I was fortunate to grow up in a house with a large backyard slightly north of Seattle. Above all, in this Pacific Northwest paradise of seasons and ample rain, my parents prioritized making time for their beautiful and prolific vegetable garden, and it remains one of the clearest memories of my childhood (in addition to treasure maps, tree houses, backyard baseball, and swimming lessons).
My sister and I shared an extensive chores list that included chicken feeding, setting beer traps for the abundant slugs that frequented the spinach and strawberries, pruning trees, eradicating invasive dandelions that terrorized the lawn, harvesting strawberries, raspberries, lettuce, and snap peas, planting seeds and starts, and helping spread compost and bark dust in and between the beds.
When I was 12, we moved to a house with an even larger backyard about two miles away and the first thing the developer that bought our old place did was build a huge house in the backyard—my first personally jarring experience with densification (and emotional vs. commercial property value). In my travels since then, I have seen and experienced density at its greatest (Jaipur, Tokyo, Mexico City!) and alternately seen and felt the impact of space being cheaper than anything else (Walla Walla, Eugene). And throughout, I have felt most comfortable and happy in those places where I can find my own patches of green space, and have gravitated toward that amenity when securing living arrangements.
San Francisco is the densest city I have called home. The only saving grace of my first place in the vast expanse of concrete that made up SOMA (at the time) was the lush Howard Langton Garden, which requires a key to access in order to discourage vandals and other interlopers. With the average San Franciscan’s interest bordering on obsession with farmers markets, farm-to-table, local food, and urban agriculture, it’s no surprise that San Francisco has a vast network of well-loved community gardens, the only downside being, of course, the extensive waiting lists one faces when signing up for a plot, and the lack of space to accommodate this popular desire.
As the Marketing Coordinator for SWA’s Sausalito office, I’m in a unique position to keep a metaphorical finger on the pulse of the city and region; I spend portions of each week researching and pursuing partnerships and collaborations in response to RFPs and Qs from various public and private agencies. An emerging trend in both sectors is a call for greater open and green space, and increasing emphasis on community gardens/edible landscapes and sustainable infrastructure. In a city increasingly constrained by space, like San Francisco, this presents a challenge. Enter NOMADGardens, an organization I stumbled across a few months ago, and have become increasingly impressed with as I involve myself with their work and learn more about their vision.
NOMADGardens is a roaming community garden operation that just launched a pilot project in the Mission Bay neighborhood, an area severely lacking in green space. NOMAD’s model is simple and brilliant: they find an empty lot in a neighborhood lacking garden space, fill it with portable plots of dirt, and invite the community in to invest and grow plots in the garden. Strategically designed as a hub for the community (a potential venue for movie screenings, art shows, workshops, picnics/barbecues, etc.), the site offers significant social value beyond the edible landscape, where an otherwise vacant lot would uselessly sit. When the property owner/developer of the lot is ready to build, the NOMAD team will help the raised beds “roam” to another vacant, available lot within the neighborhood.
Stephanie Goodson, NOMADgardens founder, was trained in architecture and urban design. After moving to Mission Bay, she realized that her neighborhood lacked a “third space” (apart from home and work) in which one could connect with others outdoors. Stephanie lacked access to a garden space, and she had the ability, interest, and wherewithal to do something about it. After reaching out to a local developer with the idea to install a community garden on his vacant lot, her inquiry was initially met with resistance. From a developer’s perspective, people put considerable sweat equity into gardens and become attached to the site. Not surprisingly, this results in becoming the “bad guy” (or girl, or company) when you want to develop the lot, and negatively impacts both the community and any future project. Responding to this challenge, Stephanie proposed a garden that roamed from vacant lot to vacant lot, and in 2010 the NOMADGardens idea was born.
It was not an easy path. It took over four years for Stephanie to realize her vision, and there is still much work to be done. First, she cultivated a relationship with the City of San Francisco’s Redevelopment Agency (now OCII) in order gain permission for her proposed land use of the site. Then she convinced the developer, Mission Bay Development Group, to gift the land for an initial two-year pilot project. The land lease NOMAD holds with the developer is conditional on their agreement with OCII. Finally, basic site improvements to prepare for NOMAD’s tenure there were donated by the Mission Bay Community Services Organization. In order to achieve all of this, Stephanie talked to neighbors and was able to demonstrate that vacant lots deterred people from walking around in the evenings. Her argument was that by creating a community hub, developers could reclaim the land easily, the community would feel safer, and, most importantly (at least to her), individuals would have a place to grow their own food and connect. In 2013 Stephanie met Anne Park, now co-director of NOMADGardens, who had recently moved to the Bay Area. Anne also craved a piece of land to grow her own food, shared the vision of developing roaming gardens, and had the business acumen to help launch the effort.
Fast-forward to April of 2014 and you would have found me spending an 80-degree Saturday volunteering to drill drainage holes in the bases of metal stand-up washboard tubs, shoveling donated soil and fertilizer from piles to the tubs, and MacGyvering an ailing, donated wheelbarrow back into productivity—all in preparation for NOMAD’s April 12 launch party. While volunteering, I met PhD students from UCSF, inhabitants of a SOMA micro-apartment development happy to be outside getting their hands dirty, residents of a nearby luxury housing tower, members of local garden-focused nonprofits, and random neighbors passing through with a few spare moments to pick up a shovel and dig in.
This June the garden officially opened, offering an initial 88 2’x4’ plots (of a projected 300) available for growing one’s own food, 62 of which are already spoken for. The plots will eventually include drip irrigation, which is more efficient than watering by hand. Plots are offered for slightly more than a nominal fee on a monthly or annual basis. Regardless of what you think of the changing landscape of the city, and the impacts of community investment, it has been refreshing to see a young organization approaching a community problem with enthusiasm instead of sarcasm, or yet another app. I fully believe the concept will take off, and hope it comes to my neighborhood someday soon. Until then, I’ll frequent the spots of green and keep fighting for these kinds of landscapes to survive in the urban context, because they are important for our physical, mental, and social health, and because they offer ties to my childhood, which continually threatens to escape me.