Cultivating Public Spaces for Urban Farming

by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
March 15, 2012
Image courtesy Flickr user greenhem

Two sites owned by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) in San Francisco moved closer to becoming urban agriculture projects this week. Since October, PUC staff members have been conducting an urban agriculture feasibility study of open space adjacent to two facilities: College Hill Reservoir (at 360 Elsie Street) in Bernal Heights and the perimeter of the Southeast Treatment Plant (at Phelps and Evans streets) in the Bayview. They presented a progress report and future timeline at the March 13 commission hearing.

The PUC’s assessments of each site shows that both are suitable for growing food, with the necessary access to water and sun.  Beyond the technical specifications, the PUC staff reported having had numerous conversations with community groups in the neighborhoods surrounding the two sites. Based on these conversations, the PUC is leaning toward different uses at each site.

For the College Hill Reservoir site, the PUC is proposing to transform the currently inaccessible open space into an outdoor classroom for neighboring schools that also serves the community as well.  Based on conversations with the San Francisco Unified School District and Green Schoolyard Alliance, the PUC staff presented the idea of a garden servings students from the public schools that are within walking distance (Junipero Serra and Fairmount elementary schools and Paul Revere College Preparatory School) during school hours while also serving nearby residents not affiliated with the schools during afternoons and weekends.  There are few school gardens in San Francisco that also provide gardening space for community members, notable exceptions being the gardens coordinated by Urban Sprouts at Aptos Middle School and June Jordan School for Equity. If the PUC’s proposal becomes reality, it would offer an innovative use of public land to serve both students and the general public on the same site.

The PUC’s proposal for the Southeast Treatment Plant site remains less defined. The PUC reported hearing feedback, especially from the Southeast Food Access Working Group (SEFA), that the neighborhood did not necessarily need more space for growing food.  SEFA instead encouraged the PUC to consider other urban agriculture uses of the site — perhaps as a resource distribution area or other type of project that could make use of its relatively high visibility for passersby.

The plans for the two sites are now progressing on two separate tracks.  For College Hill Reservoir, the PUC is moving ahead with the outdoor classroom and community garden idea, hoping to have the site up and running before the beginning of the 2012-13 school year. For the Southeast Treatment Plant, the PUC staff expressed a goal of hosting open houses for the public to learn more about the site in the summer, followed by a solicitation of proposals in the late summer or early fall. The staff also expects to provide another progress report back to the commission in May.

SPUR supports the PUC’s efforts to open up these two sites for urban agriculture and sent a letter in November encouraging the agency to consider its pilot projects as a model for other city agencies. We are actively engaging with PUC staff as the projects develop and have encouraged the agency to create a more public means of soliciting feedback, as well as a faster timeline for the Southeast Treatment Plant site.  With many San Franciscans seeking spaces to grow food, the PUC’s two sites could be an encouraging step toward helping the city meet that demand with public land. 

Read SPUR’s letter to the PUC regarding its urban agriculture pilot sites >>