Not far from the sparkling new, $1.5-billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta’s low-income Vine City neighborhood, Rosario Hernandez is in charge of a two-lot garden with raised beds that produced tomatoes, green beans and peppers this past summer and fall.
“People going to Falcons’ football games can’t see what we’re doing, but folks in Vine City are happy that we cleaned up those lots and are growing things,” said the retired elementary school teacher. “Why, we even have a pollinator garden that was filled with butterflies flitting from flower to flower during the growing season.”
The Vine City effort, dubbed “Hope With Gardens,” is just one small part of the burgeoning urban agriculture movement that is gaining strength around the country, experts say, encompassing everything from small plots in impoverished neighborhoods, to high-tech greenhouses on city rooftops, to new developments that include community gardens and small farms.
Victory gardens were big during World War II in the United States when the government rationed sugar, butter, milk, cheese, eggs, coffee, meat and canned goods, said Anne Palmer with the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
A generation later, gardening got a boost in the 1970s, she said, and it’s blossoming again in the 21st Century “under the umbrella term of urban agriculture that’s hitting a couple of different notes than it did in previous times,” she said.
“For Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit and other cities, urban agriculture is being used as a mechanism to address a lot of unused urban land and shrinking populations,” she said.
“Cities officials are looking around and asking what do we do with all this unused property? They don’t want it to just grow weeds and be blighted. They want to use that space for growing food and recreation and contributing to a sense of community.”
A number of cities have passed regulations to promote gardening and even farming on a small scale, sometimes with mixed results. “But it’s a movement that’s going to continue and new growers will come on when others drop out,” she said.
In addition to providing fresh produce for people who live in so-called “food deserts” — where grocery stores are often few and far between — schools and teachers are using gardens as a learning platform to get kids interested in growing food, creating good eating habits and learning about environmental health.
“They aren’t about making money per se, more about building community, providing nutritious food, job training and things like that, which is why they often need city support and soft funding from grants.
“Gardens can have other benefits, too, because they often encourage landlords to fix up their properties,” Hernandez added. “Green spaces in general are associated with lower crime rates and increased home values and community gardens are a part of that. REALTORS® will point to them as an asset because they build what we call ‘social capital.’ And these gardens aren’t just for poor areas, either, because developers have jumped on the community garden bandwagon, too.”
Ag in Atlanta raises communities
In Vine City, Hernandez said the Historic Westside Gardens (HWG) group negotiated with the elderly lady who owned the lots to start the gardens five years ago. She joined HWG three years ago and trained with Truly Living Well, an organization that runs a successful community garden in the Asheville Heights neighborhood of Atlanta. She also has a large garden in her backyard, where her grandchildren come to pick fresh vegetables in season.
Hernandez said she hopes to start a community garden in the English Avenue neighborhood where she lives and where she estimates 70 percent of the buildings are boarded up. It, too, is close to the new stadium.
“I think gardens could help turn things around,” she said. “The city says affordable housing is coming, but it takes time. I’m hoping we can work with Habitat for Humanity or some group like that to get lots and take it from there.”
Mario Cambardella, who was hired as Atlanta’s first director of urban agriculture in 2015, credits Mayor Kasim Reed for the community gardening push. Cambardella, who studied landscape architecture at the University of Georgia, said Reed wanted to put the city on a track to eliminate 75 percent of the city’s food deserts by 2020.
These deserts, defined as low-income neighborhoods with low access to markets with fresh food, had dropped from 56 percent in 2010 to 36 percent in 2017, according to some estimates. That was thanks, in part, to the increase in community gardens and the opening of new farmers’ markets, including four at Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) train stations in the city.
Cambardella’s department coordinates a variety of programs, including six urban garden sites in low-income neighborhoods that are about a quarter-acre each. The sites came from surplus city land and the city worked out five-year agreements with community groups to “farm” the properties.
“We have a lot of surplus land in parts of Atlanta, but few that are suitable for growing because of our tree canopy,” Cambardella said. “We’re known as the ‘City in the Forest’ for good reason. We love our trees, but they can make it hard to garden.”
Cambardella, who grew up in Atlanta, cited the Collegetown community garden on a former public housing site as a success story. It has programs that teach residents how to grow their own vegetables using raised beds, prepare and store produce and how to manage hoop houses for growing fruits and vegetables hydroponically from the spring into the fall.
“In Atlanta, urban agriculture serves four core values,” he said. “They are ecological literacy, cultural relevancy, health and nutrition and economic development.
“One house there tells a poignant story about economic gain. When the garden opened 18 months ago, a home across from the garden entry was selling for $18,000. Six months ago, an investor bought it, fixed it up and it’s now on the market for $200,000. So these gardens are not only lighthouses for nutrition and community, but they can have a major impact on the surrounding neighborhoods.”
Next up is a 7.1-acre “food forest” park in the southeast Atlanta neighborhood of Browns Mill, which is being developed by the city in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service and other partners.
“Seattle has an edible urban forest garden on Beacon Hill that we’ve visited, but their’s is only 7 acres,” he quipped. “And I’m mighty proud of our additional .1 acre.”
The city also has secured easements under Georgia Power lines that are larger — ranging from a half-acre to a full-acre — where urban farmers can grow crops for sale, he said.
Seattle’s growing opportunties
Seattle’s permaculture food forest dates to 2009, but its community gardening programs go back more than four decades to 1973, when the city acquired the Picardo Farms property in northeast Seattle and launched what came to be called the “P-Patch” program.
It began when a student said a community garden on a portion of the land would be a good way of teaching children about food and how to grow it, said Richard Fink II, who runs the Community Assets Division for the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.
The city now has 90 P-Patch gardens in every corner and nook and cranny of the city, he said, noting the original patch is still being worked. It now covers nearly 100,000 square feet with more than 250 individual plots. The wait time to get a plot is six to 12 months, according to a city website.
“Each P-Patch is different and reflects the interests and geography of the neighborhoods,” Fink said. Some are owned by the parks department and other agencies, while others are on private land.
“It varies from plot to plot,” he said. “Some are under power lines, others are built up on the sides of roads. Others in the middle of neighborhoods, while others are inside of parks.”
More than 3,100 people from all walks of life participated in the program this past summer. “With each garden, it’s primarily people from that geographic area with the gardens reflecting the demographic makeup of the neighborhood,” he explained.
Some, for example, would include families, with plots now being gardened by the children or grandchildren of those who started in the 1970s. Others, near a college, would have more students and faculty maintaining plots.
“At other P-Patches, we have community groups run by people with the intention of giving what’s grown in those plots to food banks located near the patch,” he said.
The program has 32 acres in cultivation, mainly growing organic produce, though there are also some fruit trees. “We absolutely consider it a success,” he said. “It is one of the largest and oldest community gardening programs in the entire country.
“Our overarching goals, in addition to raising vegetables and fruits, is for these patches to provide a gathering place for the community to share ideas, as well as to boost residents’ pride in where they live. It certainly contributes to a healthier urban environment here in Seattle. It’s a lot about camaraderie.”
Because the P-Patches are well known in their neighborhoods, Seattle recently designated all of them as emergency gathering places. In the event of any kind of disaster like an earthquake or fire, he said people know they can congregate there to share information and resources. “That’s just a natural extension of the community gardening program,” he said.
The Denver Plots
In Denver, Fatuma Emmad is the director of Urban Farms for the nonprofit group known as Groundwork and supervises three acres of gardens in low-income neighborhoods across Denver and runs “pay-what-youcan” farmsteads.
The largest plot of land she oversees is called the “Sisters Garden,” which covers one acre, has a greenhouse and is next to Regis University in the Aria neighborhood in northwest Denver.
Located in what Emmad calls a food desert, the garden is a collaboration between the university and Groundwork and is part of the school’s “Cultivate Health Project,” aimed at promoting healthy living in the area.
“When the nuns sold the land where the garden is located, which includes a former apple orchard and a nunnery that is now cooperative housing, they required the developers to have a farm and mixed-income housing,” she said of the neighborhood, which is close to downtown and on the edge of an area that is rapidly being gentrified.
“We are lucky to have this, because land is at such a premium here in Denver,” added Emmad, a native of Ethiopia who grew up in Denver and ran her own urban agriculture company before joining Groundwork.
“I like growing things and helping bring people together,” she said. “We have classes on canning, improving the soil, salad-making and even free yoga in the Sisters Garden. We try to be sustaining, too, by selling high-quality produce to restaurants, but our scope is broader than that.”
Vertical Farming Near the Big Apple
Nearly 2,000 miles away in Brooklyn, New York, Henry Gordon-Smith has turned his blog into a business called Agritecture, which offers hydroponic and soil greenhouse — both rooftop and ground-based — “vertical” farming and other urban agriculture consulting services to clients around the globe.
A native of Hong Kong who spent his early years there and in Tokyo, Gordon-Smith said he developed a “thing for parks in Asia and how they use space.”
“But I didn’t grow up with a green thumb,” said Gordon- Smith. “And it wasn’t until I got to New York City five years ago that I started to get hands-on experience by volunteering at urban farms.”
Before that, he said potential clients said they liked his ideas, but were reluctant to hire him because he had little experience getting his hands in the dirt (or water) and had not actually grown fruits or vegetables.
Gordon-Smith, 31, said he caught the urban agriculture bug when he was a student in Vancouver, British Columbia studying political science. He met and wrote about people who were farming backyards in his Agritecture blog “because I thought their ideas about food and water security were very interesting.
“Initially, I thought I’d enter the foreign service, but I had an itch to scratch and thought urban gardening was something worth exploring. Most of all, I really like designing systems visually, figuring out how things relate and coming up with a business model to make it all work.”
At first, he created what he calls “a digital space to talk about how urban agriculture can play a role in cities of the future and juxtaposed that with what was happening in the industry at the time.” He adds, “I became an industry commentator, began to speak at events and over time, became a go-to guy for people who had a building, wanted to start a farm and wanted advice on what they could grow.”
He recruited an interdisciplinary team with engineers, growers and plant scientists who helped him develop what he calls “a methodology around feasibility studies for urban agriculture.” Most of his clients have been in the Northeast, but Agritecture has consulted on projects in Europe, Mexico and as far away as Shanghai, China.
Gordon-Smith has developed a niche in vertical farming — the practice of growing food in vertically stacked layers or inclined surfaces in controlled settings — and co-founded the Association of Vertical Farming.
One of the largest hydroponic vertical farms in the country is located in Newark, N.J., where a company called Aerofarms produces leafy greens in a 69,000-squarefoot greenhouse.
They come in smaller sizes, too, he noted. The ski town of Jackson, Wyo., where snow is often on the ground eight months a year, is home to a 4,500-square-foot vertical greenhouse that turns out upwards of 100,000 pounds of fresh produce annually, most of which is snapped up by local restaurants, or sold in a retail market in the greenhouse.
But growing vegetables isn’t the only reason for the indoor hanging garden’s existence. More than a dozen people who have disabilities such as spina bifida, autism, Down syndrome or have seizure disorders work at the garden, a public-private partnership.
“They took the facade of a three-story parking garage and converted it into a vertical farm,” Gordon-Smith said. “That’s pretty creative. But really, it’s like a rooftop that is vertical. Just imagine a south-facing building with a six-to-10-foot deep skin where you grow vegetables and also generate solar heat.”
Gordon-Smith said his company looks at the “full spectrum of urban agriculture in the context of real estate and urban planning.
“All along the way, there are aesthetic, ecological and economic impacts and tradeoffs. It’s really about identifying the right solutions for each area. But as consultants, we get more requests on the high-tech side because the capital costs are higher, it’s an area where a lot of mistakes have been made, and where there is a lot of hype and excitement at the moment.”
He said his vision for urban agriculture is ambitious. “We’re demonstrating the positive impacts of these kinds of farms across the spectrum, in such a way that cities will see the benefits of incentivizing them and that large corporations will understand the value of integrating them into what they do.
“I want cities to be more productive and I think agriculture is a way to do that. Rainwater harvesting and energy production is part of that, but I want cities everywhere to be more than places that consume energy and then generate waste, but have positive outputs.
“Rooftops alone have a huge amount of potential. Another one is basements. I’ve been lobbying New York to allow people to grow food there,” said Gordon-Smith.
“If you look at housing projects, they have enormous basements. The technology of growing food indoors has gotten much more affordable and viable, but the building codes have not kept up with the technology. I think cities need to find a way to let people make use of all kinds of usable space for growing food.”Brian E. Clark is a Wisconsin-based journalist and a former staff writer on the business desk of The San Diego Union-Tribune. He is a contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dallas Morning News and other publications.