A Roaming Community Garden, To Help Green Vacant Lots

No property owner wants to be held responsible for ripping up a garden when they want to build something else, but Nomad Garden’s designs–soon to come to life in San Francisco–mean they won’t have to.

When she first moved to San Francisco, architect Stephanie Goodson missed having a garden. After several failed attempts at growing food in her dimly-lit apartment, she started thinking about the many temporarily vacant lots she saw when running through her neighborhood. Four years later, Nomad Gardens–her design for a mobile community garden that can move from lot to lot–is about to break ground.


Goodson’s neighborhood of Mission Bay was once industrial, but like other parts of the city, it’s quickly becoming home to new high-rise apartments. While developers go through the process of finalizing plans and funding for new buildings, many lots sit empty. Mission Bay Development Group, which holds a lease to turn 300 acres in the neighborhood into a new mixed-use development, loved the idea of the gardens–especially because they could easily move when construction does finally start.

“There was a community garden across the street, but there was a 30-year waiting list,” Goodson said. “The developer also told me that it’s hard because people get attached to their spaces, and put sweat equity into growing and fostering these plants, so whenever the lot’s ready for development, it’s hard for the community. I said, ‘Well, what if it’s transportable?’ He loved it.”

The new garden will include over 200 individual plots, making it San Francisco’s largest community garden. Each part will be built on a platform so it can easily be moved to a new location with a forklift and flatbed truck. Goodson’s team first experimented with reusing old pallets, but later decided to work with an industrial designer to create a design that would be a consistent size, easy to build, and more durable during transport.

Eventually, they plan to make a product line of branded mobile garden units that someone could buy at a store like Ikea. “We want to create a sustainable business model,” Goodson says. “We’re currently partnered with the SF Parks Alliance, so we’re technically classified as a nonprofit, but we’d like to be a completely self-sustaining business. One of the ways of doing that can be a kind of one-for-one model where we have a product line that allows us to take the proceeds and put it back into gardens.”

The Mission Bay garden will also include room for outdoor movies and other community events. “We see it as a really good opportunity to meet your neighbors,” Goodson says. “I’m a big believer in cities and the cross-pollination of ideas. Giving a space like this provides for serendipity, innovation, and idea generation, and just cultivating a strong community.”

After an Indiegogo campaign and years of working through all of the necessary details with the city and the developer, Nomad Gardens signed a lease on the lot last week, and the first plots will be built in early January. They’ve already been approached by other cities who want to build a similar gardens.


“Our goal is to do this all over,” Goodson says. “We’d like the first garden to inspire good design and community building in other parts of San Francisco and beyond.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.