Plotting Urban Gardening

Oh, those crazy guerrilla gardeners. Daring to take up shovels and hoes and transform neglected plots of land into flowerbeds or vegetable gardens, they risk the ire of authorities and landlords. The blog WebUrbanist explains: “Technically, guerrilla gardening is a kind of graffiti or vandalism - just done with plants instead of spray cans.” Vandalism? What kind of kill-joy would crack down on people sowing nasturtium seeds or tomato plants?

A series in the San Francisco Chronicle answers that question, taking a look at problems guerrilla gardeners have run into in seeding other people’s property, and possible solutions. Take Justin Valone’s attempts to cultivate an empty lot near where he lived in San Francisco’s Richmond neighborhood: Thirty volunteers turned the weed-ridden land into a garden with potato and fava bean plants, but after the lot’s landlord received a jacked-up water bill (water used to irrigate the plot), she ordered it shut down.

“It’s sort of baffling to me,” Valone tells the Chron. “It’s a piece of land that no one cared about until we came. And now they’re putting so much time and energy into kicking us out. ... In our society, we have a bizarre notion that if you own a piece of land, you can do anything you want, including neglecting it and letting it become an urban blight.”

Instead of trespassing, Kevin Bayuk is trying to get landlords of vacant lots to give the gardening go-ahead. He’s compiled a “surprisingly large” list of privately owned lots, and estimates that 31,300 acres of unused land are ripe for planting in San Francisco’s city limits. If he can get landlords to agree to let their land be used, gardeners would assume all liability. And, he points out, gardeners would take care of weed abatement, which landowners are required to do anyway.

Property managers are dubious. Says one: “The way that I would see it would be, first of all, there really isn’t a whole lot of benefit and an awful lot of liability of having random, unauthorized people on your property. As a professional, I would definitely recommend against it.”

In the end, the series implies, it may take city planners to organize community food systems.

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