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San Francisco homelessness: War heats up as planters dubbed ‘hostile architecture’

Newly installed planters sit next to a tent near the intersection of Grove and Ashbury on Wednesday. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

Metal planters that recently appeared on San Francisco street corners have been described as “hostile architecture” by a former Coalition on Homelessness human rights organizer.

The planters will presumably soon hold some plants, perhaps even flowers, and were recently installed on the corners of Ashbury Street and Masonic Avenue where the two roads meet Grove Street in the leafy NoPa neighborhood—either side of the City College of San Francisco John Adams Campus. The college did not respond to a request for comment. The Standard has been unable to find out who installed the planters.

“This hostile architecture was installed on Ashbury @ Grove & Grove @ Masonic,” wrote X user Kelley Cutler on the platform formerly known as Twitter on Tuesday. “I don’t see a permit. I was surprised to see such blatant anti-homeless tactics being used in such a progressive neighborhood. Can DPW please remove them?”

Hostile architecture is usually defined as a type of urban design that seeks to stop certain behaviors. Infamous examples include anti-homeless spikes and uncomfortably designed benches. Nevertheless, the debate around planters possibly being used as a defense against homeless camps is nothing new—there’s even a parody site for a city planter company.

“For the life of me, I can’t see how putting planters at the edge of a broad sidewalk hurts homeless people,” wrote X user Sudha Lakshmi in response to Cutler’s post.

One NoPa local laughed off the idea the planters were indeed “hostile” toward homeless people, noting there are already several small encampments in the area.

“I doubt that that’s going to work,” said Dee Allen, chuckling. Allen lives on Ashbury Street near a small encampment and added he thought the planters were an unhoused person’s property but hoped they would soon bring a spark of color to the neighborhood.

Steve Valeck is a homeless man living in a tent along Grove Street. He moved to San Francisco last year from Wisconsin in search of the ’60s counter-culture vibe his mother told him stories about in his youth.

Steve Valeck, 57, is homeless and lives along Grove Street. He moved to San Francisco from Wisconsin last year. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

The 57-year-old has been living on Grove Street for 70 days—longer than any other location he put his tent up in San Francisco since moving here.  

“I had good intentions to start a job out here, but the people I came here with were no good trash,” he said. Currently, Valeck lives in one of three tents on the same block as the planters.

Valeck feels like the NoPa community is split in half on his presence in the neighborhood and hopes the new planters are not meant to signal it’s time for him to move on.

“We’re not sitting up here with boils, getting all messed up, slumped over like zombies,” Valeck said. “You know, San Francisco is an icon for anyone, really. Not just for drugs, but experimenting and opening up new cultures and new ways, man.”

Masonic Avenue homeowner Steve St. Denny said issues with encampments on Grove have gotten worse recently and that he hoped the planters would deter any more of them from popping up.

“If it works, they should put in a lot more,” the flooring contractor said.

garden planters filled with plants
Planters sit in front of a residence near the corner of Masonic and Grove streets on Wednesday. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

Denny said the planters could encourage more people to walk around the neighborhood, which could “push homeless people away.”

“I deserve to feel safe walking around in my neighborhood, especially if I’m paying what I’m paying,” Denny said. “You spend a million and a half dollars on a condo, you’re going to spend a few thousand a month on property taxes and you deserve to be able to be safe and feel safe.”

Last September, the Coalition on Homelessness and several homeless plaintiffs alleged in a lawsuit that San Francisco violated its own policies on homelessness. The lawsuit also alleged that the city illegally destroyed homeless people’s property during encampment sweeps. The legal battle continues and has divided San Francisco while capturing the attention of the nation.

Newly installed planters line the 1800 block of Grove Street on Wednesday. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

Supervisor Dean Preston, who represents the area, and the Coalition on Homelessness did not respond to requests for comment.

Tensions have been rising in NoPa between residents and homeless people, reports NBC Bay Area. Locals recently raised $15,000 to install planters at Fell Street and Central Avenue after a tent fire.

A Department of Public Works spokesperson told The Standard the planters appear to comply with their rules after reviewing photos of them. She said complaints should be directed to 311.