Our gardens as part of the urban landscape

By Lauren Lewis

Cities exist in their particular locations because at the time of their formation the location itself offered something vital for their earliest inhabitants. Space to build shelter on, trees to build with, wildlife to eat, and above all: water. At a city’s inception city dwellers depended on these features of their environment for their lives and livelihoods, and if the features weren’t robust enough to support a growing population, a city wouldn’t form in that spot.

Do we still depend on these features? In a purely survival sense we do not. As San Franciscans we use water from the Sierras, our food comes from the Central Valley and beyond, our building materials are sourced planet-wide. But we do depend on these natural features for livability and identity of the city. Many of our neighborhoods, which give us a sense of home within the large urban landscape, are defined by geographic features, most notably hills and valleys. And certainly our open spaces big and small and all the benefits they offer us, are dependent on natural elements. Our open spaces, from our patio gardens to our regular walking routes down the Panhandle, connect us to the natural elements that have shaped life in the city for every single San Franciscan.

Version 2San Franciscans are very familiar with the city’s hills. We know the hills by the vistas they provide and the varying strenuousness of our daily walks, but what’s normally hidden from view is how the hills determine water flow below our sidewalks. Arroyo Dolores and Old Arroyo Dolores used to flow eastward down our current 18th and 14th streets to where they joined up into Mission Creek, around the north side of Potrero Hill and out to the bay. The east Mission neighborhood is low lying and was likely marshy in the past, and now when we’re lucky enough to get a heavy rain, there can be serious flooding on Folsom St.

What this means for us at Small Spot Gardens is that we are powerfully guided in our design and plant choices by the water that has historically flowed or avoided the ground under your particular space. When starting a new garden project we can refer to maps of old San Francisco (for example http://explore.museumca.org/creeks/1640-RescMission.html) to predict whether plants in the garden are likely to reach underground water with any ease. When we choose plants with this in mind we’re tying your garden into the space and history that surrounds it.

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