SF’s Groundbreaking Urban Ag Program Turns One

Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
June 12, 2015

Available open space in San Francisco may be scarce, as real estate prices continue to rise and prominent urban ag projects have given way to condo development, but the hunger for urban agriculture shows no sign of waning. Wait list times for some community gardens are upwards of several years. A new city program is addressing the insatiable demand by providing resources to San Francisco gardeners and helping them find places to get their hands dirty and grow their own food.

Following a comprehensive SPUR urban agriculture report in 2012, then-Supervisor David Chiu introduced legislation to create a program to streamline the management of community gardens and other urban agriculture projects through the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department.  The program launched in spring of 2014, and last month it celebrated a year in action.

At the helm is Urban Agriculture Program Coordinator Hannah Shulman, who has previously worked with Urban Sprouts, Garden for the Environment, and the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance. She coordinates between the city’s many urban ag projects and runs the new Urban Agriculture Resource Centers, where residents can take free gardening classes and pick up free compost, soil, and mulch. We checked in with Hannah for an update on San Francisco’s urban ag scene.

CUESA: Tell us about the Urban Agriculture Program and how it’s developed over the last year.

Hannah Shulman: In 2012, people in San Francisco wanted there to be one place where they could get all the information they needed on urban agriculture, everything from where to get materials to build your garden to how to get a permit to build a garden on your property. We are now in 2015, our one-year anniversary.

As we’ve gotten the program up and running, we’ve worked with people who are already engaged in urban agriculture. There are over 120 sites in San Francisco, and one of my jobs is to create coordination and communication between them all. Creating a one-stop shop and a website is a huge step in the direction of getting all the different city agencies and the public on the same page. Through our monthly Urban Agriculture Resource Centers, we’re getting the word out about all the resources available. They’ve had a huge impact. We saw an Alamo Square’s worth of compost distributed in 2014. People really want a place to get physical resources to garden, so we’re giving them an opportunity to get what they need to start their garden project.

CUESA: With so many changes happening in San Francisco, has that impact been felt in the urban agriculture scene?

HS: The same things we saw about the urban ag program a year ago are still true: people love activating their open spaces for urban agriculture. As the city continues to densify, that’s always been a concern for us at SF Recreation & Parks and the urban ag program: maximizing the amount of people who can get involved with urban agriculture and our open spaces. The urban ag movement is alive and well, and people are really interested and engaged. To that end, we’re continuing to think about how we can serve people in San Francisco through physical resources, through classes, and through providing more spaces to do this work.

CUESA: In terms of being able to access new plots, do you think there’s going to be less land available for new sites?

HS: Urban agriculture nationwide has thrived on private properties with owners who have become delinquent on their taxes and let the lots become blights. Here in San Francisco, the majority of the available open space is publicly owned. People are still trying to activate open space whether it’s publicly or privately owned, but our city has a different take on it.

CUESA: How has the program helped manage the demand for community gardens?

HS: Part of my role is to work with SF Recreation & Parks’ community garden projects to decrease the waitlist on those gardens. That’s not all the community gardens in the city, but it is 38 of them. Last year we put some new systems in place and were able to decrease the waitlist time by 12%. There’s always more demand for urban agriculture spaces like community gardens in the city, and we’re always looking at ways to accommodate that creatively.

CUESA: What advice do you have for someone who doesn’t have access to a yard but would like to get started growing food?

HS: You can sign up for a community garden waitlist on our website. You can also find a map of all the community gardens and urban ag sites in the city and search by whether or not they accept volunteers. There are 14 sites in San Francisco where people can get started gardening today, without a waitlist. Those include places like Alemany Farm and Garden for the Environment.

There’s a common misconception that you can’t grow food in San Francisco—that it’s too urban, or this or that. That’s absolutely not true. No matter what microclimate you live in here, there’s definitely something you can do to participate in urban ag, whether that means volunteering at an urban farm, taking a community garden class, or starting a container garden in your south-facing kitchen window with vegetables or herbs.

Urban ag-curious? Check out the SF Recreation & Parks’ Urban Agriculture Resource Center tomorrow at Golden Gate Park CommUNITY Garden.

Photos by Hannah Shulman/SF Recreation & Parks. Graphic from SF Recreation & Parks.