Building a Farm Where a Freeway Used to Be

mulch_3.gifMoving mulch on the old Central Freeway on-ramp that is becoming Hayes Valley Farm. Photo: Matthew Roth

A few weeks ago in San Francisco, a number of urban farmers opened a gate in a chain-link fence at Laguna Street, between Oak and Fell Streets, and entered an overgrown lot that has been unused for nearly two decades. The farmers brought with them steaming piles of mulch, which they cast over the edge of the ramps formerly used by cars to enter and exit the elevated Central Freeway spur above Octavia Street, arranging the soil in rows for planting vegetables and filler crops.

Since the Loma Prieta earthquake made the Central Freeway unsafe for travel, leading to its eventual removal and the re-design of Octavia Boulevard, those ramps have been one of the more poignant reminders of a distant vision of San Francisco, with freeways crisscrossing the urban environment, whisking motorists above the unfortunate city dwellers

The new Hayes Valley Farm (HVF) inverts the paradigm and reclaims the space for city dwellers, if only temporarily. "We call it ‘freeway to food forest,’" explained Chris Burley, Project Director for HVF and former organizer of My Farm. Burley was joined by nearly fifty volunteers at a HVF work party Sunday. "We’re trying to create a successful, sustainable urban farm in the heart of San Francisco."

Burley and several other organizers were approached by Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development (MOEWD) last year with the idea to transform the unused lot into a farm. The HVF received a $50,000 grant from MOEWD for the first year of the project, money that comes from the operation of parking facilities along Octavia Boulevard. Burley expected to work the farm for between two and five years,
depending on when the economy turns around and the land is developed.

While the city owns the property, the MOEWD has selected Build, Inc, to develop it when they secure their financing. According to Richard Hillis at MOEWD, the site will be broken into ten parcels and built as 50 percent affordable homes, 50 percent market rate. Because the housing construction market is so bleak right now, said Hillis, the city worked with the neighborhood groups to develop a plan for activating under-utilized lots, starting with this very visible one.

In addition to the community benefit of a farmers market and mobile food vending, the city benefits from having the lots used by the farmers. "It helps us save money on cleaning them and maintaining them," Hillis said.

cutting_the_gate_small.gifOpening the fence around the former freeway ramps. Photo: Hayes Valley Farm

Because the project is temporary, Burley said they are not planning to rip up the existing asphalt, which would cost thousands of dollars. Rather, the farmers will plant up to 150 fruit trees in pots that can be moved to other gardens or planted in back yards. Burley also said that in honor of the old Highway 101, they will be planting 101 beneficial plants among the fruit trees to help with pest control.

"A lot of our energy is being spent in creating things that can travel off-site," said Burley. "This is more like a springboard for urban agriculture all over the city."

Burley and other organizers hope to use the temporary farm as an educational resource and are developing a curriculum for schools that are interested in working at the facility. Currently, they are planning to collaborate with John Muir Elementary, the French-American School, and the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Parks Group.

Addressing concerns about growing food on the site of a former freeway, the group has lab tested 64 soil points from the site and found that all parts except for one came back with less than the EPA’s standard for lead in soil. The HVF also notes on its FAQs page that using organic soils up to two feet thick generally makes food grown there safe for consumption. Nonetheless, the group will measure lead in the roots and leaves of the food they harvest before it can be eaten.

Though Burley said they were rushing to get plants in the soil and trees in pots while still in the rainy season, the lot will be sustained with water from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which donated a line for the plot to set up a drip irrigation system. While no estimate was available for how much food the facility would yield, Burley said their first priority was demonstrating the prospects for urban farming.

"Our main yield is education," he said. "We’re trying to teach folks about growing
their own food on balconies, back yards, open-air parking lots and pavement backyards."

The next two HVF work parties will be Thursday, February 11th, at 2:30 pm and Sunday, February 14th, at 12 pm.

mulch_truck_small.gifA truck delivers steaming pile of organic soil. Photo: Hayes Valley Farm.
pots_for_trees.gifPots to be used for fruit trees. Photo: Matthew Roth.
ramp.gifFormer off-ramp for the Central Freeway, now home to tons of soil. Photo: Matthew Roth.
  • friscolex

    Amazing! Bike path around it? 🙂

  • Nick

    I remember passing by that spot as a kid while the freeway was still up. It was a scary area back then. Seeing these photos conjures up some of those eeire images. I wish I was able to paint them.

  • Grahm

    Awesome! I am new to San Francisco (via Seattle) and noticed the on-ramp to nowhere as I was walking around. A great use of public property even if only temporary.

  • Thanks Matt, great article! I love the pictures you put together to tell the story.

    FYI, just a few update. The other organizers are David Cody, Jay Rosenberg, John Bela and Kevin Bayuk. Also, this wouldn’t be possible with out our volunteers, they’ve been doing the REAL work.

    Take care and hope to see you out farmin’ with us!

  • Anon


    Not to single anyone out, but this is a tolerable use of public space because it is temporary. (Though 1989 wasn’t exactly yesterday.) The carbon footprint of the few hundred tomatoes and apples grown at that location would make overnight-flown, greenhouse-grown Antarctic cherries look responsible by comparison. That is, you could grow the two truckloads of food this site will yield in Solano Co., and bring them to Pier 1 in two trips. Meanwhile you have hundreds of people who might otherwise have lived in the dense housing that is by far the most appropriate use there commuting in daily from Oakland and Castro Valley, and even Contra Costa and Suisun. It is insanely irresponsible to grow vegetables (unless for fun and temporary) on land that, given how few such slivers of it we have, should be used to house people. (I do sometimes get the sense that urban farmers think a row of squashes is always better than dread condos.) Streetsblog needs to get on this, for example with a report on the carbon footprint of the ludicrous zoo planned for Treasure Island, and the full cost of all that rare and precious land amortized across a few thousand tomatoes, and millions of extra vehicle miles traveled by the people who otherwise would have lived there but are instead commuting around a “green” potemkin commons.

  • The city of San Francisco has grown nearly 12% in population over the last eighteen years. Much of this growth has come from turning parking lots into condos. This is not a bad thing–I shed few tears for the parking lots and believe density to create walkable communities and transit corridors is an excellent thing. However, I don’t know why the scorn about the carbon footprint of the Hayes Valley farm. Just how high a population density should San Francisco have? Should all our buildings be a hundred stories so we can house everyone in the Bay Area? Should there be no green space at all so that every inch is packed with people? Is there no benefit to people being able to relate to nature and their place in the food cycle? Is there no benefit for children to see a carrot grow from seed to a source of nutrition?

    Community gardens, where people take responsibility for growing a portion of their own food, can reduce the city’s carbon footprint, especially if people arrive and depart on bicycle or foot, rainwater is stored in cisterns for irrigation, no chemical fertilizers are used (compost is used instead),and no fossil fuels are used to power cultivating machinery beyond the initial transport of dirt. In addition, in case of oil shortages due to black swan event (i.e. hurricane or war) or an advanced acceleration of Peak Oil, people will be very thankful to have some ability to produce 20-30% of their own food. Even if you don’t want to grow food, there will be less scarcity in the stores when you want to buy something if you’re not competing against the 808,000 other San Franciscans for the same inventory.

    Right now, condos in San Francisco are in abundant supply and many sit empty or rented out in hopes that the market will rebound. Rents for apartments and flats are also dropping. The second the Fed stops fattening the banking industry through quantitative easing, housing prices of all types will drop even further. Maybe this will lure folks in the far-flung suburbs to downsize into high density living, though the poor quality of San Francisco public schools will still be a barrier. I personally think we have tremendously overbuilt our housing supply in the US and it will likely be a decade before it evens out again. (Hence, nation-wide we have both a high foreclosure rate and a high rental vacancy rate, which seems counter-intuitive. Maybe families are moving in with relatives and doubling up in the ginormous McMansions?) When all the unsold condos in San Francisco finally move off the market, then it will be time to feel the food versus housing angst. If we are wise, we’ll look at the example of Havana and dedicate some space to food.

  • Anon


    I think it would be great if San Francisco was a big, ambitious city of a couple million, with subways down Geary and Judah, to Marin and Pacifica, with approximately zero percent of its land suburban as opposed to the current 70%. That is, a real large interesting city with tons and tons of affordable housing, unaffordable housing, kind-of affordable housing, flower shops, etc. 12% in 18 years is less than nothing — at that rate even the people born here are forced out, much less the immigrants, dreamers and artists the city claims to want to be a sanctuary for. There should also, to take one of hundreds of obvious examples, be dense patches of urbanism within walking distance of all the caltrans stations on the peninsula, probably some apartment blocks in Palo Alto and Berkeley, because there are lots of people who want to live there.

    My point about the carbon footprint of a community garden is that you have to calculate the total amount of carbon in two scenarios for using the space. In the condo or attached single family housing scenario you get dozens or hundreds of extra people living in easy-to-cool, easy-to-transport housing. In the play garden scenario you have a few people walking to their vegetable patch, and the hundreds of people who might otherwise live there going elsewhere, in all likelihood to places with much worse carbon patterns than SF. One for the transport, but even more so because the climate means we don’t have to burn fossil fuels for heat. In fact one of the best things you can do for the environment on Earth is get an average American out of a cold suburb and into a temperate coastal dense city — we should be giving environmental prizes to San Francisco developers.

  • Grahm

    Please don’t misinterpret my excitement for this community project as taking sides in a people vs. food vs. carbon footprint debate. Your point is well made and I agree that a few rows of tomatoes and carrots doesn’t offset pushing hundreds of people to the suburban fringe. I probably should have said “underutilized public property”, but either way I still think there is a place for community gardens in the urban environment.

  • Anon,

    By your logic we shouldn’t have any parks, playing fields, backyards or open space in San Francisco. In addition, every every building under three stories should be razed and a tower erected. Developers would love it. Again, when we see all the current vacant condo and houses inhabited as well as all the high density development planned near the Transbay terminal built and filled, then filling in community gardens should be considered, but I’d rather you take a golf course or two and build on that.

  • anon,
    I think pitting this as a garden or housing is a red herring. The lot is going to be housing, a builder has even been awarded the permits for their residential units. As with most other developers in this economy at present, however, they don’t have the funding secured, so the interim use is a garden.

    I think we can discuss the carbon footprint of the garden in contrast to leaving the lot vacant until development starts, but I don’t think the other comparison is apt.

  • Nick

    This article points to an issue of interest: how many residents would be pro-development if it meant livable rents?

    For example, you have vacant condos at $800,000. That does not mean that there is not a demand for residential units for rent at $800/ a month.

    The City would have a less transient feel to it if developers were allowed to build up.

  • Sprague

    I hope that I’ll live to see the day when some San Francisco street surfaces, including parking spaces, are used for the planting of fruit trees. It seems like this would be a good long term use for abandoned Muni stops.

  • Anon

    Grahm, yes this is a hyperventilating response to a good-natured thumbs-up and I don’t mean anything against you or the organizers, I hope that was clear. My beef is really with the urban farming crowd in general, especially as expressed on Treasure Island, and not so much with an exhibition project.

    Matthew – A red herring is when you bring up something irrelevant to distract attention from the real issue. This post and my comments are only about urban farming, which I think is an oxymoronic fad and a symptom of deep confusion about urbanism. Namely, urban places are horrible locations for farms, because the land is much more valuable as housing for humans, who have much more need to be in cities than apricots. I am distressed about how anything with leaves is considered “green”, these comments are just a way of saying that isn’t necessarily so. It is true that this project is temporary so I am not so offended, but much of the buzz around the topic seems to completely miss the fundamental trade-off, and may have the paradoxical effect of pushing development out into the real agricultural hinterlands that we desperately need to survive.

    Taomom — actually 3 story buildings are about perfect. Three story attached single family or stacked triplexes are kind of a sweet-spot density-wise and economically (wood frames, cheap, easy). Unfortunately they are illegal in 90% of San Francisco and pretty much all of San Mateo and Marin, I would start with changing that. Arden Estates in West Portal is a good example of what not to do. Big backyards, no, would not be my first choice for wise land use. Parks are great, and they have the added environmental benefit of providing recreation near where people live, obviating the need for travel. Of course, the fewer people live near them, the less useful they become, which is why I think you want a good number of people around.

  • Anon, you seem to be well versed in whole systems thinking as exemplified by your comparing ideas by comparing two completely different scenarios. However I find your idealism poorly suited to transitional thinking. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this temporary urban garden or even permanent ones. As for the long term debate about urban gardens versus urban density I prefer a blended approach. The goal of creating affordable housing is noble but limiting urban gardening to do it is a little single minded. Urban gardens are a way to keep us in touch with nature on so many levels that it simply must be a part of any smart urban plan. In the long term, urban gardens are necessary for a healthy urban environment with a secondary benefit of water catchment and control. Green roofs, and dispersed green plots and permeable hard surfaces are major elements in the future urban landscape– not just ’cause they are pretty, but because they are necessary for a healthy urban environment. Affordable housing is important. But we shouldn’t have to give up a healthy environment to have it.

  • Randall

    Hey used to live a few blocks from here, glad to see something finally happening! Wish the pavement could have been removed but go SF

  • virginia tessier

    as far as I am concerned people should stop having babies.
    the poor planet is packed with peoples unneeded off spring.
    I am 55 years old and never had kids. felt the world is messed
    up enough with out another mouth to feed..
    San Francisco has come a long way from its wonderful roots.
    its now a crime infested dirty place to be. I use to love living here
    but with all you jerks coming here to live the city is nothing but
    a big toilet for the over populated. The Freeway garden is one of the
    bright spots in the city. if you want to live in a place that doesn’t have
    gardens and trees I suggest you all move your sorry ass to Tokyo and
    leave us to our once beautiful city. when your all gone we can go back to
    having a nice quit safe green place to live..


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