GK Callahan is the director of the Please Touch project, and is also a teacher at the nearby Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which serves the Bay Area community. It was while volunteering at Lighthouse that GK first noticed the vacant lot.
The garden, only a few months old, already features unique elements that distinguish Please Touch as a social arts project, and more than simply an urban garden. Vegetables, herbs, recycled furniture, succulents, and touches of sculpture distinguish the space. Public agencies, government, and community groups have all donated materials and time to the Please Touch garden, but the Blind Leaders Program group at the Lighthouse has taken a leading role in building the space. As might be expected from a long-abandoned lot next to an alleyway often used as a shelter, there was a lot of legwork to get the space ready for planting and designing. Trash collection, re-grading, mulching, and painting were all accomplished this year, with more work scheduled.
The Please Touch Garden is also making use of innovative and locally-designed landscaping technology. Locally produced Habitiles are attached to a low brick wall, where they hold soil and a cascade of colorful plants. While appearing to be made of concrete or stone, the Habitiles are actually a creative recycled product from local designer Aurora Mahassine. Recycled foam and Styrofoam are repurposed into tile and planter-shaped molds and painted to resemble stone. Meant to be used for vertical gardening, the Habitile planting system is getting an experimental test in the garden’s narrow slot of land without much light. GK also plans to create a rainwater harvesting system. One of the challenges of the land is that it has no water – necessitating a long hose connection with the nearby Lighthouse building in order to water the plants.
Even though the garden is an ongoing project, it has already been transformed into a relaxing and beautiful space, featuring recycled wooden pallet furniture created by garden volunteers, as well as fragrant dangling hops vines – a future ingredient in a beer brewing workshop at Lighthouse. A “scented garden” in one corner features aromatic herbs and plants, and a small scale farm-style garden will feature vegetables and other plants. Part of the project is the interaction and art that occurs when different people and groups come together in the space – people who might not usually connect in their daily walks of life. In addition, groups from the Lighthouse center look forward to the opportunity to come next door to sit outdoors, meet neighbors, and learn about the plants and objects in the garden.