Garden City Part IV – Other Public Land

Laplaya1What public land might be underutilized or vacant that could be used for food production or other ecosystemic uses in San Francisco? We’ve already assessed the opportunities of Recreation and Park Department land, but what about all the other agencies and departments (as a point of clarification we we will be excluding Unified School District land from this assessment as it is not truly a SF government agency)?

A number of departments own and control land, it becomes tricky to assess how available and appropriate that land is to be put into productive use. My understanding is that one complication is existing city policy that suggests that any public land that is officially understood to be “vacant,” is required to be converted into housing, given certain assumptions about “developability.” Therefore the land that we will be assessing would techniclally be described as “underutilized” (though it may appear “vacant” to you or I). Of the many agencies that own land only a few of them own substantial amounts of land and underutilized land.


The Department of Public Works (DPW) and the Public Utilities Commmission (PUC) are the two agencies I would prioritize in our assessment. DPW, in particular, has already implemented programatic support for citizens to take over maintenance of certain parcels of underutilized land, known as “Unaccpeted Streets” that may be one of the most radical programs and opportunities for urban agriculture or urban land use in North America… San Francisco’s unaccepted streets are a mosaic of 529 acres of underutilized alleys, street-ends, and pathways that may have been “paper streets” or streets in name only that DPW does not care to maintan anymore (think weed abatement, litter, graffiti, etc.). Over 1500 sites have been identified. Over the last 4 years, DPW has partnered with the San Francisco Parks Trust to create the Street Parks program that enables and supports everyday citizens to organize to, design, implement and maintain “parks” on these parcels. These parks are diverse in nature and potentially integrated – some including recreation, urban agricutulture and habitat vegetation.

The program is an amazing success with somewhere between 108 and 120 street parks implemented or in process of being implemented in just 4 years. Compare those statistics to San Francisco’s community garden program. The function stack is deep – neighborhood connection (people meeting and designing together), CO2 sequestration, air quality improvements, additional stormwater infiltration (in some cases), primary food production (in some cases), reduced costs for DPW and neighborhood beautification. In order to start a Street Park, all one has to do is identify a potential site on this map or by using SF Parcel to find a parcel owned by DPW and then follow a simple process to apply for a status as a street park, organize your neighborhood to solicit support, create a design approved by the neighbors, submit the design for approval from DPW and then, contingent on approval, begin implementation.

The program is designed to ensure long term (minimum 3 years) community mainteannce of the site, so the site steward (identified on the application) must live near to (ideally adjacent to) the site in question and at least 8 nearby neighbors need to confrim their long term participation. This does not mean you cannot assist in the creation of or participate in the long term maintenance of a Street Park that you do not live besides or near, it just means that if you’d like to help a neighborhood implement a Street Park, you will need to do some community organizing in that neighborhood. If it were the case that the Streets Park program was an elaborate excuste to get neighborhoods to meet together and design together it would be a total success just for that effect. With about 120 sites implemented there are at least 1400 to go!

Incidently, some of the Street Parks are sidewalk landscapes. Sidewalks are controlled by DPW and since June of 2006 somewhere between 700 and 1000 sidewalk landscapes have been designed and implemented.

OK, so what about other agencies. The PUC is the most interesting due to the large tracts of land it owns within the city limits around the resevoirs and because of the even larger acreages it owns outside of the city proper (these we’ll examine in a future post). All agencies, including DPW and PUC were required by the June 2009 Executive Directive to report on underutilized land that may be appropriate for urban agriculture. A draft of the land audit has been completed and submitted to the Food Policy Council for recommendations on how to enable the public to access these parcels. I will report on the details of this process and the results of the audit once the results and recommendations are approved and published. In short though, the amount of land reported is somewhat of a moving target as further assessment reveals which parcels may or may not be appropriate. A pilot project of some sort is expected to be announced soon. One of the key recommendations that will come from the Food Policy Council Urban Agriculture working group will be the prioritization of the establishment of “garden resource centers” to support kitchen gardening in San Francisco where residents can pick up compost, mulch, etc.