Sunset residents give new life to formerly paved front yards with drought-tolerant landscaping

San Francisco’s Sunset district is going against the grain of a long-standing residential culture.

After decades during which residents paved over their front yards, some have decided to replace the concrete with drought-tolerant gardens.

In 10 spots around the neighborhood with newly placed soil, District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang and volunteers, along with San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and environmental officials, planted the first shrubs and cactuses Saturday.

The Front Yard Ambassadors Program took root to relieve excess contamination from The City’s aging sewer system by installing front-yard gardens to collect runoff and rainwater. During its first year, the program is expected to break at least 2,500 square feet of concrete in six to 10 blocks and keep 30,000 gallons of stormwater out of the sewer system.

“Over the years, our office has received a lot of complaints of neighbors paving 100 percent of their front yards,” Tang said. “Instead of coming up with more punitive measures for residents, we wanted to incentivize them to not only help us in our efforts to alleviate the burdened sewer system, but to get to know each other and take pride in their neighborhood.”

Maureen Barry, spokeswoman for the SFPUC’s sewer system improvement program, noted that 63 percent of the Sunset watershed has impervious surfaces. “So this is an effort to break those down and make planted gardens the whole neighborhood can benefit from.”

At the kickoff Saturday, more than 40 people gathered at three blocks of the district where 10 residences had agreed to be part of the pilot program launched last fall. Four residences participated on Ortega Street between 24th and 25th avenues, three on 37th Avenue between Judah and Kirkham streets, and three on 47th Avenue between Pacheco and Quintara streets.

Sunset residents with at least five homes on their blocks that are interested in participating can apply by March 31 on Tang’s supervisorial website for the second round of planting. The program has $85,000 in funding — $75,000 from the SFPUC and $10,000 from District 4 funds. Applicants pay a permit fee ranging from $182 to $245.

“This is the first in the entire city, so we hope that other neighborhoods will take notice and hopefully emulate that,” Tang said.

The program’s growth comes shortly after the SFPUC completed plans for installing green infrastructure features such as permeable pavement and rain gardens in The City’s eight urban watersheds. One of them, the Sunset Boulevard Greenway, may include rain gardens allowing stormwater to soak into the landscape before it enters the sewer system.

“We hear, ‘It’s great what you’re doing with green infrastructure, but what about the areas that have been paved over?’” Barry said. “So this is a way to turn that around.”

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