The Mission Greenbelt Project at John O’Connell High School

September 2008
Mission Greenbelt

The Mission Greenbelt Project plans to grow an urban earth artwork of California native and other drought-tolerant plants in sidewalk gardens, planters and on rooftops. This project is part of a San Francisco-based movement to transform the city by taking back the cement and planting gardens.

The proposed route connects Mission District parks and open spaces between Dolores Park (19th & Dolores) and Franklin Square Park (16th & Bryant). The Mission Greenbelt Project intends to educate, inspire and organize city residents to build gardens piece-by-piece to create a healthy urban ecosystem. The native plants in Mission Greenbelt sidewalk gardens are specifically adapted to attract local wildlife. Also the gardens accept rainwater into the soil, relieving the city’s overburdened water treatment system and improving public health. Equally as important, residents must cooperate with each other and with the city to build and maintain these new gardens.

John O’Connell High School
John O’Connell High School is located at 2355 Folsom between 19th and 20th. The high school’s garden, once a public park, is located along Harrison Street, part of the proposed Mission Greenbelt route. John O’Connell High School is a project of the San Francisco Unified School District, City College San Francisco, The Chamber of Commerce, and The Mayors Office. The school’s cross-disciplinary curriculum aims to prepare students for future employment by giving them job skills, self-confidence, and guidance.

Students come from all over San Francisco. Often, they spend time at O’Connell after school, and a few of the faculty stay late and make themselves available to students.

Yearlong Artist Residency
This proposal sets out a yearlong artist residency program, during which Amber Hasselbring will work closely with the student body and staff to make artwork related to the Mission Greenbelt Project. The proposed artist residency programming will compliment what the students are learning in their classes and in their lives.

It will be the responsibility of John O’Connell High School to provide students and staff with the opportunity to develop a partnership with Amber. The possible components of this partnership are flexible, and the ideas contained in this proposal are merely suggestions and possible scenarios.
Amber’s key partner at O’Connell is biology teacher Edward Grannis. Through the partnership, she will have the opportunity to form relationships with faculty members in the arts, natural sciences and afterschool programs at O’Connell. Mr. Grannis has introduced Amber to Janet Schulze, O’Connell’s Principal, and Richard Duber, the Assistant Principal in charge of Curriculum and Instruction.

The following vignettes–Greenbelt in the Schoolyard, Sidewalk Mural Painting, San Francisco Ecology, Civic Engagement, Building Mission Greenbelt Gardens, and Creating a Bookwork–describe some Mission Greenbelt related artworks that will happen during the residency program.

Greenbelt in the Schoolyard
It’s a school day, and Amber visits Mr. Grannis to discuss the logistics of building an outdoor classroom in the garden at O’Connell High School.
The garden is currently located at the east side of the school’s block-wide cement yard, along the proposed Mission Greenbelt route. Mr. Grannis works with students after school one day a week in the garden. Sunchokes, rainbow chard, corn and squash are growing, and native wildflowers bloom through the summer. The garden is fertilized by compost made from cafeteria food scraps, and a regular Sunset Scavenger Company compost delivery.

Mr. Grannis has funding in place to build the outdoor classroom. If this proposal receives funding, Amber will have the opportunity to leverage these funds to make the outdoor classroom into a center for ecological discovery, as well as a seed propagation site, distribution center and anchor for the Mission Greenbelt project.

During the residency, Amber and Mr. Grannis hope to generate excitement about the outdoor classroom. They set a date for a brainstorming session and invite students, their parents and faculty to join in making the outdoor classroom idea a reality.

Amber spreads a large sheet of heavy paper onto a table and brings materials for everyone to make a collage. Amber has drawn a scaled-down template of the garden onto the paper. The participating parents, students, and teachers share their ideas for the outdoor classroom, and the group has cut out shapes and added details to the initial design collage.

The resulting vision is an outdoor classroom with a wide, tall writing board facing a movable set of variously sized benches, arranged in a half-circle. Portions of the classroom are covered for shade. They decide on a date for the classroom to be complete, and members of the group each commit to doing something specific that will help reach the goal. A few months before, Mr. Grannis met Boaz, a builder who lives nearby, who coincidentally, was responsible for building the garden in its original state. BoAz will build the outdoor classroom with help from students in the construction class. He also provides a quote for labor and an itemized budget for materials. A few of the parents volunteer to paint once the structures are built.

Orchard trees will grow on one side of the outdoor classroom and the vegetable beds currently growing on the other side will be enlarged. California native climbing morning glory, western virgin’s bower, and California wild grape will grow up the chain link fence along 20th and Harrison. Native plants for future Mission Greenbelt gardens will grow in one of the garden beds. Between the orchard trees there will be chorus tree frog ponds surrounded by tall and short reed grasses, columbine, miner’s lettuce, and twinberry. The ponds will help restore San Francisco’s dwindling tree frog population.

Dylan Hayes, a gardener with the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department’s Natural Areas Program, is consulting with Amber, the students, and Mr. Grannis to build native chorus tree frog ponds as part of the outdoor classroom. Dylan has built a pond in his back yard, and every year, he raises the frogs from eggs collected by San Francisco frog expert, Jim McKissock. Jim collects the eggs after mating season from locations throughout the Bay Area. Then he distributes them to people like Dylan, and hopefully Mr. Grannis’ students, who safely raise the tadpoles until they are almost fully grown. Jim then catches and redistributes the frogletts to San Francisco’s wetlands.

Mr. Duber, O’Connell’s Assistant Principal, envisions removing portions of the cement schoolyard to plant trees. During the residency, Amber will work with Friends of the Urban Forest, a powerful local group that has done this in other San Francisco schoolyards.

With help from the team at Friends of the Urban Forest, Amber arranges to have portions of the concrete yard cut and removed to make space for planting Mission Greenbelt coast live oak trees. The oaks will provide habitat for urban wildlife and will shade O’Connell’s playing fields. Once Sunset Scavenger Company has hauled the concrete away, the students help break apart the hard, newly day-lighted soil, adding fresh, fertile soil to make it ready for planting. We plant oak seedlings that Amber has been raising in her back yard.

Because the newly planted schoolyard needs care, Mr. Duber writes a service learning element into the curriculum. Outgoing seniors teach incoming freshman how much to water the plants and trees, how to prune and encourage new growth, when and how to add compost and fertilize to the soil, and how to determine which plants are weeds that need to be removed. The freshmen also learn how to bolster the gardens with fresh plants early in the winter before the heavy rains.

Through this work, the students learn that they are valuable assets to productive ecosystems, and that their efforts in the outdoor classroom create a healthier environment for the school and the surrounding neighborhood.

Sidewalk Mural Painting
During two workshops, artist Tim Armstrong shares his flour sidewalk mural painting technique with O’Connell High School students. First, he pours a small pile of flour onto the sidewalk and spreads it around with used vacuum attachments and old rubber kickballs he has cut in half. He then sprays the flour design with water to make the paste stick to the cement. To finish, he sweeps away the excess and uses a leaf blower to reveal the sidewalk design in white paste on grey cement. Students then make their own murals. When we finish, we have painted the whole cement yard.
Tim, Amber, and the students who have been trained in the earlier workshops, meet at 5 a.m., and wait for 100 guerilla sidewalk painters to arrive in Dolores Park. We distribute cardboard fans, backpacks full of white flour, brooms, and water sprayers. For the next two hours, the group paints the entire Mission Greenbelt route onto the sidewalks.

Before moving on, the group hangs door tags, printed in both English and Spanish, beside the murals. The tags inform residents about the murals on the sidewalks and the basics of how to build sidewalk gardens. The tags include contact information for residents who want to become a part of the Mission Greenbelt Project.

San Francisco Ecology
Amber, primarily an artist and educator, helps students to investigate the urban environment.

Amber and colleagues from UC Berkeley’s Botanical and Blake Gardens worked previously to design Mission Greenbelt native plant garden kits for birds, butterflies, bees, a grassland garden, one for shady streets, a dry rock garden and one resembling a traditional Victorian garden.

In July and August, when the native plants went to seed, Amber and other naturalists collected seed sustainably, being careful not to rob the natural areas of precious resources. She collected from plants to supply the garden kits. She received donated seeds for some of the plants she was not able to collect, and the rest she purchased from local seed companies and native plant nurseries.

In September, at the beginning of the school year, Amber and the students plant the seeds in starter pots, watering them twice a day throughout the dry September and October heat. The students watch the sprouts grow into plants as products of their careful labor. They learn the patient excitement of a gardener. Plants will be large enough for Mission Greenbelt sidewalk gardens by next fall. Some of the students are frustrated by the need for instant gratification, but through this process, they are learning the patience necessary for long-term thinking.

Amber often treats the students to observational field trips in urban nature. The group ventures into alleyways, eavesdrops on conversations coming from overhead windows, and stops to hear birds chatter in trees that dot the sidewalks. Amber brings along her hand-held recorder to produce a sonic collage.
Part of Amber’s residency is devoted to helping the students understand San Francisco ecology. Through her work with Nature in the City, she has come in contact with a network of committed and knowledgeable urban naturalists, some of whom are listed below.

Josiah Clark is a local ecologist. Amber arranges for him to give a school wide talk and teach two hands-on workshops. During the talk, Josiah speaks about how development in San Francisco has forced wildlife onto isolated islands, usually the hilltops, in a sea of urbanization. He highlights the importance of connecting these hilltops and open spaces to one another with densely planted natural corridors that encourage birds, butterflies and bees to crossbreed, thus assuring their survival. The Mission Greenbelt Project borrows this concept and adds in the invaluable human community.

Amber and O’Connell students meet Liam O’Brien, an artist and San Francisco butterfly expert, in Franklin Square Park to conduct a butterfly survey along the Mission Greenbelt. The group walks with Liam while he describes that butterflies have changed their habits to adapt to urban ecosystems and will lay their eggs on common street weeds. They learn that butterflies are daytime creatures, and that humans may have inadvertently planted certain plants to assure their survival, such as passion vine. During the walk, the group counts ten species total.

Civic Engagement
As an artist in residence at O’Connell High School, Amber holds regular afterschool hours, and students are encouraged to participate in her program. Being outside of the limitations of the school day and the standards of the curriculum allows for flexibility. The students contribute to Amber as well. They infuse her artwork by relating their understanding of the neighborhood, some with their immigrant histories, experiences as urban youth, and their plans for the future.

Amber shows the students how to work together to relieve individual pressures. Students develop skills partnership. Amber hires students as paid interns to do some of the administrative work. The student interns scan student artwork, write checks to consultants and naturalists and keep track of the budget. Another student is an excellent translator, so Amber pays her to translate selected text into Spanish.

One of Amber’s favorite activities is to write personal mission statements with students. They consider what they can do to improve themselves, their family relationships, the school or San Francisco. How do the existing institutions support or discourage their efforts? The mission statements assess how students feel about their education and their place in life. Are they motivated or disempowered? Do they feel like they have choices?

The group considers the powerful tool of organized groups of people. Students investigate San Francisco examples: Friends of the Urban Forest, One Brick and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, to name a few. During an important SF Sewer System Master Plan Project announcement about overhauling San Francisco’s outdated water treatment system, hundreds of students dressed in their finest clothes and went downtown to participate in the meeting. Afterwards, a few of the students were so excited that Amber encouraged them to join the Citizen Advisory Committee. Now, these students attend meetings regularly and contribute their voices to articulate their vision.

Building Mission Greenbelt Gardens
Amber and the students envision building Mission Greenbelt gardens to improve the neighborhood around the school. Sidewalk gardens require partnerships between the landowner and the city of San Francisco, and through this public private partnership, the students learn the fundamentals of city government and the challenges of being a renter.

The group works with interested neighbors through the planning and permitting process. Weather permitting, Amber holds Mission Greenbelt sidewalk garden meetings outside, as she prefers to make the process accessible to everyone. The students are always invited, and Mr. Duber has arranged to give them extra service credit if they attend meetings. We draw the gardens with sidewalk chalk, make photographs and ask the neighbors what they know about the soil, light, wind and precipitation conditions. The students take notes, and with what they have learned, they choose site-appropriate Mission Greenbelt garden kits for each location.

During the culminating sidewalk garden planting event, some of the students parents volunteer to help us break the soil with pick axes and prepare it for planting. We have 150 native plants total. Some of the plants are from Nature in the City’s Backyard Nursery Program, and others are from UC Berkeley’s Botanical Garden, the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council’s Native Plant Nursery/Recycling Center and Bay Natives. A week before, a group of students helped Amber to put up a street poster announcing the planting and inviting participation.

The winter rains have come, the new plants are growing their roots deep into the soil, and the gardens are settling into place.

Creating a Bookwork
Amber and Katherine Renz, a San Francisco freelance writer, have agreed to work during the residency to compile a book project featuring student artwork, field notes and observations, poetry, and Mission Greenbelt wildlife surveys, and event photographs. Katherine is responsible for writing an introduction and transitions between the student writings.

When the content is set, Amber sends it to her colleague and former Maine College of Art classmate, Satoru Nihei, who will design the book. At this time, a small edition of 50 books will be self-published and printed through Each of the contributing students will receive a copy as will all the key residency participants. Later, Amber will send proposal letters and copies of the book to local and national publishers beginning with Ten Speed Press and Heyday Books in Berkeley.

Amber and the students are excited to think about leaving a different legacy behind in San Francisco. The group rejects the shortsightedness of previous generations built on excess production and resource depletion. These students, with Amber’s help, are contributing to a new ethos of patient regeneration and self-transformation.

Thank You
This artwork by Amber Hasselbring is supported in part by partnerships with Nature in the City, the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, Sunset Scavenger Company, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, friends at the UC Berkeley Botanical & Blake Gardens, Liam O’Brien, Mission Roots, Steven Leiber, PlantSF,, Betsy Davis, Dylan Hayes, Bay Area Video Coalition, Josiah Clark, Jonathan Weisblatt, Katina Papson, World Savvy, Southern Exposure, Benjamin Emery, Mark Sanchez, Sangati Center and others.