August Garden Update – I Want a Sidewalk Garden! Part 1: The Process

I Want a Sidewalk Garden! Part 1: The Process

Aug 2015 photo 1

When you’re on 20th Street, or another green block in San Francisco, you may wonder, “Could my block look like this?” Yes, it can!

The aesthetic benefits of sidewalk greening are obvious. Green plants just look better than concrete. But these are more than just pretty spaces – they work for all of us. By opening up the pavement, we allow water to enter the soil. The sidewalk becomes permeable rather than impervious. According to PlantSF, a local nonprofit, permeable landscaping:
• Reduces storm sewer loads, reducing potential for backups and flooding;
• Creates habitat for birds, butterflies and other wildlife;
• Makes a place to garden;
• Provides potential for urban farming (foodscape);
• Beautifies the neighborhood;
• Creates opportunities for community interaction;
• Deters crime;
• Increases property values;
• Reduces global warming (by absorbing heat rather than reflecting it);
• Increases oxygen production; and
• Recharges ground water.

Aug 2015 photo 2

By this point, some of you are probably ready to go out, rent a jackhammer, and start blasting out some concrete. But hold on! There is a process, and it takes some time, effort and money.

Sidewalk landscapes require a permit from the City’s Department of Public Works (DPW). The permit must be signed by the property owner. If you are not the owner, you may help convince the owner to get on board by talking about the benefits of sidewalk greening listed above.

The owner may already be motivated if they have been cited by the City to repair the sidewalk. City inspectors paint dots or Xs on the places that need repairing before issuing a Notice to Repair. The City then encourages these owners to remove concrete for sidewalk landscaping and will assist with the process. The cost to remove and replace concrete may be about the same as sidewalk landscaping, depending on the design and who does the work. For more information on potential costs, visit or .

Aug 2015 photo 3

(You don’t have to be an architect to draw up your proposed sidewalk garden. Drawing by the author.)

To get the permit approved, you will need to submit an application, a scale drawing of the proposed sidewalk garden, and a plant list. Instructions on what to include in the drawing and list of suitable plants are available on the DPW website. There is also a fee, which becomes lower when more property owners on the same block or intersection participate. Once the permit is approved, materials and installation costs can also be shared among neighbors, making community participation really pay off.

If this process seems daunting, you have several options for assistance with the permitting and installation. Nonprofits such as PlantSF ( and Friends of the Urban Forest ( provide expertise and funding that can considerably lower your costs. You will volunteer your time with your neighbors to install plants, while concrete removal and paving work are done by contractors. However, the nonprofit funding may only be available for certain neighborhoods or for a limited time. You wait longer than you would like to get started.

Aug 2015 Photo 4

(Friends of the Urban Forest volunteers planting on Lisbon Street. Photo

You can hire a contractor through the City to install a sidewalk landscape for you. After giving you a cost estimate, they will install one of their pre-designed landscapes based on your neighborhood and sun exposure. Many property owners served with a notice to repair their sidewalk follow this route. Contact the Bureau of Urban Forestry at 415/554-6700 to find out more.

You can also hire a professional designer to draw up your plan and oversee a contractor to do some or all of the work. Jane Martin, the landscape architect behind PlantSF, and the designer of the 20th Street Garden, is available for hire at You’ve seen Jane’s work all over town; she was the first person to work with the City to allow and encourage sidewalk landscaping. This would be a much grayer and uglier city without her efforts.

Aug 2015 photo 5

(Jane Martin’s design at 23rd and Harrison, August 2014 – 7 years after installation. Photo courtesy of Google Street View)

In future articles, we’ll address design features, plants, paving materials, and maintenance of sidewalk gardens, and learn a little more about the making of the 20th Street Garden.

Ellyn Shea is a gardener and garden educator in San Francisco. Visit her at


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