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San Francisco’s Policy Thumb Gets Greener

By Isabel Wade & Eli Zigas

On a spring morning last week, Mayor Ed Lee signed a bill that places San Francisco at the forefront of major cities supporting urban agriculture.  The law, which changes the city’s zoning code, was the culmination of a year of collaboration between the Mayor, Supervisor David Chiu, the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance and supporters from across the city.

The new law does two things:

1) Makes clear that gardens are welcome in every part of the city.

Previously, the city prohibited the establishment of gardens in certain zones of the city.  Going forward, San Franciscans can start a garden or farm less than one acre in size anywhere in the city with a simple over-the-counter permit.  These gardens can be traditional community gardens or they can be market gardens that grow for sale. Gardens and farms one acre or larger are allowed in the industrial zones of the city, and can also be permitted in other parts of the city after a more lengthy application and hearing process called Conditional Use Authorization.  Home gardens cultivated for personal use are unaffected by this new law.

2) Allows gardeners to sell what they grow. 

Whether it’s to make a little extra cash or to make a living, gardeners and urban farmers in San Francisco can now sell what they grow no matter where they grow it.  A backyard gardener can sell to their neighbor, a community garden can make a deal with the local corner grocer, and an urban farm can start a CSA or supply produce to a restaurant.  Sales are permitted both at the garden site itself as well as off-site.  And, San Francisco took a unique step among cities by explicitly allowing gardens outside of residential areas to sell value-added goods such as jams, pickles, and other processed products so long as they follow health code regulations and the primary ingredients are grown and produced on-site.

By passing this law, San Francisco is encouraging the development of urban agriculture throughout the city. Theunanimous support of the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor demonstrates an understanding that urban gardens and farms provide open space in our dense city, offer “green thumb” jobs, serve as a source of fresh produce in “food deserts”, build community, and allow city residents to connect with and better understand the food system.  This understanding comes from the success of numerous model projects that have sprung up in recent years.  Gardens such as the Quesada Gardens InitiativeFree Farm, and 18th & Rhode Island Garden all provide examples of vacant, untended areas turned into vibrant, welcoming greenspace.  Those gardens, and others such as Alemany Farm and Hayes Valley Farm bring together hundreds of volunteers to dig in the dirt and build something meaningful together.  Meanwhile, small businesses such as Little City Gardens and SF Landscapes will now have the legal backing to sell produce grown in residential areas to their neighbors and others throughout the city. Altogether, these gardens — whether they grow for sale or not  — strengthen their neighborhoods and communities by bringing people together out of their homes and around a specific place and their harvest.

While this change to the zoning code is a great step forward for San Francisco, we believe it is only a first step forward.  Other actions that would enhance food production and the city’s sustainability deserve attention as well.  Foremost among them is land access and land tenure.  San Francisco is a dense city where available land commands a pretty penny. Though the zoning code change allows gardens throughout the city, it doesn’t create any new ones nor does it protect spaces that are obvious choices for food production or neighborhood greenspace.  The City has begun to look for vacant public land suitable for urban agriculture, but we should also consider other space that could be converted to gardens.  Taking advantage of our urban setting, San Francisco could follow in Seattle’s footsteps by allowing rooftop greenhouses dedicated to food production to exceed existing height limitations. Moreover, building codes could be altered to require roof strengthening and appropriate plumbing in all new structures in order to allow rooftop gardening. Another critical step to foster more food production is the establishment of Neighborhood Food Hubs where residents could pick up mulch, compost, and tools for their backyard and community gardening efforts. Further north, the City of Vancouver, Canada envisions these hubs to also offer places to cook, taking cooking lessons, can and pickle. These are just a few examples of further policy steps the City could take.

After the Mayor signed the zoning ordinance into law, we all raised our plates for a “salad toast” to celebrate the occasion. We look forward to many future “salad toast” to a more resilient city at garden ground-breakings, rooftop plantings, and more.

The San Francisco Department of Public Works’s Deputy Director, Mohammed Nuru, was awarded the Most Empowering City Employee Award for his dedication to San Francisco’s neighborhoods and years of work in preserving and maintaining San Francisco’s urban space. “Mr. Nuru is the go-to person in the City of SF for infrastructure projects. If you need a fence, sign or bus stop fix, Mr. Nuru can help you get it done,” said SF resident Gillian Gillette. Check out the video below to catch a few words with Mohammed after the ceremony.

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Mayor Gavin Newsom today announced the winners of the Community Challenge Grant Program (CCG), which provides matching grants to local residents, businesses, non-profits and other community groups to make physical improvements to their neighborhoods.

The CCG Program has awarded 28 grants totaling $577,656. The bulk of the CCG awards continue to be for permeable landscaping, public artwork, graffiti/litter abatement, community gardens and gathering spaces, equitably covering all areas of the City. The funding for CCG awards come from city businesses who voluntarily designate one percent of the business tax they already pay. 

The CCG focuses on projects that directly engage residents and businesses in creating green spaces, gathering places, public art, and other neighborhood amenities by featuring and applying ecologically friendly practices. The program is an important tool for enabling communities to take the lead in conducting small scale improvements in their own communities and neighborhoods.

“The Community Challenge Grants promote innovation in our neighborhoods and encourage communities to take pride in their streets,” said Mayor Newsom. “These innovative projects leverage public and private dollars to get communities working together toward making San Francisco a cleaner, greener, and safer city for everyone.”

“We are inspired by the twenty-eight innovative projects awarded this cycle,” said City Administrator Ed Lee. “The Community Challenge Grant Program works best when community groups are empowered to take charge to improve and green their neighborhoods. These projects continue to make San Francisco a cleaner, greener place to live and grow.”

The CCG partnership with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission Urban Watershed Management Program is a critical part of the project. Through this partnership, grants were awarded to six community projects including implementing environmentally sustainable technologies for sidewalks and infrastructure and managing local rainwater in schools and parks.  The awarded amount totals $102,600.

“Each of these community-driven projects will help the entire City to better manage stormwater,” said SFPUC General Manager Ed Harrington. “They demonstrate the importance of acting locally and are vital to the health of our watersheds.”

Community Challenge Grant Program Fall 2010 Grant Award Recipients

1. Jose Ortega Elementary School PTA

Awarded: $10,000
Project: Community Art

2.  Precita Valley Neighbors, sponsored by SF Parks Trusts

Awarded: $8,500
Project: Urban Forestry & Landscaping

3. Progress Park, sponsored by SF Parks Trust

Awarded: $8,600
Project: Urban Forestry & Landscaping

4. Inner City Youth  OMI Clean Team

Awarded: $15,000
Project: Litter Abatement

5. Market Street Association

Awarded: $20,000
Project: Neighborhood Beautification

6. Worchester/Alemany Triangle, sponsored by Mission Neighborhood Center

Awarded: $13,328
Project: Urban Forestry & Landscaping

7. North West Bernal Alliance

Awarded: $14,579
Project: Graffiti & Litter Abatement

8. Korean American Community Center, sponsored by SF Clean City Coalition

Awarded: $15,000
Project: Urban Forestry & Landscaping

9. Kids In Parks, sponsored by SF Parks Trust

Awarded: $20,000
Project: Urban Forestry & Landscaping

10. Hayes Valley Farm, sponsored by SF Parks Trust

Awarded: $10,000
Project: Urban Forestry

11. Sunnyside Neighborhood Association

Awarded: $20,000
Project: Urban Forestry & Landscaping

12. Chinatown Community Development Center

Awarded: $25,000
Project: Graffiti Abatement

13. Excelsior Action Group, sponsored by Community Initiatives

Awarded: $30,000
Project: Neighborhood Beautification & Urban Forestry

14. Portola Neighborhood Steering Committee

Awarded: $45,000
Project: Urban Forestry & Landscaping

15. Hunters Point Family/Girls 2000

Awarded: $30,000
Project: Urban Forestry & Landscaping

16. Japantown Sakura 150 Project

Awarded: $20,000
Project: Urban Forestry

17. Sand@OB Project

Awarded: $24,600
Project: Neighborhood Beautification & Urban Forestry

18. San Francisco Clean City Coalition

Awarded: $50,000
Project: Neighborhood Beautification & Urban Forestry

19. Pennsylvania St. Gardens, sponsored by SF Parks Trust

Awarded: $45,000
Project: Neighborhood Beautification & Urban Forestry

20. Storrie-Ord Neighborhood Group, sponsored by SF Parks Trust

Awarded: $5,449
Project: Urban Forestry

21. Vermont St. Neighborhood Group, sponsored by SF Parks Trust

Awarded: $10,000
Project: Urban Forestry & Landscaping

22. Tenderloin Housing Clinic

Awarded: $35,000
Project: Community Art

Urban Watershed Stewardship Grants Fall 2010 Award Recipients

23. Alice Fong Yu Elementary School PTA

Awarded: $3,500
Project: Rainwater Harvesting

24. Pennsylvania St. Gardens, sponsored by SF Parks Trust

Awarded: $40,000
Project: Street Park with Rain Gardens and Swale System

25. Plant*SF, sponsored by SF Parks Trust

Awarded: $15,000
Project: Sidewalk Landscaping and Impermeable Surface Removal

26. SF State University

Awarded: $21,000
Project: Rain Garden with Native Plantings

27. Sunnyside Cooperative Nursery School

Awarded: $3,100
Project: Sidewalk Landscaping and Impermeable Surface Removal

28. Surfrider Foundation, SF Chapter

Awarded: $20,000
Project: Sidewalk Landscaping and Impermeable Surface Removal


Daniel Homsey, Director, Neighborhood Empowerment Network

I had the honor of being in New Orleans during the days that led up to the 5th anniversary of one of America’s great man-made disasters.

It’s important to know that folks in this great town don’t blame the hurricane that struck with such vengeance, but rather the under-engineered levees that ringed the neighborhoods that buckled in response to the surge of water they were designed to handle.

Out of that tragic event came a million stories and lessons. Some highlight the very best of what humans are capable, others elevate where we still have work to do. In many instances the record shows that people came together during the hours and weeks after the levees failed. They looked beyond their differences, social and economic, and literally lifted each other out of the mud and saved thousands of lives.  Sadly, the record also shows that years of failed governance and leadership yielded a city vulnerable to responding to such challenges and the outcome is a national tragedy.

My visit started with a day-long summit on resiliency hosted by the Salvation Army and FedEx.  The Salvation Army is managing one of the largest private funds to build housing in the City at this time and FedEx has fine tuned its logistics infrastructure to be the “go to” platform for getting essential resources into any disaster zone. The Summit allowed me to share the work we have done with the NEN, as well as to meet amazing people and hear their stories .

Timolynn Sams of the Neighborhood Partnership Network was stunning in sharing her passion for her organization’s mission, and David Gershon inspired everyone with his proven track record of empowering communities. In the following days, I had the pleasure of meeting with The Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Mayor’s Environmental Policy Advisor, both providing an institutional narrative to the work that is happening to this day.

My visit to the newly renovated Andrew Wilson Elementary School yielded two powerful experiences. The first was on Friday, when I checked in on the Envirenew Broadmoor Sustainable Housing competition.  A jury of architects and engineers from all over the US met to review designs submitted by teams from every corner of Earth to build a sustainable home for under X.  The panel included Cameron Sinclair of Archtitecture for Humanity, Liz Ogbu of Public Architecture and Envirenew’s Lindsay Jonker .  Four designs were chosen and will be built for families with a few blocks of the school.

The Andrew Wilson Elementry School after a thorough remodelingThe school was a story in itself. In 2007 I was sent to New Orleans as a member of a delegation that included City Administrator Ed Lee, Tony Irons of the PUC and Sarah Dennis of the Planning Dept. Our goal was to see how we could help this great town recover from the devastation of the floods. The tour was led by Hal Rourk and LaToya Cantrell of the Broadmoor Neighborhoods Improvement Association (BNIA). Needless to say, the scene we encountered was overwhelming (see photos). In the following year the City of San Francisco collaborated with the BNIA to write a proposal to a grant opportunity that the State had made available. By having a lot of the City’s key economic partners provide their voice of support, their proposal was one of five selected. Construction soon begun and we were overwhelmed by the new LEED standard building that greeted us on Friday. (To hear LaToya Cantrell’s own account of the last five years in Broadmoor please visit the video below.)

On Sunday we returned to the school for the Community Voices event that was hosted by the BNIA. It was a powerful experience that featured an open mic environment allowing people to share how they felt five years after the storm. There were poems, raps, eulogies and statements of joy that collectively framed the way the neighborhood felt about what they had, and are still going through. Everyone was impacted by the display of drawings that the children who had survived the actual floods made of their experience. LaToya Cantrell facilitated the whole event which culminated with the children all planting an orange tree.

The Andrew Wilson Elementry School after a thorough remodeling

Sunday culminated in the official City commemoration at a local theatre. The event started off with a joyous display of culture with over a dozen lead dancers in full costume from the legendary mardi gras crews.  The whole building danced, including their new mayor, Mitch Landreau, for 15 minutes.  As the program unfolded, spoken word and music filled the room.  The Mayor took the stage and delivered perhaps the perfect speech that summed up the emotions and dreams in the room.  It seemed like he had been waiting for five years to give it. The night ended with an all star jam that of course ended with the “When the Saints go Marching In” with the new “Who Dat?” ending that saluted the victory of the City’s NFL franchise earlier this year.

Flying home I had a lot of time to process everything I had seen and heard. I am in awe of the people who every day wake up and fight for their city despite what seems to be an unrelenting wave of challenges, and new disasters. I also have hope that they’ll be able to rebuild their city to be one that was better than the one hurricane Katrina blew through five years ago. The phrase that I think will stick with me as I look to the opportunity of preparing our City for future challenges is remember, mother nature always bats last.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of the visit for me came from the local folks who are working at the community level who had seen the NEN presentation and said “that program is awesome. It’s what every neighborhood needs.”

Anyone will tell you who has been there, you won’t be the same person once you’ve experienced the work of the people of New Orleans. You’ll be a better one.

Check out more photos from New Orleans on Facebook

Watch the interview with Broadmoor Improvement Association President, LaToya Cantrell

Documentary filmmaker S. Leo Chiang discusses the role of community in a post disaster environment and his experience in filming his latest documentary; A Village Called Versailles. The film chronicles the Vietnamese communities struggle in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina had devastated their homes. Their story shows the strength and importance of community in the effort to rebuild after a disaster.


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Show Information

Guest: S. Leo Chiang, Walking Iris Films
Related Organizations: A village called Versailles
Host: Michael Pawluk
Additional Credits: Moontan (music)


Developing a consensus amongst neighborhood organizations is vital if they wish to succeed.  Professor and long time community organizer Jim Diers discusses his past work in the Seattle Office of Neighborhoods, the incentives of strong planning and how he’s bringing a back bone to the Democratic party.

Download this episode (right click and save)Show Information

Guest: Jim Diers, Professor, University of Washington
Related Event: Santa Rosa Community Summit
Related Organizations: Seattle office of Neighborhoods, Asset-Based Community Development Institute
Host: Michael Pawluk
Additional Credits: Moontan (music)


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Embracing Web 2.0 tools, the City of San Francisco has started making its data more open to the public. NENfm interviews Adriel Hampton, web specialist and speaker at the upcoming Craigslist Foundation Boot Camp, about the potential of this move and if it’s actually possible to make sense of so much data.

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Guest: Adriel Hampton, investigator with the SF Attorney’s Office and co-founder of Gov 2.0 Radio
Subject Area: San Francisco Bay Area
Related Event: Craigslist Foundation Boot Camp
Related OrganizationsCraigslist FoundationGov 2.0 Radio
Host: Adam Greenfield
Additional Credits: Moontan (music)


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LaToya Cantrell, President of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, on the anniversary of the levees flooding New Orleans in 2005, shares with NENtv an update...