City and Neighborhood Programs Nurture Growth of Community Agriculture
Portland, Seattle, and Austin have more in common than a large bearded population and a desire to keep their cities “weird.” They also have some of the most extensive community gardening programs in the nation.
Jake Stewart, head of the City of Austin’s Sustainable Urban Agriculture and Community Garden Program, recently visited the other two cities to study ways the City and the gardens can work together.
“It’s basically an unwritten book on how to engage from the municipality side – water policy and zoning is a big deal,” Stewart said. “Austin is one of the few cities where community gardens and urban agriculture are an approved use in any zone. That allows us to use an underutilized property or barren piece of land, especially an eyesore.”
It also means a City arm like the one Stewart is growing may be necessary to ensure not only that rules are followed but also that the gardens and their gardeners have the best resources at their disposal.
The Sustainable Urban Agriculture and Community Garden Program was created in 2009 to be a main point of contact for Austin’s various grassroots initiatives around foods, Stewart said. The City Council wanted to centralize urban agriculture efforts and brought Stewart on in 2011.
“I started with no budget and a belly full of passion,” he said. “I’m here because I believe in this stuff; I’m not here to retire.”
The City of Austin has 33 (give or take a few from year to year) City-endorsed community gardens, meaning they have a leadership team together and are in place to benefit and provide access to the public, and they’ve filled out their paperwork.
“The city is effectively helping them out, so the idea behind it is to make sure that it’s a genuine community garden or sustainable urban agriculture project,” Stewart said. There are many more neighborhood gardens dotted around Austin, ranging from front yard plots to neighbor-claimed road medians.
The gardens are “as different as the neighborhoods they’re in,” Stewart said. Each garden has a facilitator or leader who responds to inquiries and helps assign plots. Gardens can range in size from as small as 4-by-8 feet to as large as 10-by-20 feet.
“My biggest strategy is to focus on empowerment for garden leaders, so we work a lot with leadership teams,” Stewart said. “Where it’s on public land, I didn’t want it to be ‘we’re coming to inspect’ but rather that we’re empowering the gardens to take care of themselves.”
The Deep Eddy Community Garden, for example, resides on land that belongs to the Austin Parks Department and has 34 plots, all of which are claimed. There’s a three-year waiting list for a plot, showing the popularity of the idea.
“Gardens in neighborhoods give people an opportunity to get to know their neighbors and work on projects with them, provide a space for gardening that does not require you to drive and the opportunity to get exercise and grow your own healthy produce, and connect you to the cycles of nature and the magic of the sprouting seed,” said Flo Rice, one of the leaders of the Deep Eddy Community Garden.
Of course, the idea of community gardening in Austin is hardly new. Austin’s Sustainable Food Center was founded in 1975 as Austin Community Gardens, with an original mission to “help low-income community members identify, secure and grow food on land they were physically near and could access in order to supplement their fresh produce intake,” said Susan Leibrock, community relations director of the Sustainable Food Center and manager of the Hyde Park Community Garden.
SFC was a founding member of the Coalition of Austin Community Gardens in 2008 to facilitate the creation of more community gardens and to foster stability and land security for existing gardens. SFC serves the coalition in an advisory and participatory role, helping to move local policy in favor of community gardens and facilitate dialogue between gardeners, Leibrock said.
Part of what makes community gardening such a success in Austin is simply that it’s in Austin, Leibrock said.
“Austin has always been a free-thinking city, in my view,” she said. “The people tend toward a progressive sensibility and a love of the democratic process in action. The gardens are just a manifestation of that.”
As the new kid on the block, the Sustainable Urban Agriculture and Community Garden Program is still finding its place, working with the City, the public and Austin’s network of non-profits, to find the best balance of community and City resources, Stewart said, adding that the biggest challenges now are resources.
The program is essentially without budget; funding covers only staffing. As a result, Stewart has been working on a variety of projects to obtain external resources, including applying for grants.
“We’re quickly growing and feeding off what’s going on in the community,” he said. “There’s so much going on in grass roots and a big part of what we do is help connect dots – what’s happening in East Austin might not be connected to what’s happening in North Austin – or connecting people who are doing complementary projects. It’s exciting to see that kind of energy.”
Some of the initiatives Stewart is focusing on include pilot programs to introduce gardening projects at senior centers and recreation centers, as well as to work with local artists to answer the question, “How do you make a compost pile beautiful?',” he said. In drought-stricken Central Texas, another focus is on water management and climate-adapted agriculture, and the ideas and requests for help just keep coming.
“Week 1, the calls started coming in; it was a little like drinking water out of a fire hydrant,” Stewart said. "It’s all kinds of projects and they’re coming to us, which is exciting. We want to continue to increase bandwidth and also continue to find funding.”
Programs aren’t just focused on gardens. One pilot program in Rosewood is attempting to connect people in low-income areas with fresh produce by creating a food hub in the neighborhood, preventing people from having to travel to farmers markets while still helping them understand and experience the slow food movement.
These sorts of projects, including community gardens, provide more than one solution for neighborhoods. They bring neighbors together, improve security through communication (the more neighbors talk, the safer their neighborhoods become), increase property value and help children understand food and nutrition, hopefully decreasing childhood obesity and diabetes, Stewart said.
“It’s bigger than just the growing of the food. You get this fabric of the community in a garden, which is a really beautiful thing, and what you end up producing is this food you can sit around the same table and share,” he said. “We’ve been doing this for tens of thousands of years, and the crazier our world gets now, it’s even that much more important that we connect with each other and with the food we eat.”
Leibrock, who also serves on the board of the American Community Gardening Association, said that organization is seeing an increase nationwide in the growth of food gardening as a cultural value and pursuit.
“It’s important to know where our food is coming from for many of us in the good food movement, and it’s also vital that biodiversity be preserved not only for now, but for generations to come,” she said. “When neighbors join to grow food together, they begin to realize they can organize in other ways. I see food as a conduit for peace where it has been a weapon of war and a pathway for positive communication where we have built walls of racism, class separation and hatred.”