Mobile Community Gardens

by Vivien Park

As a recent transplant to the San Francisco Bay Area, I'm still amazed by how many community garden projects exist in the city. NOMADgardens, a transportable community garden placed in open lots, is a particularly flexible and scalable approach. Stephanie Houston, founder and creative director of Urban Matters, spent the past year planning and prototyping these portable gardens in the Mission Bay neighborhood. She shared with Polis her experiences and some lessons learned.

Can you tell me how NOMADgardens came about?

My husband and I moved to Mission Bay in order to cut down his commute. Mission Bay is a transformed industrial appendage that physically grew as fill from all around the city, and in a way it feels that way. King Street is the lifeline from the highway, light rail and commuter rail — the siphon to San Francisco's heart. It also acts as a very physical edge where two- and three-story warehouses rise to new 18-story residential units. There's yet another edge only blocks away — the channel that holds beautiful houseboats, and what I consider "the true passage" to Mission Bay.

I would do my running loop in Mission Bay's vacant lots, or picnic and study in Mission Creek Park. I also started gardening in my 650-square-foot apartment — my Texas roots had me craving dirt that I could call my own. After growing tired of 16 hours of purple haze and an inefficient power source, my creative juices started flowing. What if the vacant lots in Mission Bay were activated into garden and event spaces?

I began sharing my idea with people and reached out to the Mission Bay Development Group. They loved the idea, but had some concerns, as would most developers. People put a lot of sweat equity into gardens. It's disheartening when they are told their plot is no longer available, and the developer looks bad for uprooting such a beloved community space.

So I said: What if the plots were transportable? That way they could roam from vacant lot to vacant lot as Mission Bay develops. That's how NOMADgardens was born.

What kinds of challenges did you face, and what did you learn from them?

Building a grassroots program without a fiscal sponsor has proven most difficult. And balancing the interests of multiple stakeholders is always a challenge. Although I design spaces for a living, I didn't anticipate how involved the process would be for repurposing empty lots. We've had great volunteers from the beginning, but assuring enough people on a given day isn't always possible.

We've learned to keep momentum despite setbacks. And, most importantly, we've learned that patience, persistence and flexibility are the keys to making ideas happen. We still haven't confirmed that this will truly be a success, but at least we're testing it, which is half the battle.

How has your longterm vision for NOMADgardens evolved?

We plan to design and manufacture a line of planters (for vacant lots and for people's homes) that make urban gardening as easy as possible. This will take another partner to help implement, so if anyone is interested, please contact me! Our focus is on helping more community gardens grow in cities.

The idea has evolved in many ways from its original version. It started out big and has been reorganized into more manageable parts so as to eventually become self-sustaining. The planter is evolving as well, with several new prototypes on the way.

Above all, we hope to inspire people to help improve their neighborhoods. Turning vacant lots into vibrant settings is just one of many ways that people can say: We value places where we can meet our neighbors and build healthy communities.

NOMADgardens is currently raising funds on Indiegogo until Dec. 11.

Credits: Images appear courtesy of NOMADgardens.

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  1. This article definitely calls to mind the impact urbanization has had on human ecological transformation. The industrial revolution stimulated the greatest human migration in history. Sweeping through Australia, Europe, and North America, this mass movement marked society’s vast journey from farms and rural villages to cities everywhere. The migration from the countryside to an urban world created about 75% of city dwellers. Understanding the dramatic shift in residential life in relation to the rest of nature is key to sustainability. As a result, a primary goal of urban planners is to create a novel approach in the assertion of the ecological roles of cities. More importantly, urban planners need to estimate the scale fo the impact city dwellers are having on the ecosphere. NOMADgardens and its purpose helps to achieve many urban planners’ desired goal. It helps maintain the balance of cities and nature in the ecosphere. Though this project only accounts for small portions of empty lots in the San Francisco Bay Area, it is a start to maintaining the balance between urban life and Mother Nature. Its flexible and scalable approach allows this goal to be reasonable. Projects such as NOMADgardens are important because analysis show that cities are linked to accelerating global ecological decline. Majority of energy and material consumption is done by cities, and that is why community gardens are important to maintain. While cities and their inhabitants play a major role in contributing to global ecological decline, they also can play a major role in helping to achieve global sustainability. Thus, reiterating again why projects like NOMADSgarden are essential in the maintenance of the ecosphere.

  2. A few thoughts: Can you enlist the support of the S.F. Department of Parks and Recreation? Are they looking for new ways to 'green' the City? Reduce storm water runoff?
    And what about transporting your garden planters to roofs? The goal would be to reduce pollutants that would otherwise flow into the Bay. Rooftops are an impervious surface that can be repurposed, more or less as a pervious one. Plus, they are more permanent than vacant lots.
    Good luck - from a planner in Maryland.


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