Jane Martin is a Force of Nature

jane_cu_gardening_5826.jpgJane Martin gardening at 23rd and Harrison, Jan. 3, 2009.

Jane Martin is a longtime resident of San Francisco’s Mission District, a licensed architect, and an avid gardener. She is the founder of PlantSF, an informational website dedicated to reconfiguring the design and use of urban spaces, primarily sidewalks and to a lesser extent, residential streets. PlantSF started in 2004 after Martin had spent considerable effort establishing a sidewalk garden in front of her then-home on Shotwell between 17th and 18th Streets.

"Before I thought to organize [PlantSF] I just wanted to put in a garden. We have these really wide sidewalks all over town and they’re relatively underutilized. [The garden] also had the added benefit of reducing driving and parking on the sidewalk."

orig_sidewalk_garden_w_palm_longer_view_5919.jpgMartin’s original garden with flourishing palm tree, on Shotwell between 17th and 18th Streets.

This block of Shotwell was infamous for sewage backups and blackwater flooding during heavy rainfall. Only a few years ago most of the neighbors had to stockpile sandbags during winter to stop their garages from flooding with sewage. After Martin figured out how to get through the city bureaucracy, and ultimately helped create a streamlined permit process for anyone to follow (downloadable here), many of her neighbors on the same block opened their sidewalks and put in permeable driveways and gardens. Even PG&E, just south of 18th between Shotwell and Folsom, got into the act.

view_across_shotwell_from_odc_5915.jpgNE view across Shotwell, permeable driveway and sidewalk gardens in abundance.
shotwell_at_18th_5908.jpgShotwell near corner of 18th.
so_side_18th_pge_5907.jpgSouth side of 18th at Shotwell, alongside PG&E property.

She started out as something of a lone ranger, using her professional skills to navigate the city’s many rules and regulations, and originally thought the sidewalk-as-park would generate its own enthusiasm.                   

"I didn’t get very far trying to convince people that it was a nice place for a park. When I realized the connection between the depaving part of the project and getting storm water out of the sewer system and into the ground, that’s when it got more attention, especially from the City because our aging infrastructure with the sewer system is at the point of collapse in a number of areas."

Now the idea is taking off, partly because of the easier-to-use 1-page permitting process, and partly because Jane was ahead of her time by a bit, but now depaving and reinventing the urban landscape is just the zeitgeist of our moment. While we were sitting and talking at the 23rd and Harrison bulb-out (which was first built by the City 30 years ago, but left as a large cement island until Martin and her neighbors coordinated their own depaving and sidewalk gardening in 2007 with the Dept. of Public Works, and got the DPW to help depave much of the sidewalk extension) we could hear machines and pick-axes breaking up cement just a half block away."These are happy noises," Jane assured me. Turns out Saturday January 3rd was a big work day for the 3rd phase of the Harrison Street gardening program that Jane Martin helped kickstart, with 23 households participating in opening sidewalks in front of four buildings on the block between 23rd and 24th, and six buildings between 24th and 25th. Here are some photos of the work-in-progress:

working_plot_on_Harrison_5859.jpgWorking a fresh plot on Harrison between 24th and 25th, Jan. 3, 2009.
cutting_concrete_5850.jpgCutting the concrete, freeing the soil!

"I host PlantSF.org as an informational website with a how-to section so people don’t have to hire a pro to do this." Martin happily fields queries about process, materials, utilities underground, and more. "The main thing is to contribute what you can. As an architect I understood what the City needed in terms of checking off their concerns. My role is finding ways to identify the obstacles and then address them in a way that meets the needs of the City as well as of the citizenry." Not to mention the needs of Nature, of which Jane Martin is one of our best advocates–but an urbanized nature that holds great promise for a reinvention of city life on a much deeper scale.

jane_gardens_bulb_5828.jpg Jane Martin at the 23rd St. and Harrison "sidewalk extension."

Plant*SF Tours: Take a guided walking tour of permeable sidewalk gardens in San Francisco’s Mission District with Jane Martin, architect, landscape designer and founder of Plant*SF. This easy one-hour walk views several gardens while discussing their benefits and challenges as well as the process of creating them. $20 (cash only). Rain or shine. Advance registration required – space is limited. To register, specify date in an email to info@PlantSF.org. Leaves from 23rd and Harrison Street.

Saturdays in January; 11-noon:

January 10, 2009

January 17, 2009

January 24, 2009

January 31, 2009

  • The planting strips in front of the PG&E yard are actually a nightmare. They took a comfortable sidewalk and reduced it to a strip of concrete so narrow that two people can’t even pass each other. The stretch of Shotwell (the street I grew up on, incidentally) is better, but still pushing it. On 18th just off Shotwell is another bad one.

    Please don’t get me wrong, I really really really support streatscape planting and permeable pavement, but i want very badly for it to not take away from a street’s walkability. Compounding the problem is a requirement that no plantings can be closer than something like 18 inches to the curb if there is street parking. This tends to push the planting even closer to the middle of the sidewalk.

    In my perfect world I’d like to see more street parking removed and donated to plantings like these. Fortunately, the Better Streets “plan” recommends planting trees and other things in extensions into parking real estate, rather than pedestrian rights of way.

  • Yes, this is probably the biggest problem with the Better Streets Plan as currently formulated — it specifies 6 feet as the amount of space that should be left for pedestrians under the best of circumstances, when that ought to be about the minimum instead.

  • I don’t know the amount of traffic that walks on that street so it’s hard to make too much of a judgment. But, this great idea which helped mitigate an important problem (i.e. sewage) and help the area look less like a concrete blob needs to be met with on street changes by the city. With sidewalk extensions this would have been perfect. A little more sidewalk and maybe a protected bike lane on one side and then you can have the gardens, walkable sidewalks and better bike facilities. The problem here is that it’s sewage at the expense of pedestrian space… but the reason there can be so little drainage is cars. I think with limited space like that you need to be very careful about how you address it. But, she has started a change in the right direction.

  • The sewage problem was actually fixed by a massive PUC project that took about a year (if I recall correctly). That said, permeable pavement can prevent problems like that from happening again.

    6′ should be the minimum, but this recommendation of the BS”P” is an improvement over the ADA requirements (currently the only legal requirements for sidewalks) of 48″

    Regarding the current level of ped traffic on Shotwell; it’s a narrow residential street, so traffic isn’t constant. But Shotwell and the adjacent inner mission streets have a decent number of pedestrians on them all the time.

    In either case though I’d argue that narrowing sidewalks is never a good idea (nor can they ever be “underused” as mentioned in the article) because pedestrian traffic, like car traffic, can be induced by wide rights of way.

  • Our Livable City Park(ing) space in 2007 focused on parking spots and storm water runoff. From numbers supplied by the PUC: each paved parking space generates about 1,875 gallons of stormwater run off each year. Greening the space could reduce that by 1,250 gals, and permeable paving would reduce it by 625 gals. Since we have a combined sewer and stormwater system in SF all that water has to be treated before being released….except when the system can’t handle it all. I think greening the sidewalks can be a great first step to get people thinking about de-paving some of the street. A lovely and green first step.

  • Hilary

    Go Jane! These blocks are vastly more appealing than those without the curb plantings. Even a narrow strip of plantings gives visual relief as well as affording habitat space and permeabilility. I am surprised at the concern for narrow sidewalks…this is not Mission Street, people! I dont mind touching another human in the city anyway. Close your eyes and envision Market street with less brick, but instead with some of these kinds of plantings. (Now keep dreaming and erase all the car traffic…now the pavement is getting ripped up….) I am not even mentioning (til now) the benefit for other creatures these kinds of plantings provide…especially when native plants are used. Plus, scientific studies demonstrate that our brains function better when natural spaces are in view in urban places. (See, e.g., How the city hurts your brain…And what you can do about it. By Jonah Lehrer January 2, 2009 Boston Globe) I am not commenting on the previous commenters’ brains…at least not consciously.

  • I echo Hilary’s “Go Jane!” and add a further “Yay Hilary!”

    Working within the current contexts of the City is the most practical way to effectively address the problems at hand, and Jane Martin is doing a wonderful job of this. I struggle to sympathize with naysayers and those concerned with sidewalk width. Restructuring landscapes completely is not a financially reasonable pursuit. Also, I toured these beautiful creations as well as many others throughout the City just yesterday and found the sidewalk on this section of Shotwell to not only be comfortable, but far more enjoyable to venture down than other wide-bodied, wasteful, and dare I say, boisterous avenues. 6 feet is a lot of space! Though I completely support promoting pedestrian traffic, a simple sidewalk-widening will not achieve the desired ends. The space should be used for more inviting purposes — resources that will impel people to walk. Jane Martin’s gardens are one example of more inviting resources. I bet you could think of others.

    What would you prefer to see on your block? More cement, or more green space? What if all the excess space used for large pedestrian walkways was converted into gardens? What if sidewalks were smaller and the square footage of your home was larger? What if that wasted resource could be transformed into space for more affordable housing for the disabled?

    It should also be noted that though work may have been done in this area, the sewage problem has not been taken care of. It’s a City-wide issue due to the combined sewer system, which lurks beneath us. We can thank past City designers and dated-thought for the pollution and back-ups. Permeable driveways are not only sustainable, they promote resilience!

    I’d also like to give due kudos for the easily navigable template Jane has provided, which enables much needed remediation of other areas in the City’s landscape. Like I said, Go Jane!

  • Marilyn Picariello

    As a 30+ year resident/realtor in San Francisco I am aware of the many neighborhoods/urban gardens that the city has to offer. This notion is so interesting to me because it completes an awareness I had had. Last Fall I had a listing on Shotwell at 20th St that I had sold to my friends in 2000 before the new and improved Shotwell sidewalk gardens project.What a transformation Shotwell under went. Just beautiful! I couldn’t believe it. As a gardener myself, I was amazed at the transformation and overall beautification of Shotwell. I love it and say let’s do more!!!!

  • Marilyn Picariello

    I just left a comment. No sure it went. Anyway I love this idea. The Mission never looked better. As someone who has hung out in the Mission since the early 1980’s the urban transformation is astonishing and I want more. It’s a good thing, a very cool thing….


Mission Greenbelt Zig-Zags Across the Neighborhood

Amber Hasselbring is the instigator of a lovely effort in San Francisco’s Mission District, aptly named the Mission Greenbelt Project. The plan is to create a connective corridor of native plants to serve as wildlife habitat between Dolores Park (Dolores and 19th streets) and Franklin Square Park (Bryant and 17th streets). The first planting was […]

Planning Department Unveils Final Castro Streetscape Design

The final plan for wider sidewalks and other pedestrian improvements on Castro Street between Market and 19th Streets was presented at an open house by the Planning Department this week. Overall, the pedestrian environment on Castro will be vastly improved after the skinny sidewalks are widened to as much as 22 feet, and the narrowed traffic […]

Depaving Uncovers Layers of History

Neighbors gather for tips and tricks to Mission Roots gardening project, 23rd and Florida We walk on layers of history. In our neighborhoods, in our cities, there were once natural phenomena, like creeks, sand dunes, hills, and forests. Over time they were covered in farms, factories, houses, and most of all, streets. At first those […]

Tea Partying and Beanbagging on Shotwell

24th and Shotwell Tea Party The citywide Stand Against Sit Lie campaign Saturday March 27 was a big success by all accounts. The website claims over 100 events took place on San Francisco sidewalks, and over 1000 people participated. That doesn’t sound overwhelming at first glance, but if you recall that this began as a […]

Castro Street Redesign Breaks Ground, Rainbow Crosswalks Unveiled

The new Castro Street is on its way, with the Department of Public Works breaking ground today on the two-block street redesign, which will include wider sidewalks. One detail of the plan was also unveiled at the event — rainbow crosswalk designs for the Castro and 18th Street intersection. “This streetscape project will be transformational […]