Chroming the yard
- the paving of San Francisco:
June 13, 2002
The Chroming of the Front Yard
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN
AN FRANCISCO WHEN Lillie Simms peers out at her neighbors' yards, the word "concrete" instantly becomes a verb. "They concreted that one," she said, referring to the latest trend to hit this densely packed, parking-crazed city: the paving of front yards for parking. "See that BMW and Ford over there? That used to be shrubbery. They concreted it."
That wasn't supposed to happen in San Francisco, which has long considered itself a bastion of civility. The worship of the automobile and the supplanting of green space by concrete was supposed to be a Southern California phenomenon, not a trend taking root among trowel-wielding homeowners in this city's famously precious neighborhoods.
But the "pave over," as some call it, in which the tiny swaths of green that once characterized urban front yards are being sacrificed for the almighty auto, has become a fixture here, so much so that politicians and editorial writers are calling for a crackdown on the illegal destruction of urban greenery.
San Francisco is not the only place to experience concreting. The transformation of the American front lawn from verdant bucolic ideal to personal parking lot has become an issue in an increasing number of cities and towns, particularly where a high cost of living prompts people to double up on housing.
Last week, an inside-the-Beltway love affair with asphalt prompted Fairfax County, Va., a suburb of Washington, to prohibit homeowners from paving over their front lawns.
Two years ago, the city of Holland, Mich., prohibited parking on the property in front of any house, except directly in front of the garage. Disappearing front lawns have also plagued Boston, especially in older neighborhoods filled with students; the city has now approved standards drafted by the landmarks commission to prevent gracious lawns from becoming pave-overs.
Pave-overs are on the rise because of an increase in car ownership coupled with a rise in "large households with extended families where everyone is working and needs a car," said Adrienne Schmitz, the director of residential development at the Urban Land Institute, a real estate research organization in Washington. Nationally, the number of households with three cars or more increased 10.3 percent from 1990 to 2000, according to the federal census.
The desire to vanquish nature is a longstanding aspect of the American character, said John Stilgoe, a professor of environmental studies at the Harvard Design School. "People don't control anything else in their environment," he said of renegade concreters. "So they asphalt their property."
Historically, the lawn has always been a "polite space representing our citizenship where we've put things we've considered important, from election placards to armed security signs," said Paul Groth, an urban geographer at the University of California at Berkeley. The substitution of paving for grass reflects a shift in American values and the ascendancy of the car over the lawn as a middle-class ideal, he said. "It's a natural evolution," he said. "There's nothing unholy about asphalt."
San Francisco has more vehicles to the square mile than any other American city (6,916, to be exact, as against 5,500 in New York City, said Jerry Robbins, a transportation planner in the department of parking and traffic here). Perhaps only in San Francisco, where the median house price has now topped $400,000, would a real estate agent consider the pave-over a big come-on. "A front yard is not something that's attractive or noticeable," said Tom Harris, a sales associate at Century 21. "In most areas, being able to squeeze in one more car far outweighs a tree or a little plot of grass."
The pave-overs, which are more pronounced here in working-class neighborhoods of small yards and one-car garages, are a do-it-yourself response to the excruciating parking shortage. "We're becoming an asphalt jungle," said Gerardo Sandoval, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who is leading the anti-paving movement. Mr. Sandoval has introduced legislation to require the landscaping of front yards with something more visually appealing than a Toyota. "Two hundred years ago, San Francisco was covered with sand dunes, and there was an intensive effort to landscape the city," he said. "Now, much of that is being undone, slowly but surely, by property owners."
The scarcity of parking, which sets up a daily competition among some 500,000 vehicles for what is estimated as 320,000 street spaces, is so acute that the novelist Danielle Steel, who lives in the affluent Pacific Heights section, made front-page news for holding 26 parking permits for her flotilla of vehicles, more than any other San Franciscan. The permits, which cost $27 a year, allow drivers to ignore parking restrictions posted on the streets.
San Franciscans are obsessed with parking for good reason: the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), a research and advocacy organization, calculates that the number of cars here increased by nearly 13 percent from 1990 to 2000, with each vehicle taking up a minimum of 150 square feet. That equals 6.2 million square feet of new demand, about 12 Transamerica Pyramids worth of space. But Bruce Williams, the group's project director, said that frustrated homeowners trying to guarantee themselves parking were squandering a precious community resource: greenery. "It's the classic tragedy of the commons," he said.
Technically, the city does not allow pave-overs. The planning code, in effect since 1978, says that when houses have a front yard, at least 20 percent of the space "shall be appropriately landscaped." Mr. Sandoval's proposal would go further in requiring homeowners to maintain their landscaping continually, possibly under threat of fines.
Mrs. Simms, 77, has lived on her block of tidy row houses and little one-car garages in the Ingleside neighborhood for 40 years. It is an area of transition, as Asian and Latino families, many of them first generation, buy homes from white and African-American retirees and widows.
Her own yard is a pave-over, as a result of a disability that left her husband, Marion, unable to care for it. But she embedded ornamental marbles in the concrete and decorated the paved borders with planters of juniper and Irish yew. "I can understand some not wanting to keep up their lawn," she said. "What I object to is picking up every piece of shrubbery, so that up and down the line it's nothing but cars."
Her neighbor Lorraine, who did not want her last named used, paved over her lawn three years ago, leaving a small bed of roses. Her family of five, including two grown sons who live at home, have six cars, including an Acura and two Hondas, which form a shining triumvirate in the driveway.
Lorraine's garage, as in many families that are pressed for space but cannot afford to move, gave way to storage long ago. "There is no room," she said. "There is enough green already."
The pro-paving movement has been driven by San Francisco's chronic housing shortage, which has allowed homeowners to gain income from their property by taking in renters. Unknown numbers have illegally converted garage space into rooms, said Gerald G. Green, the city's planning director. In 1996, the city estimated that there were more than 25,000 illegal secondary rental units. With three or more cars to a household, "there's a lot of pressure to pave over your yard," Mr. Sandoval said.
Unlike New York's public transportation system, San Francisco's does not extend to the city's outer reaches, and shopping is not within walking distance in many areas. The semiarid climate makes it hard to grow grass. "People are unwilling to give up cars, even though this is supposed to be a `transit first' city," said Dee Dee Workman, the executive director of San Francisco Beautiful, a civic group. "So they take the path of least resistance: pave over the damn thing."
Concreting has serious environmental consequences, causing flooding and the unwanted runoff of water, said Randy Hester, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of California at Berkeley. "It seems like a `Well, so what?' sort of issue," he said. "But it's the cumulative impact."
Rebecca Silverberg, the president of the local improvement association in the Excelsior section, which has a preponderance of paving, looks out on a neighbor with eight vehicles. "Yes, it does look awful," she said. "My question is, Where are people supposed to put their cars?"
The nearby city of San Jose is weighing a prohibition on front-yard paving. But Lance Uyeda, a code enforcement supervisor, is concerned that the neighborhoods most likely to be affected are among the city's poorest, with one-car garages. "The model driveway is an obscure American concept," Mr. Uyeda said. "Are we talking Frank Lloyd Wright or the real world?"
Boston has approved standards drafted by the landmarks commission that prohibit the paving of front yards. Front lawns have been disappearing in former streetcar suburbs like the Aberdeen neighborhood, where rambling Queen Anne houses have been subdivided.
"If a formerly suburban neighborhood gets urbanized beyond its capacity to accommodate vehicles, the green space is the first to go," said Eva Webster, the chairwoman of the Aberdeen-Brighton Residents Association. "Lawns are in constant jeopardy. It's an aesthetic disaster."
The new law in Fairfax County, Va., was inspired by a preponderance of paving that "nibbled away" at the suburban image, said Penelope A. Gross, a member of the county board of supervisors whose inside-the-Beltway district was particularly hard hit. "The American dream is a house and a yard, not concrete and pavement," she said.
In San Francisco, the desperate desire for a parking place of one's own continues to attract concreters liberated from lawn mowers. Mr. Harris, the real estate agent, said that a pave-over can add 1 to 2 percent to the sale price of a house. "A client recently had a front yard full of dead grass," he said. "I said, `Pour concrete.' "
-- ### --
J.H. Crawford Carfree Cities
=v= This seems to be a rehash and expansion of an article that
appeared a week earlier in the _Christian_Science_Monitor_:
=v= The essential problem here in San Francisco is that the city
government has no clue that building more car accommodations
gives you more cars but no relief from parking or traffic woes.
The same misperception underlies the city's leniency about cars
that are parked illegally pretty much everywhere they can fit,
which includes sidewalks, crosswalks, bike facilities, and even
blocking the city's transit systems.
=v= Also, bear in mind that the city's residents are about 30%
car-free, so this alarming glut of cars is being imposed by
their owners on a rather sizeable population who don't benefit
in the least from them.
| But the "pave over," as some call it, in which the tiny swaths
| of green that once characterized urban front yards are being
| sacrificed for the almighty auto, has become a fixture here,
| so much so that politicians and editorial writers are calling
| for a crackdown on the illegal destruction of urban greenery.
=v= Those who hold property rights tantamount might not like it,
but San Francisco does in fact have a ballot initiative that was
approved by voters, which is supposed to preserve neighborhood
character. This is routinely ignored to install garages as well
as these pave-overs.
=v= There's also an issue that has nothing to do with property
rights, though: each of these projects requires a curb cut,
which is an encroachment on public property: the sidewalk, at
least one on-street parking space, and perhaps a street tree.
My "Trees Not Cars" effort hinged on this fact:
(The site's out of date. The hearing mentioned on that site is
over, and we lost this round.) Couple this with the city's
leniency and you end up with an epidemic of motorists using the
curb cuts to park on the sidewalk.
| The desire to vanquish nature is a longstanding aspect of
| the American character, said John Stilgoe, a professor of
| environmental studies at the Harvard Design School. "People
| don't control anything else in their environment," he said of
| renegade concreters. "So they asphalt their property."
=v= This is highfalutin babble. Actually the front yards being
destroyed here are generally Victorian-style gardens, which are
very controlled spaces.
| Historically, the lawn has always been a "polite space
| representing our citizenship where we've put things we've
| considered important, from election placards to armed security
| signs," said Paul Groth, an urban geographer at the University
| of California at Berkeley. The substitution of paving for
| grass reflects a shift in American values and the ascendancy
| of the car over the lawn as a middle-class ideal, he said.
| "It's a natural evolution," he said. "There's nothing unholy
| about asphalt."
=v= Again, we're talking about San Francisco, which has never
gone in much for "lawns." And I would argue that there's plenty
unholy about asphalt. :^(
| The pave-overs, which are more pronounced here in working-
| class neighborhoods of small yards and one-car garages, ...
=v= This is misleading, because this stuff is going on at all
economic levels. This city is filled with middle-class and even
richer neighborhoods with small yards and one-car garages. You
may see more garages being built by the wealthier homeowners,
but these involve paving over yards for driveways (which often
means cars parked in the driveways and also another one parked
across the sidewalk).
| The scarcity of parking, which sets up a daily competition
| among some 500,000 vehicles for what is estimated as 320,000
| street spaces, ...
=v= The _CSM_ cited these figures, and also said the city gave
out 100,000 parking tickets a year, which it characterized as a
large amount. Using those figures, though, you can deduce that
128,000,000 daily parking offenses go unticketed, which is very
good odds for the transgressors. The fines are a pittance, too.
Again: This city is too lenient, which is why we have so many
| The pro-paving movement has been driven by San Francisco's
| chronic housing shortage, which has allowed homeowners to
| gain income from their property by taking in renters. Unknown
| numbers have illegally converted garage space into rooms, ...
=v= This is a red herring, since these renters don't necessarily
have cars; and it also reflects the misperception that more car
accommodations relieve parking problems. "Unknown numbers" also
applies to installations and expansions of garages, since the
city doesn't keep track of those statistics in a useful way,
but we do know that hundreds and maybe thousands of new garage
spaces have been created with no improvement whatsoever in the
=v= It's ironic that this paragraph acknowledges a housing
shortage and then complains about _de_facto_ housing. It should
be legal to convert garages to housing, but that's against city
policy due to the aforementioned misperception.
- --- In carfree_cities@y..., Jym Dyer <jym@e...> wrote:
>I suspect that Dr. Stilgoe's comments were taken out of context, as
> | The desire to vanquish nature is a longstanding aspect of
> | the American character, said John Stilgoe, a professor of
> | environmental studies at the Harvard Design School. "People
> | don't control anything else in their environment," he said of
> | renegade concreters. "So they asphalt their property."
> =v= This is highfalutin babble. Actually the front yards being
> destroyed here are generally Victorian-style gardens, which are
> very controlled spaces.
what he's saying here doesn't make that much sense. I'm quite fond
of his work, as he's written several books about the history of the
evolution of the American landscape. Of particular interest to this
group is 'Metropolitan Corridor' which covers the history of the
transit oriented landscape that developed alongside rail right of
ways and trolley lines from 1880 - 1935.
I highly recommend it.