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.


Hidden Garden Steps: Volunteerism, Partnership, Community—and Success!

December 6, 2011

It’s magnificent to watch a community develop. It’s even more rewarding to be part of the group of volunteers contributing to that growth. So those of us involved in nurturing the Hidden Garden Steps project, designed to create a second ceramic-tile staircase surrounded by gardens (with  murals thrown in for good measure) in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District, are feeling absolutely giddy at the sense of community that is springing up around us.

Working with an ever-growing group of individual and organizational partners including the San Francisco Parks Alliance and the City and County of San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program, we managed to obtain another $10,000 toward our $300,000 project goal during a two-hour onsite fundraising event that drew generous and enthusiastic supporters to the Steps last Saturday. We attracted our 100th donor (organizing committee member Barbara Meli, pictured here) contributing to the individual tiles that will be installed up and down the entire stairway. We have also received donations to support installation of five of the 22 multi-tile elements that are a key part of project artists Colette Crutcher and Aileen Barr’s stairs design, with another two sets of donors committing to underwriting additional multi-tile elements.

And, the day before, we met with our colleagues in Nature in the City’s Green Hairstreak [Butterfly] Corridor project to explore ways we can work even more closely together to restore and extend a little of the area’s natural beauty and wildlife habitats throughout those Inner Sunset District hills.

Our monthly organizing committee meeting Saturday morning, furthermore, gave us a chance to catch up with each other briefly as we continued outlining our plans for more events, more onsite improvements, and additional steady growth toward completing the project. And we even took a few minutes to relish the increased sense of collaboration each new volunteer brings to this endeavor at long-term community-building.

Encouraging signs are springing up nearly everywhere we look. The trimming of the trees by Tree Shapers, LLC last spring and our efforts to remove considerable amounts of graffiti, debris and overgrown brush allowed us to begin installing the first a series of gardens combining California native plants, succulents, and other treasures. Our work is attracting an increasing number of birds and animals—including a squirrel that was sunning itself from the top of a telephone pole on a particularly sunny morning a few days ago hours after we added nearly two dozen Monkey Flower bushes–to that garden-in-progress at the top of the steps.

We’re continuing to work toward having structural repairs to the stairs completed as soon as possible so we can further prepare the habitat for the Green Hairstreak butterflies next spring and begin creating the tiles and tile elements that will adorn the steps. In the meantime, we continue to welcome interested members of our extended community to join us at the monthly plantings and clean-ups (second Saturday of each month from 1-3 pm if rain doesn’t prevent us from working), jump into the myriad volunteer opportunities available, or simply walk the Steps and join us in celebrating our accomplishments to date.

For information about purchasing a tile or becoming involved in the Hidden Garden Steps project, please visit our website at http://hiddengardensteps.org or write to us at hiddengardensteps@gmail.com. You’ll also find us on Facebook and Twitter (@gardensteps).

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


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