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‘Hostile architecture’ or just planters? Owners are cited by city after activist pressure

A sidewalk with people walking past large metal planters under a clear sky.
Pedestrians walk past planters lining the sidewalk of Van Ness Avenue on Tuesday. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

San Francisco is ordering the owners of some sidewalk garden planters to move them within 30 days or foot the bill for shifting the heavy metal troughs.

Described as “hostile architecture” by advocates for homeless people, the planters are often used by residents and business owners to deter encampments on the sidewalk.

A number of citations were issued after a group of activists reported what they say were problematic placements of the planters to the Department of Public Works. They allege some of the planters block access for disabled people and pedestrians.

A person walks by metal planters on a sunlit urban sidewalk.
Some homeless advocates claim that many of the planters block access for disabled people and pedestrians. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

One property manager who was cited by the city wouldn’t speak to The Standard, even anonymously, for fear of retribution from activists.

However, those opposing the planters, numbering at least 30 people in a Signal group chat seen by The Standard, say the planters symbolize open hostility toward the city’s most vulnerable residents. 

“It’s a disgrace because San Francisco uses disability justice language to justify sweeping homeless people who are themselves disproportionately homeless,” said Hazel Williams, an activist who has been a leading critic of the planters. 

Williams expressed frustration with the city for apparently ignoring planters that were blocking sidewalks before citizens filed complaints. Some of the planters in the city’s complaint database can be seen blocking entire sidewalks, filled only with dirt and heavy items.

Scott Feeney, a transit advocate, said he’s concerned that the proliferation of planters has monopolized the city’s sidewalks, making them difficult to navigate.

“It makes it, in some cases, an obstacle course to board the bus,” Feeney said. “I think it’s already discouraging people from walking and using transit.”

A sunny city sidewalk with large metal planters containing spiky plants; a woman walks by, cars parked in the background.
A pedestrian walks past planters lining the sidewalk along Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco on Tuesday. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

It’s unclear how many citations have been issued, but Williams provided a list of 49 complaints about planters to the city. The Department of Public Works didn’t say how many citations it has issued but confirmed owners will be cited for not complying with the city’s regulations.

In November, Williams unearthed records showing the department helped residents install planters in Fisherman’s Wharf. Some residents and property owners have used other methods to dissuade encampments, including one building that blasted the Star Wars theme over speakers to deter loitering. Others have installed boulders outside to stop unwanted activity. 

The city has also faced legal action, alleging it displaces homeless people without providing adequate shelter beds. The city’s waitlist for individual shelter beds was 142 people long as of Tuesday afternoon. Another waitlist for family shelters had 238 families, including 363 children and 323 adults, waiting for a bed in December.

David Sjostedt can be reached at