Garden City Part III – San Francisco Parks

lagrande6After backyards, Recreation and Parks Department (RPD) land seems like a logical place to seek space for food cultivation. Although RPD has over 4,000 acres of land, I am not certain that prioritizing that land for food production is the preferred strategy for designing San Francisco’s urban food system (at least not until we’ve cultivated thousands of acres of backyard space).

RPD land seems promising because much of it is unpaved, much of it has irrigation resources piped in or embedded into the operations, much of it seems underutilized and budgets and staff are continually under pressure to downsize.

Moreover, RPD has programatic support for food production in the form of its community garden program. The community garden program, as is exists, is problematic at best for helping optimize local food production. Let’s assess the situation…

According to the San Francisco Food Assessment from 2005, San Francisco has 59 community gardens with 803 plots of differing sizes tended by 674 community gardeners. At the time there were over 178 people on waiting lists for plot gardens. SFGRO currently lists 51 Community Gardens in the city, 35 of which are administered by RPD (not all of the 35 are on RPD land, even some managed by RPD). Three new community gardens on RPD land to be managed through the community garden program are scheduled to be implemented according to the San Francisco Food Policy Council.

In its history the growth of the community garden program has been slow for a variety of reasons, despite legislation passed in 2000 requiring a minimum annual allocation of $150,000 for the support and maintenance of community gardens. For the 35 gardens that would be $4,285 per garden per year – though an undisclosed portion of this money is directed to cover an unspecified portion of the salary of the employee at RPD who manages that program. $4,285 per garden could purchase 100 choice fruit trees per garden per year. One must wonder how and where this money is spent?

One reason the community garden program may have evolved so slowly has to do with the structure that RPD has articualted to describe the process for forming a new garden. In order to take RPD land and turn it into a community managed space – a “community garden”, a land use designation change needs to occur which is accomplished through a presentation, review and vote process of the Recreation and Parks Department Commission. In order for a proposal for a new garden to come before the Commission a process must be followed; (1) Identify a site (ideally with no competeing uses), (2) gather, establish and document community support and (3) gather funding.

corona6The required funding is said to be between $30,000 and $50,000 – mainly to create an “appropraite design” that adheres to certain “standards”– e.g., beds of a certain size constructed out a certain materials, a compost system of a certain size and and shape and material, etc. The reasoning put forth by the RPD for such standards is in the case that a commmunity garden should become defunct and underutilized or unused that RPD would have to take over management and that it will be easier for RPD to manage such defunct gardens if the elements are standardized.

I see glimmers of logic in such a policy, yet I wonder about a program that is designed to anticipate failure and imagine a what a program design to optimize food production, while including appropriate access (ADA, etc.) would look like. As a result of the potentially onerous requirements to establish community gardens only 8 have appeared in the last 10 years (it took about 5 years for the Corona Heights garden to go from idea to implementation), or if the SFGRO figures are accurate compared to the 2005 FSA, then we have lost 8. Compare this to community managed spaces on DPW land, the Street Parks program which has implemented 108-120 sites, three times the numebr of commmunity gardens manged by Recreation and Parks Department in less than four years.

Ostensibly, one of the challenges in using RPD land for food production is the stance, on the part of RPD, that all their parcels of land are currently utilized and assigned a discrete “land use designation” – e.g., ball field, dog run, etc. Certainly, there are areas of RPD land that are regularly used for recreation of that sort and a diversity of other regular activities. One wonders, though, about the possibiltiy for integrated design e.g., – can fruit trees exist in harmony with a ball field if planted around the edges to soak up the excess moisture from lawn irrigation and take the lawn clippings as a nitrogen-rich mulch? How many creative integrated efforts could we imagine if we viewed our park land with a whole systems perspective?

ggparkappleIn that spirit, we might begin to look carefully at the vegetation plans developed by supervisors and regional service area managers and implemented by gardeners. Could we plant drought tolerant figs and plums instead of pittosprum or Dodonaea viscosa? Could we plant apple trees instead of confirs in certain appropriate places (especially where irrigation is already used)? Could we see avocados and loquats on steep sunny slopes? Olives? Sour cherries? Mulberries? Pepino dulce? Other drought tolerant perennials that are productive with naturalization tendnecies equivalent to the current vegetation planting plans? Indeed many RPD gardeners in San Francisco are already planting food plants (not necissarily) by intent.

I would advocate for all citizens in San Francisco getting to know your local gardener and requesting changes to the vegetation schemes where appropriate.

Of course, RPD is wont to cite decreasing budgets and needs to reduce staff and maintenance resources in consideration of any more intensive cultivation of RPD land. This seems to me to be the perfect opportunity for RPD to concentrate it’s resources on the most highly utilized areas in their 220+ parks and to enable community cultivation and maintenance of land, in full accord with Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Executive Directive on Healthy and Sustainable Food. If, as we’ve assessed here, the community garden program seems inadequate to enable public food production on RPD land, then it may be time to pursue strategies to evolve our city.

We could try and amend our Park Code to change to the way in which the community garden program is defined to include gardens that are not standardized in structure and not plot-based, but, rather, communally managed and designed appropriatly for the landscape. We might do as some other cities have done or are contemplating and amend the park code to create a new land-use designation – the Community Orchard. The idea of a community orchard would be to enable citizens to design, implement, maintain (including harvest) food from public lands emphasizing climate appropriate perennail edibles (especially fruit trees). Perhaps an amendment to park code is not needed as other cities (including San Jose) have determined ways to accomplish this task. Another possible option would be to have RPD lease certain parcels of land to non-profits at (way) below market rates to enable them to perform food production activities. This could be a creative way for RPD to generate a small amount of income and reduce the area required for staff maintenance. To read more about what other cities have done, please review the linked reports, articles and project websites (includes some more oriented to edible landscaping that includes fruit trees):

Vancouver (1) (2) (3) (4) (5)

Toronto (1) (2)

San Jose,CA

Paso Robles,CA

Irvine, CA

Bloomington, IN

Seattle, WA

Des Moines, IA

Philadelphia (private and public land)

Austin (public land, not necissarily park land)

Boston, MA

UK (1) (2) (3)


So, what to do about San Francisco Park Lands with regards to urban agriculture. This list summarizes some possible scenarios. Please see the Garden City – Part IV for more ideas of incorporating urban agriculture into other public land in San Francisco.

Possible Priorities for the Urban Ag Community Working with SF RPD

  1. Shift vegetaion plans to include edible plants where appropriate
  2. Revise Park Code for Community Garden requirements
  3. Revise Park Code to implement new Community Orchards land use designation
  4. Integrated Design (e.g., Ball fields with fruit trees on the edges)


Here are a couple potential designs (student projects, starting points for more deliberate and elaborate community design) for community orchards on RPD land: