Sidewalk Gardens

On the days when there’s no gardening at GFE, I love to take long walks in my neighborhood. In the thirty-four years I’ve lived here, the streetscape has changed dramatically. Many street trees have been added to the urban forest, while some of the older trees have been removed. Some of these were poorly chosen because they broke up the sidewalks when mature, some dropped limbs as they aged or were just too big to endure our occasional windy seaside storms. Much has been learned about greening the San Francisco streetscape in the last few decades.

I’m excited about a new element in the streetscape, sidewalk gardens. More and more frequently, I pass sections where the sidewalk has been removed and small gardens have been planted even where there are no street trees. Here are blooming yarrows, geraniums, sages, and lavenders. There are dramatic effects with New Zealand flax and muscular succulents. Grasses, wallflowers, and California natives like hummingbird sage or Ceanothus, thrive in a profusion of colors and textures.

A sidewalk garden featuring New Zealand flax in the Inner Sunset.

A sidewalk garden featuring New Zealand flax in the Inner Sunset.

Not only do the sidewalk gardens make the neighborhood more lovely and inviting, but they are also making an important contribution to the sustainability of our town.

San Francisco’s combined sewer system is overwhelmed several times each rainy season when rainwater fills and overruns our treatment plants. Because sewage and rainwater runoff run together in our drains, perfectly good water is wasted, while untreated or partially treated sewage reaches the ocean or bay. The best way to prevent both these problems is to increase the penetrability of our urban landscape. Then rainwater has many ways to reach the soil and sink deep down into our water table, instead of sheeting off continuous cement and asphalt. Sidewalk gardens are contributing to this goal.

Our city’s future will require us to find new sources of water as climate change proceeds to further dry out our state, according to most models. By letting winter rain penetrate underground, we can recharge the water table, making well water a secondary water source available for landscape or other use.

Installing a sidewalk garden in front of a home or apartment building, workplace or school might seem like too small a drop in the bucket of hope. Is it worth it compared to the expense and effort? That can be said about lots of the things we are all trying to do right, such as composting, using solar power or electric cars or bikes, growing some of our food at home, or reusing water for cleaning or in the garden.

It’s always good to watch and see how Nature does things. For a dandelion to succeed in its wicked weediness, it must make hundreds and thousands of seeds. When the seeds are ripe, on a breezy day you can watch them float away, each on a tiny perfect parachute. Most to them will never land on soil, find water, survive the rigors of the urban landscape. But because Nature tries so many tiny initiatives in dandelion reproduction, some will make it. And dandelions will continue to the next generation.

We need to be like dandelions, and make our own tiny commitments to the future. Like one dandelion seed, one sidewalk garden is just too small to make a difference. But hundreds of sidewalk gardens make real change. We can invent a future that works if we each keep doing our little best.

To find out more about installing a sidewalk garden, contact Friends of the Urban Forest.

Beautiful grasses, leucadendrons, and succulents in a sidewalk garden in the Inner Sunset.

Beautiful grasses, leucadendrons, and succulents in a sidewalk garden in the Inner Sunset.