Public Comment

A Climate Action Plan

By Steven Finacom
Thursday May 28, 2009 - 07:07:00 PM

Will policies proposed to turn Berkeley “green” eventually eliminate real local green spaces, particularly our backyards and private gardens? If the proposed Climate Action Plan (CAP) doesn’t change, it’s quite possible. 

The CAP draft proposed for City Council approval on June 2 has numerous provisions about gardens, grouped under this policy: “Increase access to healthy and affordable foods ... by supporting efforts to build more complete and sustainable local food production and distribution systems.” 

Fine words, but when you review the 17 “Implementing Actions,” most apply only to “community gardens,” school gardens, farmers markets and the like.  

Community gardens are great and are very popular. Most current ones in Berkeley have waiting lists; there should be more gardens. I’m part of a volunteer group working right now to establish a new one. But they provide only a small percentage of the space in Berkeley that can be gardened for food and/or horticultural pleasure, not to mention carbon sequestration. And they will never provide much more. 

More than a century ago, Charles Keeler famously observed that the ideal Berkeley residence should consist of “landscape gardening with a few rooms for use in case of rain.” Despite the city’s considerable growth since then, that spirit endures. 

The vast majority of Berkeley’s garden and green spaces are in our private yards, maintained at great civic benefit but no municipal cost. Most residential properties in Berkeley, including multi-unit structures, have backyards, gardens and front yards along the street.  

These airsheds allow for trees, daylight and fresh air around even densely built units. This minimizes the need for electrical lighting and ventilation. 

In Berkeley it’s possible to garden for food or pleasure almost year-round. Our gardens produce a bounty of vegetables, fruit, and other harvestable products.  

Ironically, the policy push to reduce private gardens in Berkeley comes at a time of considerable resident interest in home gardening for economic and environmental reasons. Berkeleyans—both homeowners and renters—are already enthusiastically practicing the principles of local food production and sustainability, yard by yard. In my neighborhood, one household is trying to grow everything they eat on their duplex lot. In a nearby triplex’s garden space, chickens and graywater-irrigated vegetables and fruit trees thrive. It’s the same in neigborhoods throughout Berkeley. 

Despite our high residential density, Berkeley’s beautiful and useful home gardens are featured in more spring garden tours than any other community in our region, and in recent years local edible gardens have become a fixture of these events.  

Local gardens also serve, as Keeler observed, as an important annex to private living space. Unlike most regions of the United States, where being outdoors means being bedeviled by heat, humidity, cold and snow, or swarms of biting insects much of the year, most Berkeley homes can have real outdoor “rooms” that supply pleasant living space without adding more built structure to a house. 

None of this impresses Berkeley’s Climate Action mandarins, who think globally in terms of millions of tons of carbon and whole regional ecosystems to be saved but can’t propose a local policy that places any value on the nine fruit trees, or the bumper berry crop now starting to ripen on my tiny, multi-unit, southeast Berkeley lot. 

There is a definite Manhattan-centric focus in the Climate Action Plan. The only acceptable urban future, the plan appears to presuppose, is one of mid-rise to tall buildings, built wall to wall, extending to the sidewalk, crowding in residential units with only a tiny patio or balcony to represent private open space. 

Actual local “green” would, in this worldview, be limited to urban parks (although the CAP proposes no plausible measures to expand them), an occasional community garden, and street trees.  

How unimaginative. How narrowly focused. How poor a fit for Berkeley. 

Even in neighborhoods where the CAP grudgingly acknowledges that some freestanding houses might be allowed to remain, the plan promotes zoning changes to allow larger “accessory units” that would gobble up backyards with buildings and off-street parking.  

I’m a fan and former resident of both in-law units and garden cottages, but come over to my neighborhood where a three-story backyard behemoth, recently allowed under existing zoning, towers over and shadows the Le Conte school play yard literally a few feet away. It’s neither cottage, nor a garden. And something similar might be coming to a backyard near yours, soon. 

With backyards gone, you’ll need to retreat to one of those community gardens, if any lot is spared development. There, a lucky few dozen people, out of thousands per neighborhood, can sign up for a 4 x 8 plot to grow tomatoes and zucchini, mulched with ground-up street tree remains from the city. 

That ought to do for gardens in Berkeley, seems to be the CAP rationale. 

This is shortsighted, silly, and wrong. Berkeley can have both considerable residential density and a “garden city character,” and the Climate Action Plan needs to say so.  


Steve Finacom is a Berkeley resident.