Urban environments are great places for bars, nightlife, arts, food, and culture. They are also great places for neurosis, stress, and isolation. Why? Because people in cities keep fit-to-bursting work and social calendars that often ignore the daily and seasonal rhythms of nature, are constantly surrounded by machines and artificial light, and go home to apartment buildings where no one knows their next-door neighbors. The gist of it is that people in cities are detached from the natural environment. And those people in cities are us.

But guess what? We don't have to be. There are pockets of nature everywhere in San Francisco. They are our community gardens. There are more ways for you to get involved with those gardens than you could possibly take advantage of, but most of us don't know where to start.

Enter SF Refresh, an initiative that will create all-day events in participating community gardens on six days in 2011 (see list at end). On those days, these local gardens will host free whole body care services and classes, including yoga, acupuncture, art-making, and food-making.

Inspired by Sunday Streets, SF Refresh was created by Megan Rohrer, manager of the Growing Home Community Garden in Hayes Valley. The project is being developed in partnership with the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance, a new organization created to connect the city's community gardens, and partly funded by the Mental Health Services Act, since the point of SF Refresh is to encourage stronger community and improved mental health.

"Community gardens have through scientific studies been proven to be therapeutic places that lower anxiety and help people come out of isolation," Rohrer says. "They have the ability to heal you in all of the ways you can think of. You're putting your hands in earth, so you're having a tactile experience; you're looking at beautiful flowers, so you're having a visual experience; and you're eating food, so you're having a nutritional experience. Gardens are a place that can speak to us on lots of different levels."

A man who goes by the name of Tree, a founder of the Free Farm community garden in Richmond, which will also be participating in SF Refresh, says that gardens remind us of how we are all connected. "When we think about soil, we are really aware of what's living in the soil — the microbes, the fungi, the protozoa — all of those things are connected in a web of life," he says. "And the people above the soil have to look at life in the same way. That's what this event is really about: connecting with other people in the city, and with what sustains us and brings about life."

Art, food, and soft edges
Head volunteer artist Ilyse Magy is recruiting other volunteers to lead art projects, focused on building community, beautifying the chain-link fences around the gardens, and creating other adornments. These group projects, she says, are a great way to try your hand at art, which can also be therapeutic. "I think self-care is about doing things that make you feel good, and I think art is just one of those things," she says. "Making art is an amazing way of being totally present. You get out of your head and are really there creating something." In the garden, she adds, nature functions as a muse for the artist: "What's more beautiful than flowers or plants?"

SF Refresh will also be offering classes in food-making, hosted by the local nonprofit Urban Kitchen SF. In these classes, which include pickling and kombucha-making, you can use ingredients grown right in the gardens and leave with starter kits to continue the process at home.

"It's incredibly empowering to learn these skills," says Kateryna Rakowsky, the executive director of Urban Kitchen SF. "You take something from the raw unfinished form, create something, and take that knowledge home." Also an environmental lawyer, she says that working with food on this level also teaches people to be curious about what's in their food and to read labels more carefully. "You're basically taking charge of your own sustenance," she says.

Other offerings in the gardens during SF Refresh will include yoga, acupuncture, massage, lectures and kids' activities. Kevin Bayuk, a permaculture designer and teacher in San Francisco, says it's the soft edges of a garden that make it the perfect environment for restoring yourself. "In San Francisco, 70 percent of our surfaces are paved over and impervious to rain," he says. "We have a lot of built environment, so we have a lot of hard edges. Gardens are mostly soft. The softness tends to harmonize with opportunities to become vulnerable or open to connecting through things like yoga or healing."

Although plans are still under way, the first event is slated to take place in April, a great time to revisit the promises you made to yourself — in January. "I think April is the time when people have given up on their New Year's resolution or realized they've failed or forgotten about it completely," Rohrer says. "Coming to a garden to participate in an event like this — or even to watch other people participate — can be the first step in an entire lifestyle change."


GET SF REFRESHED

SF Refresh will take place in community gardens around the city on Saturday, April 16; Saturday, May 21; Sunday, July 24; Saturday, Aug. 20; Sunday, Sept. 25; and Saturday, Oct. 15. All events are free. Some offerings, like the food-making classes, will require preregistration. As of press time, these five gardens had confirmed their involvement.

Growing Home Community Garden: 250 Octavia (at Page) Hayes Valley

Visitacion Valley Greenway Community Garden: Arleta (at Rutland)

The Free Farm: Gough (at Eddy)

The Hayes Valley Farm: 450 Laguna (at Fell)

Garden for the Environment: Seventh Avenue (at Lawton)

SF Refresh is also looking for volunteers, including general helpers, artists who would like to lead art projects, yoga instructors, and others who work in therapeutic modalities. If you would like to be part of a think tank for the event and offer ideas and suggestions about what else to include, visit http://sfrefresh.blogspot.com for more information and contact details.

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