People We Meet: A Lesson in Urban Planning with Jim Chappell, Beautifier and Community Builder of Guerrero St.

Standing on a busy sidewalk on Guerrero Street, Jim Chappell was holding a shrub cutter that looked like it could do some damage. But he exuded warmth and softness, dressed in a fluorescent vest that belied his mission.

Chappell said the “median gatekeeper” he looks after between 19th and 20th streets needs clearing before the rainy season. He apologized for the “appalling” state of the garden but, with the drought, he had to refrain from watering.

Not that anyone notices. The tender leaves foxtail agavemauve rock purslane reddish green flowers and rosettes of the aeonium looked cheerful and welcoming, not dried out.

Chappell is a retired urban planner who has lived on Guerrero Street for over 30 years. He said median gardens are meant to accomplish three things: beautification, traffic calming and community building.

“What’s easy to understand, of course, is embellishment,” he said. “You know, living plants are more beautiful than concrete.”

“One second is traffic calming,” Chappell continued. “There are all kinds of studies that show that street trees and landscaping psychologically narrow the road, which then slows down traffic.”

Drawing on his background in urban planning, he explained how Guerrero Street became the neighborhood’s traffic corridor: Mission Street accommodates public transit and pedestrians, and Valencia Street’s timed traffic lights cater to shoppers. pedestrians and bicycle traffic.

“Guerrero is basically a freeway on-ramp,” Chappell said. “They just let it rip.”

The third “really, really important” reason for median gardening is community building. “Especially on a high-traffic street, you never meet your neighbors across the street. You barely meet them next door, because you don’t socialize on the sidewalk,” Chappell said. met all kinds of people we wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

He said the brainchild came to him about 50 years ago, during his college days in Pennsylvania, where 17th- and 18th-century housewives cleaned up after garbage trucks by sweeping sidewalks and scrubbing the famous Philadelphia marble steps.

When a fellow city planner with young children moved into his apartment building around 2000, their shared vision of safety and a sense of community sparked the version of Guerrero Street, and the rest is history.

Chappell and a group of neighbors have since carried thousands of buckets of water and supported an exchange of plant cuttings between the blocks. With the help of San Francisco Public Works, every block of Guerrero Street from Duboce to 27 has been planted.

Chappell walked the full length of Guerrero Street, taking inventory of trees and plant conditions, which resulted in a Department of Public Works replanting in 2020.

Chappell didn’t take credit for his extensive public service, but his neighbor Ned Moran quit.

“Jim is a very modest person,” said Moran, who helps organize neighbors for regular garden maintenance, “but everything to make that happen, not just on our block but all the other blocks , as well as to advance it, is it the effort of man.

Chappell listened and laughed at a suggestion that he had a green thumb (although he had wanted to be a landscape architect since childhood).

“The street is my garden,” he said. “It’s up to all of us to take care of our neighborhood.”