L.A. Finally Realizes Front-Yard Gardens Are A Good Thing

Residents will no longer be fined for gardening the strip of land between the sidewalk and street.

Ron Finley (Photo: ronfinley.com)

Aug 16, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

If you live in Los Angeles, here’s a good way to fight crime: Read the Bureau of Street Service’s Residential Parkway Landscaping Guidelines, then take to the streets. Regardless of what neighborhood you’re in, you’re bound to find something illegal on almost any block—whether it be near Beverly Hills or near Baldwin Hills.

Until just this week, many of the front-yard vegetable gardens (a rare sight) you might spot while cruising the block for landscape crimes were illegal too.

Rose bushes, towering shrubs, cacti, bougainvillea—if these are planted on the strip of land between the sidewalk and the curb, publically owned land known as a parkway, their presence is almost certainly against the law. According to the guidelines, “non-standard parkway plant materials”—anything other than grass, basically—must be shorter than 36 inches, can’t be noxious or invasive, and should not have “exposed, rigid spines or thorns.”

Despite the rampant presence of residents with a blatant disregard for the landscaping law of the land, no one in Los Angeles seems to care about parkway planting rules until someone puts in a vegetable garden.

Ron Finley—he of the “if you ain’t a gardener, you ain’t gangster” TED talk fame—planted just such a parkway garden in front of his house in South Central L.A. in 2010 and was duly fined by the city the following year. City Council member Herb Wesson, who represents the district where Finley lives, stood by the activist-gardener, vowing to change the restrictions. On Tuesday, two years later, now-City Council President Wesson brought up a measure that would temporarily suspend the parkway garden restrictions. It passed unanimously.

“They’re worried about someone tripping over an eggplant,” Finley said of the city’s initial resistance to changing the rules. “Not tripping over the couches and the bed and the garbage or the condoms. They’re worried about an eggplant. I’m glad we got our priorities straight.”

But it’s not like he’s been in a holding pattern for the past two years, waiting until the city changed its regulations. Just two days before the measure passed, he helped to plant “one of the biggest street, vegetable edible plantings in the city” on parkways in a South Los Angeles neighborhood.

Elsewhere in the city, other gardeners have ignored the restrictions too, including Abbie Zands, who hired the edible landscaping design company Farmscape to install a raised vegetable garden on the parkway in front of his Los Feliz home. He too was fined, as was Finley’s neighbor, Angel Teger, two incidents that led to a renewed round of media coverage, including a column by Steve Lopez in the Los Angeles Times.

“Last time I checked, Los Angeles had 5,000 miles of ruptured sidewalks—some of which look like mountain ranges—caused primarily by invasive roots on unmaintained parkway trees planted by the city,” Lopez wrote at the end of July, suggesting that vegetable gardens on parkways “is the least of our worries.”

While the city finally seems to agree with that sentiment, Farmscape’s Dan Allen points out that the suspension is temporary, designed to give the Bureau of Street Services time to come up with an amended list of approved plants. Allen’s concern is that only nominally edible plants like rosemary and lavender will be added, leaving out the likes of tomatoes and cucumbers and fruit trees. Raised beds may not be approved either.

Finley, however, is dismissive of the “academics” worried about a plant list. “The city doesn’t have enough money to enforce this shit,” he said, imagining how ridiculous a vegetable beat cop policing someone’s garden would sound: “Hey, dude, that’s purple cabbage—you’re supposed to have rhubarb.”

Which is not to say that Finley doesn’t see the City Council’s action as a major victory. ”I think it’s a long time coming. It's a sign that, possibly, the people who run the city want to change this food injustice, equality injustice, and change the health of certain communities. It’s big.”