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Urban Farming at Hayes Valley Farm…the Ultimate Reclamation

Scott Cooney | Friday June 4th, 2010 | 2 Comments

The most interesting thing happens when you talk to people about concrete.  No matter what part of the spectrum they are from, the response seems to be uniform:  their eyes gloss over.  Whether they are no-holds barred pro-development (in which case their attitude toward concrete is that it’s completely necessary) or no-holds barred preservationists (in which case their attitude toward concrete is likely to be that there are much bigger fish to fry), or somewhere in between (in which case they likely think that concrete is a necessary evil), it’s simply not a sexy subject.

In graduate school, a conservation biology professor of mine had a “CONCRETE IS FOREVER” poster outside his office door.  I was happy to report for Triple Pundit about a year ago, that this wasn’t necessarily true, with San Francisco, New York City and other municipalities closing off sections of paved road and reclaiming them as parks.

What I didn’t realize was that there is a far greater way to reclaim pavement:  enter the urban farming project called Hayes Valley Farm, smack-dab in the middle of one of San Francisco’s busier neighborhoods.  The area in question was once a freeway on-ramp.  In the picture above, Chris Burley, officially the “Co-Director and Legume Lover” of Hayes Valley Farm, is actually standing on what was once part of the on-ramp to the 101, a major freeway crossing San Francisco.  The concrete at his feet (which is slowly but surely being reclaimed) is but one of the many obstacles facing the Hayes Valley Farm, but not one, according to Burley, thinks that it’s insurmountable.

After the Loma Prieta earthquake, San Francisco committed to seismic retrofits for its public works, and that included the 101 on-ramp and its raised freeway entrance.  What resulted was a rare patch of underutilized land in the middle of the urban jungle, and Burley and others saw an opportunity.

According to a recent interview with Burley on EcoSalon,

Growing food in the soil is a couple years down the road, but for now the farm functions as sort of a community space, education center, and demonstration garden for neighbors or anyone interested in volunteering and learning to grow food. Classes on garden design, composting, and permaculture are available regularly. And for those who just want to get their hands dirty, there’s always a work party. Some days over 100 people have shown up to volunteer!

I can personally attest to the beauty of Hayes Valley Farm.  The beauty is this:  it is not just about growing food, this is an endeavor in growing community.  On a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, I went out to join their volunteer party and literally shoveled horse poop for 4 hours.  Not only did I love every minute of it, I left feeling an amazing sense of accomplishment, having helped build soil right on top of concrete and laying the groundwork for all sorts of crops.  I also met some terrific people.  Between the folks building the greenhouse, poop-shovelers like me, box layers, compost movers, seed planters, tree tenders, and folks giving educational tours, there were between 60-80 people giving their free time to a project for which they likely won’t see the finished product.

It’s a very low-budget job (hence the volunteers and the donated boxes, poop, etc.), and Burley will be the first to admit, they’re not sure of the farm’s future.  But the proof of concept is indubitable.  They’re literally building soil right on top of concrete, with legumes planted all over the farm (to fix nitrogen), as well as a patio garden with neat rows of 18 gallon buckets full of fruit trees that will be grown and then donated to low income people in San Francisco (this was a requirement as part of the small amount of seed money the city chipped in for the project). Could this be done anywhere else?  Of course.  In fact, I would argue that it could be done almost everywhere else.

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Scott Cooney, proud horse-poop shoveler, is author of Build a Green Small Business (McGraw-Hill), and Principal of GreenBusinessOwner.com, a membership site for small business owners to engage sustainability as a strategic tool.


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  • Katherine

    The Hayes Valley garden is incredible– as a recent ex-resident I was sad to leave such a wonderful project. Walking past that wasted space full of concrete from the old freeway was heartbreaking and what they've managed to accomplish so quickly truly made me proud to live there. Keep up the great work, guys! I'll be coming back to visit.

  • Katherine

    The Hayes Valley garden is incredible– as a recent ex-resident I was sad to leave such a wonderful project. Walking past that wasted space full of concrete from the old freeway was heartbreaking and what they've managed to accomplish so quickly truly made me proud to live there. Keep up the great work, guys! I'll be coming back to visit.

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