“People make the community and this project brought the community together,” Candy Cole, executive director of the Foundation for the Orlando Regional REALTOR® Association (ORRA) observed as she discussed a community garden project made possible by an NAR Placemaking Grant.
The Parramore Community of west-central Orlando is a historically Black community that has long struggled economically and is located in a food desert. In 2009, the city tore down an apartment building and gave the lot to the community.
Volunteers turned it into a community garden that’s an important source of free, locally grown produce available to anyone who shares a little sweat equity. After ORRA constructed six homes for veterans in the area, it became aware that the struggling community garden had become a costly burden to volunteers and needed major refurbishing.
“The garden has been a really special place. Residents can feed their families, but it also builds a sense of community,” Cole says. “We decided to go deep in this area and make a huge difference.”
ORRA leveraged a Placemaking Grant to build a greenhouse, trim trees, replace tools, repair and enhance irrigation and supply organic soil. Hydroponic towers were added and area college students are working with residents to increase harvests. Members also volunteered more than 500 hours in the garden. For one member, volunteering was a full-circle experience because he had fond memories of visiting his aunt who had lived in an apartment that had previously occupied the site.
“Our members are excited to have face-to-face conversations with people in the community. They loved that they could meet and know the people they’re helping,” Cole says.
Amber Burton Alfred, director of Governmental Affairs and Advocacy with the Houston Association of REALTORS® (HAR), agrees and adds that “community involvement can connect with local officials in a positive way.” HAR has approximately 40,000 members and leveraged a Placemaking Grant to develop an urban farm in cooperation with Plant It Forward, a nonprofit that operates several urban farms in the Houston area. Plant it Forward works with refugees to create sustainable urban farming businesses that help supply local markets with fresh produce.
“During the pandemic we all realized the need to pivot for social distancing and there was a food shortage and a need for sustainability. This was a timely project for 2020,” Burton Alfred says.
HAR not only helped establish Plant It Forward’s Westbury farm location, but helped secure city funding to beautify the area. Members also volunteered during a work day.
Willow Springs, Ill., is more than a thousand miles north of Houston, but the importance of creating connections is just as significant. Willow Springs is located about 18 miles southwest of Chicago and is one of 200 municipalities covered by the Mainstreet Organization of REALTORS®. A member noticed a centrally located empty lot had become an eyesore and worked with the city administrator and beautification committee to develop a community garden, and a Placemaking Grant made the community garden a reality.
The beautiful garden features accessible beds and a watering system. An adjacent bus stop was cleaned, flowers planted, electricity added and a little lending library built inside the shelter. The result is a lovely community garden located near the village’s main intersection.
Christina Andino, a member of the Jasinski Home Team at Baird and Warner, was instrumental in the garden’s development and says the garden isn’t only a beautiful space, but the experience has helped forge lasting relationships. As she explained in a video chronicling the garden’s development, “It was a great learning experience. I have ‘go to’ people now when I need advice or have questions. I know them personally and it’s nice to have these relationships.” To view the video in its entirety, go to https://vimeo.com/449702991.
Nadine Scodro, the volunteer and advocacy specialist with the Mainstreet Organization of REALTORS® says the Willow Springs project perfectly illustrates how large organizations that cover a broad area can make a difference in many communities.
“Because of the grant funds, it’s more enticing for communities to work with us. It’s a huge incentive for communities to work with our REALTORS®,” Scodro says. “The funds help us spread the wealth and give back to the members.”
Placemaking Grant funds have provided seed money to not only help grow wholesome food and improve communities, but plant the seeds for fruitful relationships.