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.


Opportunity, Imagination, and Joy: Learning with Allan Jacobs, the Good City, and Street Parks

May 13, 2014
Visitors to the Hidden Garden Steps

Visitors to the Hidden Garden Steps

Walking up and down the ceramic-tiled Hidden Garden Steps and adjacent garden in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District on a daily basis brings at least three words to mind: opportunity, imagination, and joy. There is that daily reminder of the opportunity provided by a volunteer-driven community-based coalition that was strongly supported by colleagues in the Street Parks Program, a wonderfully supportive collaboration between the San Francisco Department of Public Works and the San Francisco Parks Alliance. There is the tremendous manifestation of imagination displayed by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher through the mosaic they created for the site. And there is the sheer joy of seeing a long-ignored space brought back to life not only through the work of Hidden Garden Steps organizing committee members, but also by the numerous volunteers and donors who supported—and continue to support—the project, and the presence of people who increasingly are arriving from places all over the world to visit and enjoy the serenity as well as the camaraderie that comes when people meet, talk, dream, and share a space they treasure.

Good_City--Allan JacobsIt isn’t all that much different than what I find in the best communities of learning to which I’m drawn. We are united by a common (learning) goal and benefit from each other’s company over long periods of time. So when I read the sentence “Cities should provide and people should have access to opportunity, imagination, and joy” in Allan Jacobs’ The Good City: Reflections and Imaginations recently, I felt as if the world of city planning, park (particularly street-park and parklet) development, and learning had all come together on the pages of an inspiring and engaging book.

Jacobs, former director of the San Francisco Planning Department and a University of California, Berkeley professor emeritus, covers a lot of ground in a book comprised of essays and short stories. Beginning with a description of two years he spent in India as an urban planner working under the auspices of the Ford Foundation, he leads us through a series of vignettes that ultimately are connected through the theme of how community and collaboration does or does not develop in a variety of settings including Cleveland, Curitiba, Pudong, Rome, Tokyo, Toronto, Vancouver, and, in the final sections of the book, San Francisco.

His work is firmly rooted in what many of us fascinated by cities and community development have found in books by Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities), Christopher Alexander (A Pattern Language: Towns – Buildings – Construction; The Timeless Way of Building; and just about everything he has written since then), William Whyte (City: Rediscovering the Center), Peter Harnik (Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities), and many others who have written thoughtfully and in depth on what makes our cities work.

When he turns his attention to San Francisco, he obviously delights in exploring the themes of opportunity, imagination, and joy. There are his recollections of how he and his City Planning colleagues engaged community at a grass-roots level: “we called well-advertised meetings, often by delivering notices to all individual mail-boxes, to get people together for an effort or to confront an issue” (p. 143) just as Hidden Garden Steps volunteers began the project with face-to-face, door-to-door conversations with neighbors close to the proposed project site, and followed those efforts up with numerous postings of flyers in neighborhood businesses and bulletin boards in addition to online contact using social media platforms. Jacobs acknowledges seeing “our role as the professional staff as partners of people more than as facilitators” (p. 145)—something that increasing numbers of training-teaching-learning colleagues are embracing in the work we do, and something that is at the heart of all the positive experiences Hidden Garden Steps volunteers had (and continue to have) with our San Francisco Parks Alliance, Department of Public Works, and other City/County colleagues. As I’ve noted many times, our successful partnerships never descended into us-and-them disputes; we were unified by a common goal and that’s what held and holds us together.

Tactical_Urbanism--CoverJacobs notes the dramatic results achieved through various partnerships: “The most positive, dramatic change to San Francisco over the last 30-plus years is the northern and northeastern waterfront, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the kids’ mini-baseball diamond-park at McCovey Cove, a distance of about seven miles. Crissy Field, a gem of a restoration area, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, has rightfully become a huge draw for walkers, cyclists, skaters, picnickers, fishermen, beachgoers, naturalists, people of all ages, and dogs….” (p. 160). He could have just as easily been talking about the smaller-scale Tactical Urbanism efforts that fuel San Francisco’s Street Parks projects when he discusses the changes that make our—and any—city great.

He weaves the various and varied themes together as he nears the end of The Good City when he describes what that city would include: “there would be opportunities to learn and to work, to earn one’s livelihood; and places to get to with ease, places for social interaction or just to see other people, or places to be alone; and opportunities to participate in local decisions; and places for fun” (p. 176)…“People should feel that some part of the urban environment belongs to them, individually and collectively, some part for which they care and are responsible, irrespective of whether they own it. The city environment should be one that encourages participation….The public environment, by definition, should be open to all members of the community. It is where people of different kinds meet. No one should be excluded unless they threaten the balance of that life” (p. 178)—all of which, to me, just as accurately describes what is foundational to great communities of learning.

Perhaps this is why so many of us are drawn to learning; to great cities; to parks and open spaces; and to libraries, museums, and so many other community resources: they share an all-important link—the magic that happens when opportunity, imagination, and joy bring us together to form, interact in, and sustain great communities that bring rewards far beyond any others we can imagine. They connect us to our past, through our present, and into a future we may not be around to see, but know will be much better for the contributions that we make to it.

N.B.: Previous articles about the Hidden Garden Steps remain available on this blog.


Peter Harnik, Innovation, Community, and Parks: Going for the Green

March 26, 2014

Working on the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco and joining the San Francisco Parks Alliance (SFPA) Parks Policy Council recently has, naturally, made me even more of an advocate for accessible and welcoming public spaces than ever before.

Harnik--Urban_GreenMy love for public parks and public spaces is nothing new. Having grown up in a California Central Valley town where one of the most accommodating and appealing resources was a well-maintained park along one of the town’s natural waterways, I’ve appreciated and benefitted from the availability of those areas as places to sit with friends, take a walk, or read and write and think. Visiting and working in a variety of large and small cities throughout the United States and other parts of the world, I consistently find myself drawn to parks and libraries as places that reflect the best of a community’s values and aspirations. They are the places I first turn to in an effort to develop a sense of cohesion or isolation within the communities they serve.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that I was completely fascinated by and immersed in Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities (2010), an engagingly concise exploration of innovative approaches to developing urban public spaces. Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at The Trust for Public Land, does a magnificent job, in 160 pages of text and additional resources listed at the end of the book, in exploring two significant themes: issues to consider in discussing the creation, nurturing, and maintenance of urban parks, and how successful parks advocates across the United States are finding ways to create more open space and to better use the current spaces we have.

The table of contents itself serves as a resource for inspiration and a checklist for those of us interested in seeing how well our cities stack up against other’s as we review the list of ideas for “finding park space in the city”: buying it; utilizing urban redevelopment; community gardens; old landfills; wetlands and stormwater storage ponds; rail trails; rooftops; sharing schoolyards; covering reservoirs; river and stream corridors; cemeteries (now there’s  topic worthy of open discussion for all it invokes in terms of our attitudes toward life and death and how normally-separated uses of a space might work in complementary ways); boulevards and parkways; decking highways; closing streets and roads; removing parking; and adding hours rather than acres.

Harnik comes across as both realistic and visionary: “To be fair, none of us can fully comprehend the complexity of the urban labyrinth. It may be possible to construct something visually pleasing with evenly spaced green polygons on a color-coded map or to arrange artful golf courses in a ‘simulated city’ computer game, but real-life cities have too many physical impediments, political interferences, and cultural and economic exceptionalities for simple standards to rule (pp. 1-17),” he writes, then returns later with the idea that “Cities change all the time and every change holds opportunity. If there is room for a single new building, or even a new parking lot, there is room for a new park, as has been seen recently in Kansas City (Ilus Davis Park), Cleveland (Whiskey Island), San Francisco (Visitacion Valley), Washington, D.C. (Canal Park), and Newark, New Jersey (Nat Turner Park)” (p. 71).

He’s a realist, reminding us that dreams have to have concrete foundations including budgets and specific timelines for completion: “The budget elevates the plan from platitude to reality.…A plan without a timeline and a budget should more accurately be called a ‘hope.’” (pp. 57-58). He also is an inspiration as he helps us examine the use of public spaces through a three-way classification system developed in Portland, Oregon: “people-to-people” places, “people-to-nature” places, and “nature-to-nature” places (p. 23).

Trust_for_Public_Land--LogoBut one of Harnik’s most encouraging achievements is his ability to make us look at what he documents and then see our own communities through the framework he provides. Which, for me, produced encouraging results: looking around San Francisco, I see that the incredible collaborations supported by our colleagues in City/County government, local nonprofits including the San Francisco Parks Alliance, neighborhood associations, and thousands of individual volunteers who become engaged in specific projects they adore. I see the innovative approaches fostered by the San Francisco Pavement to Parks program and the San Francisco Department of Public Works/SFPA Street Parks Program collaboration and marvel at how relatively small and underutilized or long-ignored spaces are transformed, piece by piece, into a cohesive pattern of public spaces that bring local and extended communities together in ways that would not otherwise be possible.

We may not be able to “fully comprehend the complexity of the urban labyrinth,” as Harnik has suggested, but through our individual involvement in developing, supporting, and sustaining community collaborations, we make the urban labyrinth less difficult to navigate. And we find yet another opportunity to reduce conflict and divisiveness by working together upon the common ground we find and cherish.

N.B.: For more information about urban parks across the United States, please visit the Trust for Public Land ParkScore® index online.


Synthesis, Shifting Perspectives, and Storytelling: Hidden Garden Steps and #etmooc

February 12, 2013

Sometimes the slightest shift in perspective reveals the presence of stunningly beautiful interweavings that moments earlier hadn’t been obvious between various elements of our lives. That moment came for me this morning while viewing a colleague’s newly-posted video on YouTube.

etmoocCommunity, collaboration, and creativity in a variety of venues seemed to be coalescing into an incredibly beautiful tapestry as I watched  the video prepared by Hidden Garden Steps organizing committee co-chair Liz McLoughlin. I was initially captivated simply by what Liz had produced: a chronicle of the community collaborations between Steps volunteers, elected officials and civil servants here in San Francisco, and partners including the San Francisco Parks Alliance and the San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program; cash and in-kind donation successes; and community workshops designed to allow hands-on involvement in the actual construction of the mosaic that is at the heart of the project.

I became even more enchanted and emotionally moved when I shifted my perspective slightly so that the connections between Liz’s work and other elements of my own current explorations in online  and blended learning as well as with building abundant communities became obvious. What made me see that video in the larger context of creative interactions, collaborations, and community-building was the fact that that Liz, as one of many who are pushing this volunteer-driven community based effort to create a second set of ceramic-tiled steps along with gardens and murals  in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District, had perfectly captured the playful spirit and energy of the Hidden Garden Steps effort. There was also the simultaneous realization that Liz, in the context of documenting successes for the Hidden Garden Steps project, had produced a wonderful example of digital storytelling. By combining enticing music, wonderful images, a set of PowerPoint slides, and an engaging story into a video, Liz had, all at once, produced an attractively positive story of how members of communities work together to bring dreams to fruition; an update to current and prospective project supporters; and a great example of what thousands of us are currently studying in #etmooc, the Education Technology and Media MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) organized by University of Regina professor of educational technology and media Alec Couros and several co-conspirators.”

As I’ve documented in two interrelated posts here on Building Creative Bridges, digital storytelling draws upon archetypal elements at the heart of vibrant, creative communities by enticingly documenting what is most important to us. And the experience of exploring digital storytelling within such a dynamically stimulating community as the one developed by those who have organized and are facilitating #etmooc has certainly been inspiring me to look more deeply about how the stories we tell are at the heart of nearly every successful effort that attracts my attention. I see this in my various roles as a volunteer, in the work I do as a trainer-teacher-learner, and in the writing that puts me in touch with creative colleagues worldwide through our promotion and use of social media tools—including those we routinely use to complete assignments within #etmooc and the Social Media Basics course I just finished facilitating again.

The more I think about the interwoven threads of these various stories that are unfolding in my life (the Hidden Garden Steps project, #etmooc and digital storytelling, the Social Media Basics course, my face-to-face and online interactions with colleagues at conferences and in social media platforms, and my ongoing efforts as a trainer-teacher-learner), the more fascinated I become at how the smallest part of any of them sends out tendrils along the lines of the rhizomatic learning concepts we’ve also been studying in #etmooc.

But then I also realize that I’m falling into the trap of making all of this too complex. What it really comes down to is that we’re incredibly social and interconnected people living in an incredibly interconnected onsite-online world. We live socially, we learn socially, we dine socially, we thrive socially, and we build socially. And, at least for me, one of the key pleasures comes from the leaning that occurs in each of these personal and shared short stories that become the extended stories—the novels—that we are creating by living them.

With that act of circling back to learning as a key element of our individual stories, we find one more thread that ties this all together. Given that learning is a process of responding to an immediate need by engaging in positive transformation, we can all continue learning—and creating the stories that give meaning to our lives—through our involvement with challenges along the lines of nurturing the Hidden Garden Steps project, finding community in #etmooc, and becoming active participants in a variety of other collaborative and community-based efforts. The more we look for and document interweavings between these seemingly disparate endeavors, the better learners—and storytellers—we become.

N.B.: This is the fifteenth in a series of posts responding to the assignments and explorations fostered through #etmooc and the fifteenth in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco.


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: Fundraising and Communities of Support

April 26, 2011

While some of us would rather swim with sharks than engage in fundraising efforts, others successfully approach the challenge—fundraising, not sharks—with such panache that their actions make everyone want to dive in with them.

When our campaign to raise the $300,000 we will need to complete the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District began a few months ago, those of us on the project organizing committee faced the endeavor with a sense of enthusiasm and excitement. The payoff was almost immediate: two of the multi-tiled elements—the butterfly and the dragonfly—were immediately claimed by two supporters to move us $14,500 closer to our overall goal. Donations in support of individual tiles soon followed, and we’re seeing an increase in the sale of those $150, $350, and $1,000 tiles week by week—to the point where we are close to having $30,000 for the Hidden Garden Steps.

Although the primary goal of the project is to produce a set of ceramic-tile steps with a garden and large wall mural between Kirkham and Lawton streets at 16th Avenue to complement the original steps on Moraga between 15th and 16th avenues, there is an equally important vision: to continue strengthening the sustainable sense of community and the collaboration that exists among various groups in the Sunset District.

We’re well on our way to meeting that goal, too. Our successful outreach events at Crepevine and Vintage Senior Living have produced major results: additional people volunteering to join the organizing committee, increasing amounts of marketing assistance from volunteers, and the creatively engaging effort Sherry Boschert is currently facilitating to raise $5,500 for the Diablo Fairly Lantern element. (Sherry’s effort is more than halfway toward its goal, having raised more than $3,000 as of this morning.)

Other groups—both from the neighborhood and from a much wider geographic area—are following Sherry’s example by organizing campaigns to underwrite the cost of specific parts of project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher’s design. Volunteers are also making substantial contributions by arranging for everything from cost-free sites for promotional events—and we can use more of those—to arranging for pro bono professional tree-trimming services that have already noticeably transformed the site by making it a little less hidden.

As individual and organizational partners including the City & County of San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program continue to join this San Francisco Parks Trust project, enthusiasm is increasing. Support is growing, And, step by step, we are all building something of lasting value.

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


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