Sunset Blvd: Biting off more than you can chew

Sunset Blvd is a major traffic artery that runs through the middle of the Sunset District, on the west side of San Francisco.  It is one of only three traffic arteries in the Sunset.  The Great Highway on the western edge of the Sunset, separates ocean beach from the dense residential neighborhood called the Sunset District.  The Great Highway is closed to traffic from Fridays at noon to Monday at 6 am for recreational purposes.   19th Avenue, on the eastern edge of the Sunset is State Highway 1, a major entrance into San Francisco from the south and north that is heavily congested around the clock. 

In other words, Sunset Blvd is vitally important to traffic traveling into and through San Francisco.  Yet, San Francisco’s “biodiversity coordinator” calls Sunset Blvd a wildlife corridor from Lake Merced to Golden Gate Park and he was instrumental in creating the Sunset Blvd Biodiversity Master Plan that is trying to transform Sunset Blvd into a 2-1/2 mile long densely planted garden.  The gardens are being funded by grants and non-profit organizations and planted by volunteers with no commitments for long-term maintenance.  The gardens are being watered by hand by the volunteers because the sprinkler system is no longer functional.  Faucets (quick couplers) were installed in each block as a substitute for the sprinkler system. 

Implementation of the Sunset Blvd Biodiversity Master Plan has been in progress for over 4 years.  This article is a progress report that is also a lack-of-progress report on a plan that seems to us misguided in some ways and too ambitious.  Sunset Blvd looks like a mess now, but it will be substantially worse when the short-term grants and volunteer commitments expire because the city does not have the resources to maintain it for the long-term.

Natural History of the Sunset District

This birds-eye view of San Francisco in 1868 (see below) shows why it’s challenging to garden in the Sunset District.  Most of the District was barren sand dunes.  The district is foggy during the summer and windy throughout the year.  There were few plants on the sand dunes and no trees.  Trees that are native to San Francisco do not tolerate salty ocean winds and sandy soil that doesn’t retain the moisture of our limited seasonal rain. 

Sunset Blvd was built in 1931, at a time when the Sunset District was barren sand.  It was planted with Monterey pines and cypress that are native less than 150 miles south of San Francisco, in a similar climate.  The trees were planted to provide a wind break for the residential neighborhood east of Sunset Blvd as well as to beautify a neighborhood that many consider bleak during the foggy days of summer. 

This (see below) is what Sunset Blvd looked like in the 1990s when I lived in the Sunset District:  A tall windbreak of Monterey cypress and pines with tall non-native shrubs below the canopy and mowed lawn on both sides of the windbreak, the sidewalk medians, and the center median.  It was a landscape that is easy to maintain because it can be mechanically mowed and irrigated with automatic sprinklers.  It was a simple, neat, and functional landscape.

The Sunset Blvd Biodiversity Master Plan

The windbreak on Sunset Blvd is dying of old age, which should be expected, given its age.  Reforestation should have begun decades ago in anticipation of the death of Monterey pines and cypress.  By 2019, many hazardous trees had been removed and 250 new trees were planted, with another 100 trees planned.  This year, intense winter storms have toppled many more trees on Sunset Blvd (and elsewhere), suggesting that all hazardous trees have not been removed. Public safety should be the top priority for any renovation project.  That doesn’t seem to be the case in this project.

Climate Action Network (CAN) obtained Cal Fire grants to plant trees and shrubs from Lawton to Pacheco.  They have planted a mix of both natives and non-natives and most are doing well after unusually heavy winter rains, 10 inches more than San Francisco’s average annual rain total of less than 23 inches. 

Lawton block of Sunset Blvd., January 2023

The master plan makes a commitment to create nine small native plant gardens done by several different organizations, including student organizations.  Department of Public Works—which is responsible for Sunset Blvd–has also given the entire block from Santiago to Taraval to the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) to garden with exclusively native plants. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with CNPS also gave them the block from Kirkham to Lawton to plant a wildflower meadow.  The meadow CNPS planted there failed and that part of their plan has been abandoned.  The MOU with CNPS obligates them to provide the plants, irrigate, and maintain the garden for three years.  Many dead tree saplings in that block suggest watering may be haphazard. CNPS has made the most effort at the corner of Taraval and Sunset Blvd.  These three photos (below) show what this small native plant garden looks like at different times of the year. 

Taraval and Sunset Blvd, spring 2022. CNPS photo
Taraval and Sunset Blvd, October 2022
Taraval and Sunset Blvd, January 2023

The center median of Sunset Blvd that was mowed and irrigated grass in the past was planted with a mix of native and non-native drought tolerant plants several years ago.  After several years of intense drought and no available irrigation, only the succulents survived, leaving bare ground populated by weeds that can’t be mowed because of the succulents.  The weeds are sprayed with herbicide by Department of Public Works.  In 2021, the center median was sprayed 38 times with 238 gallons of herbicide. Thankfully, the wide medians between the boulevard and side streets are not being sprayed with herbicide. In 2021 and 2022, over 20% of all herbicide spraying by DPW was done on the center median of Sunset Blvd. 

The Public Utilities Commission has created 151 rain gardens in San Francisco and about 30 of them are on Sunset Blvd.  PUC is using both native and non-native plants, but they are under intense pressure from native plant advocates to plant exclusively natives. The rain gardens aren’t irrigated, so they look pretty shabby during dry summer months. Although they reduce run off into the sewer system, some members of the public are likely to judge them by what they look like. PUC is trying to recruit neighbors to take care of them.  The Sunset Blvd Biodiversity Master Plan leans heavily on the public to take care of Sunset Blvd.

Rain garden on Sunset Blvd, August 2022

What do Sunset residents want?

Is the Department of Public Works (DPW) giving residents what they want on Sunset Blvd?  The do-it-yourself playgrounds and seating areas created by neighbors may be a better indication of the preferences of Sunset residents.  This DIY playground (see below) has provided seating, a play structure, a basketball hoop, and a horseshoe throw.  On a sunny Sunday morning in January 2023, the adults were supervising their children in their homemade playground.  A mowed lawn would provide space for such recreational activities.

Homemade playground on Sunset Blvd, January 2023

There are also DIY gardens with seating that have been created by neighbors.  In this case (see below), non-native succulents have been planted in some of the many logs of dead trees on Sunset Blvd.

Homemade garden on Sunset Blvd., January 2023

San Francisco city officials had something different in mind.  The design goals of the Sunset Blvd Biodiversity Master Plan were:

Create Meaningful Public Spaces:
– Create areas of passive and active recreation that build on neighborhood cultural resources
– Design an immersive trail experience that connects to citywide trail network
– Engage the community through outreach initiatives for planting, maintenance, and education
Cultivate a Biodiverse Landscape:
– Support San Francisco Biodiversity Resolution
– Plant native species that provide critical wildlife habitat with a focus on insects, pollinators, and birds
– Develop educational opportunities to learn about local biodiversity and wildlife
Provide Ecosystem Services:
– Manage stormwater with green infrastructure to support PUC initiatives
– Minimize water use with drought tolerant plants
– Sequester carbon by increasing plant diversity [Carbon storage is not related to plant diversity.]

This is what city officials have actually delivered on Sunset Blvd:

  • A complex landscape that must be watered by hand by volunteers. 
  • A landscape that can’t be mowed because it has been intensively planted with plants.
  • A landscape that is dominated by weeds, except in the center median, which is sprayed with herbicide.
  • Although some old trees have been removed, many aging, hazardous trees remain.  Many new trees will not be tall trees that provide a windbreak. Many new trees are dead because hand watering by volunteers is haphazard.
  • A landscape that looks messy now, but will look substantially worse when grant funding and volunteer commitments expire. 
  • A complex landscape that requires labor-intensive maintenance and can’t be maintained by the city in the long term.

Alternatives

The Sunset Blvd Biodiversity Master Plan is too ambitious.  It is trying to create a complex landscape that can’t be maintained without volunteer labor because the city doesn’t have the resources to maintain it.  The main goal for Sunset Blvd should be a landscape that reflects the preferences of the residents of the Sunset District, rather than the wishes of city bureaucrats. 

Assuming Sunset residents would like a safe windbreak, more hazardous trees must be removed.  Many are clearly dead and are obvious candidates for removal.  Replacement trees must be tall enough to provide a windbreak and they must be capable of tolerating salty ocean winds.  New trees must be watered weekly during the dry season for at least three years.  An irrigation system is required because hand watering is not reliable enough to ensure survival of new trees.

San Francisco’s General Plan (see policy 4.1) defines “biodiversity” as including both natives and non-natives.  A diverse landscape of natives and non-natives is more resilient because each has a different tolerance for changes in climate and environmental conditions.  A diverse garden also prolongs the blooming period, which serves pollinators best.  We visited the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden in early April to see a stunning display of blooming plants in the South African section of the garden.  On the same day, little was blooming in the California section of the garden. 

South African Collection, UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, April 8, 2023
North Coast, California Collection, UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, April 8, 2023

If new plantings were confined to the center of the wide medians, weeds could be mowed to serve as an ersatz lawn.  I walk in a local cemetery every day.  The “lawn” is 90% weeds.  It was dominated by oxalis from January to April.  Now purple alfalfa, clover, and English daisies are blooming.  The weeds are mowed and become a part of the lawn.  No one looks closely to distinguish weeds from grass.  The weedy lawn is rarely irrigated and is brown during most of the dry season.  It is now lush green after winter rains.  This is a sign (below) in one of our cemeteries that begs indulgence of visitors for this responsible response to the drought. 

St. Mary’s Cemetery, Oakland, California, January 17, 2023

There are several advantages to a weedy lawn.  It creates recreational space that can be used by residents in any way they choose, e.g., picnicking, playing ball or Frisbee, sunbathing, etc.  It does not require more water than the intensive planting on Sunset Blvd that is now watered by hand.  A weedy lawn provides flowering weeds that are useful to pollinators.  Most of all, it is a landscape that does not require labor intensive maintenance that the city cannot afford. 

The Sunset Blvd Biodiversity Master Plan is an example of short-term thinking that has not given enough thought to the long-term consequences of the choices it has made.  Residents of the Sunset District are living with the consequences of the short-term thinking that is typical of most public land management. 

“Grasses and Perennials: Sustainable planting for shared spaces”

Earlier this year, several comments on the Garden Rant website drew my attention to the Conservation Sense and Nonsense blog. The well informed scientific based comments of the Conservation Sense webmaster resonated with me – our gardening should be built on fact and best practice, not dogma or belief. I garden in England, the United Kingdom – and here we just don’t have the same intensity of debate surrounding native plants and restoration projects. Instead, we have a rich diversity of plants, drawn from all over the world; and our gardens are based on the principles of freedom of expression and individual design.

There is an emerging movement here, advocating the use of sustainable plant communities, taking design to the next level by creating functional ecological plantings – for nature, not just human enjoyment. This is a natural progression, utilising suitable plants from anywhere in the world, already growing in the equitable English climate. That said, our weather has been more challenging over the last few years, with increasing volatility and unpredictability; which makes appropriate plant selection even more important.

To encourage the use of a wide range of well-chosen plants, I decided to share my knowledge and experience in a short book, called “Grasses and Perennials – Sustainable Planting for Shared Spaces,” available from Amazon in print and digital download. The book is the culmination of fifteen years professional landscaping, working to establish plant communities that hold a person’s interest, if only for a few moments – the difference between the forgettable, and the noteworthy. My passion is planting spaces that the public see and work at every day; but the principles in the book apply equally well to domestic gardens, as do all the plants I’ve listed. The book also brings science and reason to the debate around the use of native plants, and gives practical hints and tips for managing successful, sustainable plantings.

Here is a taster quote from Chapter 3 – Functional Space:
“Rather than relying on plants considered native to the British Isles, I will use any plant with potential, from anywhere, provided it will establish within a community of compatible plants. There is currently a mistaken assumption that native plants (as opposed to non-native plants, often labelled as exotics), are ideally suited to geographic region of origin and pollinators, without question. In reality, native plants may succumb to freshly introduced pathogens and react poorly to a swiftly altering climate.

“The insistence by some designer’s on using solely native plants, is effectively a determination that a given moment in time (usually in the past), is somehow ecologically superior – and overlooks the positive and scientific arguments for planting non-natives. There is little point constructing plantings based solely on region of origin, rather than usefulness and resilience. Plant communities alter all the time and nature is never static; and the definition of native plants is also somewhat subjective – we cannot know for certain how plants were moved and used by early humans. Can we safely assume that a plant is native to a given environment simply because a plant hunter happened to discover it there – probably quite recently in terms of our evolution?”

Kelly Baldry, United Kingdom