Parkway Gardening: Am I Even Allowed To Do It?

Thanks to Ron Finley and other "guerilla gardeners" people all over Los Angeles are talking about growing edibles on those little strips of land between the sidewalk and the street. (If you haven't seen Finley's TEDTalk, you owe yourself 11 minutes of inspiration.) The advantages to growing edibles in parkway strips are many: access to healthful foods is increased, water and chemical use on the plants is typically lower than for grass, and food and gardening often bring neighborhoods together. Although it seems like a no-brainer to allow, or even encourage, growing food in our front yards, many municipalities do not do so.

Parkway strips are typically city property, yet the adjacent homeowner is required to water and maintain the plantings. In many cities, including Los Angeles until a few weeks ago, the city has complete control over what can be planted there. Recently, many words have been written about growing food in LA's parkway strips: It is against regulations, citations have been given, and ultimately the city council voted for a change in regulations that allows residents the right to plant edibles in their parkways. It sure took an awful lot of talking and meetings for such an obvious solution to become legal.

Being bombarded by all of the words in the local media got me to wondering about the legality of growing street side edibles in my own city of Pasadena. On a map of the country, or perhaps even California, Pasadena might look like it is part of Los Angeles. But Pasadena is decidedly not part of LA; we value our separate history and identity. Importantly, Pasadena is a distinct city with its own ordinances and governance. It is a city that prides itself on street trees and gardens. It is also a city with a sizeable population living in poverty with unimpressive access to healthy foods and fresh produce. It is a city that could benefit enormously from the growing urban gardening movement. But is it even legal for me to grow edibles in that little strip of land in front of my house? As someone who considers herself quite knowledgeable on issues of public health, urban agriculture, and nutrition in my hometown I couldn't believe that I did not know the answer to that question.

Everyone should know what she is allowed to plant in her own front yard, even in the strip of land that the city owns. And, more importantly, that information should be exceedingly easy to find.

Not surprisingly, it was not exceedingly easy to find out if I am allowed to grow edibles in front of my house. Starting with Google, I was quickly able to find all sorts of information and regulations about trees. Pasadena loves its trees and, thankfully, we do trees well. Trees make Pasadena among the most beautiful and verdant places to live in the LA Basin. The National Arbor Day Foundation has recognized Pasadena 21 times as a Tree City USA community. I found 13 pages of details about what I can and can't do with trees on my own property and city owned property.

But, plants? That information was much harder to find. I was encouraged by a statement in a 2006 LA Times article that "Pasadena and Santa Monica promote turf alternatives in the parking strips", but I struggled to find any official information from the city itself. Searching for information on a turf removal program ultimately led me to information on qualifying plants for residents choosing to remove lawn, which also summarized the overall parkway requirements. I (correctly, as it turned out) assumed that no one at City Hall really cares what plants I put in front of my house as long as I take care of them. They incentivize water saving, but do not require it. But, finding that out required an email to my councilman, who then asked city staff in the Department of Public Works, who gave the following answer:

"Provided these plants do not adversely impact public trees, the City's ability to maintain these trees or violate other regulations regarding parkway plantings (e.g. plants that create line of sight concerns based on height or proximity to an intersection), planting (other than trees) and maintaining the parkway falls under the purview of the adjacent property owner. "

Good to know. I am lucky to have a responsive and friendly councilmember who forwarded my question for details to city staff immediately. But he didn't know the answer either. That's a problem.

It should not be this hard. In this era of poor nutrition, inadequate access to fresh produce, and economic struggles of many families everyone should be encouraged to use any available resources to help feed themselves, their families, and their neighbors. In areas with limited space for gardening, utilizing city-owned open spaces is a valuable resource that can no longer be ignored. Every city owes its residents clear information covering growing edibles. Every city should be actively encouraging residents to use this valuable space.

What about your city? Are you allowed to grow edibles in front of your house? Are you lucky enough to live in a city that encourages you to do so? If not, I hope you will join me in getting people talking about it and ensuring that it is permissible and encouraged.