Abundant Communities in Action: Street Parks, Gardens, Steps, and Rainbows  

October 6, 2014

When San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW) and San Francisco Parks Alliance (SFPA) representatives gathered over the weekend to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Street Parks Program, they were honoring something that is both quintessentially San Franciscan and something seen throughout the United States: our ability to find abundance where others see cast-offs.

Block--Abundant_Community_BookIt’s the sort of commitment documented by Peter Block and John McKnight through their Abundant Community book, website, and online discussions. It’s a movement beautifully grounded in Tactical Urbanism. And it’s a sustainable, community-based, volunteer-driven effort that celebrates the work of people we don’t often notice: the people behind the projects that make our communities far more rich than they otherwise would be. Not bad for country where we so often hear about how badly divided we are.

“The [Street Parks] project was started to enable and assist community members in adopting DPW parcels and then turning them from blighted lots into verdant gardens and community gathering spaces,” Julia Brashares, Director of Street Parks for the Parks Alliance, reminds us in a brief video prepared for the Alliance by students from San Francisco State University. “We, with community members, have seen the development of over 120 gardens in every district of the city.”

Those Street Parks projects are part of an ongoing program that brings City/County elected officials and employees, Parks Alliance staff, and hundreds of volunteers together to “activate” a string of City-owned parcels that, when combined, include approximately 500 acres of potential parkland. It’s an amazingly complex undertaking and, at the same time, it is amazingly simple. The complexity comes from the large number of stakeholders who have to be engaged to bring Street Park Projects to fruition; the simplicity comes from the idea that the projects begin when as few as two or three neighbors see the potential in an unused piece of public property and make the commitment to foster the numerous community collaborations required to produce positive results.

What’s even more fascinating is the obvious interest in transforming unused public land into additional green open space in a city that already has a magnificent, nationally-acclaimed park system, a reclaimed bayside gem in Crissy Field and an equally ambitious counterpart in the Blue Greenway project that is already in progress; the Green Connections project that is also underway as another effort to increase access to green open spaces throughout the City; an effort to create more vibrant plazas throughout the City; and many other local efforts where volunteers work with an amazing network of nonprofit organizations, City/County representatives, neighborhood organizations, local business representatives, and anyone else who sees abundant possibilities for community development and enrichment.

Street_Parks_LogoStreet Park Program projects are, in many ways, the epitome of individuals setting aside individual interests to collaboratively produce a public good—often something designed to last far longer than the lifetimes of those who initially gather to produce the street park. We see individuals bringing neighbors together to turn a short, blighted cul-de-sac along a freeway into a community garden that attracted a new coffee shop to the block. We see neighbors next to another stretch of land adjacent to a freeway create a dog park where members of the community meet and enjoy each other’s company. A third stretch of blighted land becomes Progress Park—the site where we gathered last weekend to celebrate 10 years of Street Parks progress. A median strip in the Outer Sunset District becomes La Playa Park. Another lot becomes Pennsylvania Garden. And a set of concrete steps originally built in 1926 becomes the Hidden Garden Steps—the second set to be transformed into volunteer-maintained gardens and a beautiful ceramic-tiled mosaic (designed and fabricated by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher) in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District.

HGS--Steps_Visitors--2014-08-18

Visitors on the Steps

The real payoff for any local or extended community comes when we spend time at any of those sites, as I so often do on the Hidden Garden Steps. I see my neighbors come out every Friday afternoon to sweep the steps so the site looks clean and inviting to weekend visitors. I see volunteers gather onsite monthly to maintain and add to the gardens. I see the results generated by the volunteers who maintain the project website, blog, and Twitter and Facebook accounts. And I see and talk with visitors from all over the world as they enjoy and admire the site, marvel over how the extended community adds to all the site offers, and blurt out wonderful observations such as “It’s like being in a rainbow.”

Working on any Street Park Program project is, in fact like being in a rainbow. It’s inspiring. It’s overwhelmingly beautiful. And it hints at greater aspects of life than most of us would otherwise encounter.

The 10th-anniversary Street Parks Program celebration documents a bit of what that rainbow offers and brought volunteers together to dream of even bigger rainbows—those we can produce during the next 10 years. If we are successful, we will use what we have learned and done to inspire others to seek similar community-based collaborations to positively change our world.

N.B.: Numerous articles documenting the Hidden Garden Steps project remain available on this Building Creative Bridges blog. Steps updates can be found on the Friends of the Hidden Garden Steps blog. Stories provided by donors to the Hidden Garden Steps project are currently being added to the project website by Steps volunteer Liz McLoughlin, and a step-by-step virtual tour created by McLoughlin and by project volunteer Gilbert Johnson is also under development.


Communities of Learning: SF DPW Street Parks and Hidden Garden Steps

February 25, 2012

We don’t normally think of a local department of public works (DPW) as a provider of learning opportunities. But that’s exactly what colleagues at the San Francisco DPW created late last month, and it’s completely consistent with what many of us as community-based volunteers here in San Francisco are producing.

Through a day-long Street Parks Program workshop, DPW and San Francisco Parks Alliance colleagues (Sandra Zuniga and Julia Brashares) created an opportunity for local volunteers to learn about funding opportunities and successful projects-in-progress. And, by educating us a bit about what is available in our own community, it inspired community-changing conversations that will continue much longer than the brief workshop lasted.

Designed as a collaborative learning opportunity for participants from the more than 140 Street Parks Program projects formally adopted up to this point by DPW, the workshop attracted a surprisingly small number of program representatives. The four of us from the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District made up around 15 percent of that group. And yet this wasn’t about numbers; it was a chance for that relatively small group of us to meet each other, prospective project funders, and others involved in neighborhood-based efforts to transform neglected, unsightly pockets of our city into beautiful community meeting places that further contribute to the city’s feeling of City-with-a-big-C.

And by the end of the day, we were already developing ways to nurture the connections the Street Parks program has created between us. We took steps to create our own onsite-online community of learning by setting up a LinkedIn discussion group and a Facebook group as ways to continue sharing resources, suggesting solutions to the challenges many of us face, and fostering an even greater sense of community than already exists here in San Francisco among those involved in Street Parks Program projects.

What really pushed the development of this new community of learning forward was the event organizers’ decision to feature a couple of projects as part of the workshop presentations. Turning to two of us from projects called “Street Park superstars” for our “creative fund-raising ideas” that are building and sustaining community support for greening projects, they asked us to describe the steps we took to reach the levels of success we have already achieved.

Pam Axelson, from the Athens/Avalon Garden project, recalled that the project started because of a murder in the neighborhood:  “The crime problem was significant,” she recalled. “The site was a night-time hang-out—a total dump site” where mattresses and other objects were discarded. Neighbors began asking, “Why don’t we make that a better-looking site?” A core group of neighbors came together, found out who owned the property, contacted DPW for approval, and also gained support from a group of planning students at the University of San Francisco.

Identifying a similarly depressing yet potentially beautiful area in our own neighborhood, those of us who initiated the Hidden Garden Steps project saw it as an opportunity to transform an overgrown, poorly maintained set of 148 concrete steps into a neighborhood gem and community meeting place similar to the ceramic tiled steps completed on Moraga, between 15th and 16th avenues. And in describing the success we had in raising $10,000 during a very simple two-hour fundraising effort in December 2011—selling some of the tiles that will become part of the ceramic-tiled Hidden Garden Steps—we told our colleagues that it was a two-hour event backed up with two years of effort similar to what was developed in the Athens/Avalon Garden project: building a strong and collaborative organizing committee; attracting an increasingly large, enthusiastic, and reliable group of volunteers; creating a visible presence for the project both onsite and online (a website, a Twitter account, a Facebook page, blog postings like this one, and, most recently, a YouTube channel); and an ever-growing set of partners from existing groups with goals that are complementary to our own (the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors, Nature in the City’s Green Hairstreak [Butterfly] Corridor, the San Francisco Parks Alliance and DPW Street Parks Program, Woodside International School, and others where our work together makes every group much stronger).

The short-term result, we noted, was an event that brought us $10,000 closer to our $300,000 fundraising goal; the more significant result, we added, is that we’re continuing to create a sense of community designed to rival the projected longevity of the Hidden Garden Steps themselves once they are completed. And the latest cause for celebration is this newfound opportunity to learn while working together with our Street Parks Program colleagues.

N.B.: This is the ninth in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco.


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