dark, short-cropped hair, "I was really craving a place to do some planting."
A typical Mission District neighborhood in transition, Shotwell Street is no stranger to crime, with nature somewhat less in evidence. And, as is the case with many thoroughfares in San Francisco, the sidewalks are 14 feet wide, while the minimum requirement is a mere four feet. So Martin, the founder of Shift Design Studio, which specializes in buildings and landscape, investigated the city code. At the time, what she envisioned required a fairly pricey ($938) Minor Sidewalk Encroachment Permit, necessary for any private use of public space. "But clearly, replacing concrete with plants is for the public good," explains Martin. Her lobbying of the Department of Public Works resulted in a new Sidewalk Landscaping Permit: Starting at $215, it encourages group eco-activism by decreasing to $160 when five or more households band together.
Many of her former neighbors—–a polyglot mix of long-term residents and relative newcomers—–had never even spoken. But the idea of greening the street—–and deterring some drivers’ reckless off-roading—–had a unifying effect. "We got a grant to place a dozen raised planters along the sidewalk—–the first step to claiming the space." Soon thereafter, the city helped remove the concrete and Martin planted up the inaugural 15-by-6-foot bed with a palette of drought-tolerant plants. She also replaced ten adjacent feet of driveway with permeable pavers through which green shoots can now sprout up. A true xeriscape, it requires no supplemental irrigation. "I’m an Iowa girl," says Martin, "so I learned about natives by planting stuff and leaving town. Whatever was alive when I returned passed the test."
Garden followed garden down the street, and the Shotwell Greenway became the progenitor for a new sidewalk topography. Martin estimates that in the past five years about 15,000 square feet of concrete, along sidewalks and street meridians, have been converted into sustainable gardens. Many of the approximately 30 projects are documented at PlantSF.org, the website for the community organization she established as a hands-on resource, with copious information about everything from permitting to plant selection.
"This has also been an education about partnering with corporations," adds Martin. For example, PG&E—–the Pacific Gas and Electric Company—–owns a street-long facility on the next block of Shotwell. "I appealed to their ‘Let’s Green This City Campaign,’" she says, "and they’re picking up the tab for the whole extension."
Elsewhere, Martin approached a branch of Wells Fargo Bank facing a barren stretch across from the BART underground station. "An intervention as simple as five climbing jasmine plants creates beauty and helps people perceive the area differently. And now they keep the blinds open—–a much nicer view for the employees and patrons."
Each new habitat garden also invites an immediate repatriation of pollinators—–hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies—–both in the main beds and along a narrower buffer zone beside the buildings. Martin favors planting this zone whenever possible: "It’s the difference between walking beside a garden and strolling through one."
The plantings also have a way of pulling people together. "The day we planted, many of us met neighbors for the first time, even though we’d been here for years," says Tamar Hurwitz, who lives in Martin’s neighborhood on Harrison Street. "It’s created a new feeling of community, while softening the urban landscape." In another part of the city, Lisa Zahner is waiting for the native flowers to bloom while enjoying the blossoming crocus and iris bulbs that she tucked in the ground last fall: "We have 60 linear feet of garden that used to be concrete." Suddenly, it’s like Mayberry-era America, with neighbors coming over and swapping plants. As Zahner recalls, "One man had some lavender that wasn’t doing so well, so he brought it over and plunked it in—–and now it’s thriving."
Another neighbor, Anne Wintroub, suggests that the gardens seem to have a civilizing influence all around: "My husband used to be out here every day, painting over graffiti tags. I can’t prove the correlation, but since the gardens went in, we’ve only had one small incident. Over the holidays, for the first time in the neighborhood, we had this spontaneous potluck. It was like something from the ’60s! I think planting should be used more by cities to bring people together."