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Planting a permanent culture in San Francisco

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Carries Hughes stands on the sidewalk, near a chain link fence, on the corner of Fell and Laguna streets in San Francisco. Behind her, cars roar past the rows of tidy Victorians. But Hughes is more interested in the wide, sloping lot in front of us, on the other side of the fence. 

“This is how you'd get on the Bay Bridge, this is how you'd get onto the 101, but that was back in 1989,” she says, and points at a strip of cracked pavement cutting through the lot. It’s the last remnants of a freeway onramp that collapsed in the Loma Prieta Earthquake. Until 2010, this was an abandoned lot.

“That's 21 years,” she says. “This area was not used as far as I know for anything, outside of, again, just drug use and trash.”

That’s all gone. Now, the lot is occupied by the Hayes Valley Farm. It’s two acres, sunny in parts, shady in others, with tall trees clustered in the center. The pungent smell of compost wafts over beds of chard, kale, bamboo – all sprouted, quite literally, from the freeway’s remains. The farm produces thousands of pounds of food a year. Making that happen took a big idea: permaculture.

It’s a design method focused on using space efficiently, working with nature, and sustaining resources rather than depleting them. It aims to get the most use out of the least amount of space, which makes it perfect for urban gardening. By way of example, Hughes points out a spiral mound of dirt at the south end of the farm.

“The mound is about three feet tall. And about four feet wide,” she says. “It does look like a little volcano.”

It’s actually a super-efficient herb garden.

“Basically, it’s building up,” says Hughes. “So you’re gonna get definitely 2 times or 3 times or 4 times of food off this same square footage of space.”

Permaculture is everywhere at the farm. It’s in the farm’s shape, which uses natural slopes to draw water downward. It’s in the seed library, which houses and shares special seeds that thrive in San Francisco's climate. It’s even in the ground you walk on. Back in 2010, volunteers covered the site with more than 80,000 pounds of cardboard and organic matter to create a rich, human-made soil. These are all big ideas that fit well in this small space. But maybe the biggest idea was one that, on its face, actually seems like the opposite of permaculture.  

“Since September 2009, when we started designing the project, we designed it to be temporary,” says Jay Rosenberg.

Rosenberg helped start Hayes Valley Farm. It’s on property owned by the city of San Francisco, and he says the project was always meant to be a placeholder. Something to do with the space until the economy picked up, and a developer built it out.

“Kind of like the city has a driveway and they're letting us put a lemonade stand on it,” he says.

In technical terms, this is an “interim-use agreement.” That’s what’s allowed the farm to operate for the past three years. The interim is up, though – construction on a condo slash retail development is set to start sometime in 2013, and what Rosenberg calls the “Freeway Food Forest” is supposed to clear out entirely by the summer. But Rosenberg says that’s okay. Permaculture is a way of designing for the long term – of planning for sustainability under any circumstances. Knowing the farm site would be temporary let the farmers make plans to endure. To see how, we’ll have to follow the bees.

Long before they knew exactly when they’d have to leave, Hayes Valley Farmers started moving bees from the farm to a site on San Bruno Avenue, right above the 101 freeway -- about four miles away. Hundreds of thousands of bees, almost a dozen colonies, made the trip. Their new caretaker, in her white, protective suit, is Karen Peteros, co-founder of San Francisco Bee-Cause.

“These kinds of projects really do build community,” she says. “Sometimes it's not that obvious, but if you start up a project in a neighborhood, they will come.”

And they have been. Peteros says curious neighbors have started poking around regularly. Some even want to volunteer. For the most part, beekeeping in a city is a lot like beekeeping anywhere, but getting the land to keep your bees is a distinctly urban story, and one with unusual bedfellows.

Looming over us is a huge ClearChannel billboard, advertising a new phone. And the lot we're standing on, ClearChannel owns it too. Buildings would block the billboard, so the company kept this lot vacant. Until Peteros went to them with an idea.

“It was just a fallow lot, it was just a ugly weed lot,” she remembers. “We told them we'd take it from an eyesore to eye candy. Become a neighborhood asset rather than a neighborhood negative.”

In case you were wondering how Peteros negotiated with a multibillion dollar corporation, she’s an award-winning employment attorney when she’s not keeping bees. Long story short, she secured a one-year lease basically for free. In spring of 2013, that lease goes month-to-month, meaning, ClearChannel can terminate it at any point. Peteros says this is just a reality that urban agriculture projects have to deal with.

“Whenever you have any property in the city, especially privately owned, you never can guarantee you have it for any period of time,” she says. “So we'll just have to take it one season at a time.”

“If the apiary loses its lease, the bees will have to move to another site. The way the farmers see it, that’s all right. Permaculture means working with the environment that exists around you. If that means making a garden temporary, but mobile, so be it. If that means asking favors from a corporation, fine. The goal, says Jay Rosenberg, is to get as much of San Francisco planted as possible.

He has a map of the city, subdivided into 49 square miles. His goal is to see at least one community garden in each square mile. Right now, the map includes everything from a planned bioremediation in Hunter's Point, to a school garden where pumpkins grow through a chain link fence. But there are also neighborhoods that don’t yet have any gardens.

To fix this, Rosenberg is working with a project called 49 Farms. It’s an attempt to link up existing farms, and help new ones begin. The plan is to make San Francisco agriculture thrive in every way possible, whether by providing especially resilient seeds or helping aspiring farmers navigate complex city bureaucracy.

“There's so many places to make a mistake,” says Rosenberg, “and to check the wrong box on a form or put the wrong thing on your application, that we've made a long list of these mistakes.”

Urban gardening takes more than just a green thumb. It takes a creative approach to working in a city. With governments, corporations, and unused space, whether it’s the lot down the corner, or a corner of your backyard. Permaculture is the guiding principle; permanent change is the ultimate goal, but in a city developing as fast as San Francisco – where empty lots don’t stay empty long – permanent doesn’t necessarily mean putting down roots in just one place. 

Charlie Mintz reported this story for Chew on This, a new KALW show about the practical way people are making the world a better place. You can be part of the show’s next live audience on Saturday January 19th at the SoMa StrEATfood Park in San Francisco. The event is free and starts at 1 p.m.