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The Urban Agriculture Movement: Partnerships in Motion

It’s fairly common for cities to have community gardens located on public parkland.  But what if these gardens were not just isolated patches of green space serving only the neighborhood they are located in?  What if these gardens were actually part of a larger citywide movement to promote urban sustainability?

A recent article on Urban Omnibus highlights the Five Borough Farm, a project of the Design Trust for Public Space, whose mission is to create a citywide plan to support urban agriculture in New York City by “bringing together urban farmers, community gardeners, educators, and advocates from across the city to partner with experts in sustainable development, urban planning, food policy and program evaluation.”  The project works in partnership with Added Value, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that operates one of the city’s largest farms.  Mostly targeted towards youth, Added Value has helped revitalize local parks, transform vacant lands into vibrant Urban Farms, improve access to healthy, safe and affordable food, and begun to grow an economy that supports the needs of the community.

Over the course of this year, the Five Borough Farm team will be evaluating the city’s existing urban agriculture activity, establishing a set of metrics by which to quantify the benefits of urban agriculture and creating policy recommendations for relevant city agencies.

Nevin Cohen, an urban food policy expert and chair of Environmental Studies at the New School, is the Policy Fellow responsible for surveying the existing urban agriculture landscape in New York City and identifying new opportunities and recommendations.  As he explains in the interview:

Urban agriculture engages people citywide in initiatives to strengthen and improve the social, ecological, and economic well-being of their communities and, by extension, the city as a whole.  The scope of Five Borough Farm includes the youth leadership programs, school-based curricula, entrepreneurial rooftop farms, and related infrastructure – from composting projects to farmstands – that make urban agriculture such a powerful, multidimensional movement.  The urban agriculture system — and it really needs to be addressed as a system — is a promising model of community development that has the potential to improve many aspects of urban life.

Cohen also adds that the results of the project will be bigger than just growing healthier food:

But the benefits are about more than just the quantity of food that can be grown.  Community gardens make neighborhoods more livable, and also increase property values.  Innovative entrepreneurial urban farms create jobs and make underused spaces safe and productive.  Non-profit urban agriculture projects teach young people about ecology, food and nutrition, and help build skills and confidence.  Productive green spaces keep rainwater out of our sewer system, reduce the urban heat island effect, and recycle organic matter.  The impacts are far-reaching — as many practitioners will tell you, urban agriculture is a social justice movement.

One of the exciting aspects of this project is the idea that partnerships, in addition to measurable data, is the key to success.  The Five Borough Farm project hopes to bridge this more-often-than-not barrier and get practitioners constructively communicating with each other.

It is well-known that some of the most successful park systems rely on partnerships with others, from non-profits who provide volunteers for park clean-ups, to transportation departments who provide funding for trail improvements, to private individuals who provide endowments to create new parks.  Although it is true that one person can make a difference, just imagine the endless possibilities a team of committed individuals can accomplish.  The impacts could reach every park, community garden and neighborhood of an entire city.

Some news from around…

  • Seniors will comprise 20% of the nation’s population by 2030, and Philadelphia is investigating how its parks could better serve the needs of older citizens (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
  • Is there room for horses, hikers, and cyclists on Los Angeles’ urban trails? (Los Angeles Times)
  • New York University’s expansion threatens seven small, yet beloved, green spaces in Greenwich Village (The New York Times)
  • Central Park’s 3,500-year old obelisk known as Cleopatra’s Needle, a gift of the Egyptian government, may be removed due to concerns about damage (MSNBC)

Creating Parkland Along River and Stream Corridors

A fourth excerpt from the recently released book published by Island Press called Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. In this post, we look at some cities who have created parkland along their waterways.

Every city has streams, and streamside areas offer some of the most attractive sites for parks. But streams also present flooding hazards, and many have been placed in pipes and sunk underground. Getting them back out in the open often involves buying and removing houses or other buildings, which is expensive and politically difficult.

Sometimes a severe flood offers the municipality the opportunity to acquire and demolish badly damaged structures. The greenway through the center of Rapid City, South Dakota, was created when the city resolved to never rebuild in the flood zone after a catastrophic deluge there in 1972. In Tulsa, following the deadly Memorial Day flood of 1984, 528 creekside houses and mobile homes were purchased and removed and a greenway was constructed with soccer fields, tennis courts, trails, and fishing spots. More recently, the Greater Grand Forks Greenway was created when the Red River floodplain was cleared of structures after the devastating flood in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and East Grand Forks, Minnesota, in 1997. The greenway park totals 2,200 acres and includes a campground, two golf courses, a disc golf course, fishing sites, and 20 miles of multipurpose trails.

Clark's Creek Greenway. Credit: Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department

In contrast, in Houston, the Harris County Flood Control District buys large amounts of land alongside bayous (creeks) in order to provide space for water retention and a buffer for flooding. Today, it has jurisdiction over an amazing 2,500 miles of channels. While the District does not initiate trail projects or manage human use, it is more than willing to partner with other government agencies or even citizen organizations in providing for recreation; its best-known trail, along Bray’s Bayou, serves hundreds of thousands of cyclists and walkers each year.

The Flood Control District receives dedicated tax revenue from all Houston area property owners. However, this is not the only conceivable way to pay for streamside land acquisition. Another possibility would be to upzone the neighborhoods on either side of the widened waterway, allowing for greater density, greater height, more dwelling units, and more property tax revenue — using the bayou park to offer more people pretty views and nearby recreation and to become the seed of new higher-value development.

Another place that has focused a great deal of analysis, attention and money on streams is Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, the county that includes Charlotte. Mecklenburg is perfectly willing — anxious, even — to buy at-risk houses and commercial structures, tear them down, and turn the resulting land into greenway parks. This program is a truly gritty one — not just looking at buying virgin land to avoid future flooding costs, but also looking to fix existing inappropriate development problems from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

“The best way to totally eliminate the flooding risk is to remove the structures,” says Dave Canaan, the county’s director of water and land resources. “I want a situation where we’ll never have to dispatch our Swift Water Rescue Team.” As of mid-2009, a total of about 120 acres had been purchased in greater Charlotte and 248 structures torn down — most of them after having been flooded numerous times. (These are all “willing buyer-willing seller” situations; in one case, a creekside warehouse owner spurned a buyout offer only to return, hat in hand, after having been catastrophically flooded twice in the following two years.)

In fact, it appears that Mecklenburg County’s streamside park program will be expanding in size. In a 1997 deluge, when seventeen properties that were deemed unfloodable flooded, planners realized that something was wrong with their maps. It turned out that they were out of date and didn’t take into account increased runoff from all the new development. Relying on the maps was like buying a child a child-sized bed and expecting it to last his lifetime. To make sure that never happened again, Mecklenburg used computer mapping to project “ultimate runoff” — that time in the future when the county is developed to the maximum extent under existing law. The result was dramatic. The 100-year flood stage on the average creek jumped up 4 vertical feet — which widened the average floodplain by 180 feet (to 610 feet rather than the previous 430). This is now the standard the county uses in preventing development or buying at-risk properties.

Similarly impressive is the way Mecklenburg County funds the project. About half the money comes from park bonds, the other half from stormwater fees paid by every landowner in the county. Interestingly, the fees are set on a sliding scale based on what percentage of a property is impervious. The more a property is covered by a dwelling or paved for other uses — the more rainwater will run off — the more the landowner pays. (Using analysis of aerial photography, the Stormwater Services Department literally knows the amount of impervious area on each of the 330,000 improved properties in the county.)

Gwynns Falls Trail, Baltimore. Credit: Ken Sherman

Some visible creeks are not in parks but merely run alongside roads. Occasionally it may be possible to decommission and depave one of these roads, convert it into a walking trail or bikeway, and reclassify the streamside land into parkland. When the city of Baltimore created the Gwynns Falls Trail, part of the route used a former road bordering the stream. Some of the road segments had been damaged in storms while others had been so lightly used they were deemed expendable. The intact portions were left alone and simply reclassified as closed to cars; the wrecked portions were narrowed and rebuilt to look like traditional trailway.

“Daylighting” buried streams — bringing them back to the surface — is an appealing concept since water adds so much to a park. But the challenges of daylighting should not be minimized. The expense stems not so much from removing the pipe but from widening and regrading the bed and the floodplain to prevent siltation, erosion, gouging, and the other problems endemic to streams in altered environments. The hydrology and ecology of even a small stream valley is awesomely complex. In the 1980s, St. Paul, Minnesota wanted to daylight Phalen Creek though Swede Hollow Park. When water volumes and the confined topography proved too difficult, the engineers settled on bringing a portion of the flow to the surface while leaving most of it underground in the pipe. In neighboring Minneapolis, when the city wanted to raise up Bassett Creek through a new park, the city had to settle for the less ecologically “real” solution of digging an artificial stormwater pond in the middle of the park and leaving Basset Creek where it was — underground.

One of the few unmitigated daylighting successes occurred in the mid-1980s in Berkeley, California, where a citizen group named Urban Ecology lobbied the city to bring Strawberry Creek to the surface. After a lengthy political effort and the appropriation of $580,000, a 200-feet section of creek was daylighted through a park that had been created out of an abandoned rail yard.

As you can see, the re-naturalization of urban areas can be expensive, incremental, and slow, but well worth the time, money and process.

Turning Redfields to Greenfields in Philadelphia and Beyond

This post is a follow-up to our previous entry about Philadelphia’s plan to turn 500 acres of underused land into city parks by 2015.

When a single good-sized maple tree can add over $7,000 to a home’s sale value, according to a study in Portland, Oregon, it’s not difficult to imagine the effect of turning large swaths of derelict urban land into parks, gardens, and playgrounds. Private properties in financial distress, or “redfields,” are the focus of a number of cities, such as Philadelphia, that are developing creative re-utilization strategies for underused land.

Increased property values are expected to be one of the most profound impacts of the Green 2015 initiative; the report states that vacant properties can reduce adjacent home values by 6-20%, adding up to a total of $3.6 billion in lost household wealth across the city.

Parks can significantly increase nearby property values, as evidenced in the real estate that surrounds Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia.

Well-tended parks could not only eliminate this negative effect, but also significantly improve the value of nearby residences. The Center for City Park Excellence has calculated that Philadelphia’s 10,000 acre park system is responsible for adding $220 million to the assessed value of nearby homes. Though the study only included parks larger than one acre, it is known that even small green spaces can influence property values. 

As part of its Green City Blue Lake initiative, Cleveland began the ReImagining a Greater Cleveland program in 2008, which is focused largely on promoting urban agriculture and green infrastructure. Cleveland has 20,000 vacant lots, 5,000 of which are held in a land bank. With funds from the Surdna Foundation, Neighborhood Progress, Inc., and Cleveland’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program, 56 community groups have started pilot projects which the city will examine to develop best practices moving forwards.

Residents of Baltimore have undertaken many self-motivated conversions of city-owned vacant land.  Community gardens, pocket parks, and horseshoe courts, often marked with handmade signs, have sprouted up in unused lots. When the city recently announced efforts to accelerate the sale of 14,000 of its vacant lots, a group called Baltimore Green Space responded by enlisting residents to help catalog the vacant properties which they had converted, which the city plans to use to help preserve up to 300 green spaces.

Miami-Dade County’s redfields to greenfields plan, centered on the creation of transit-oriented parks alongside the Metrorail line and Miami River greenways, emphasizes job creation as a primary benefit. The construction industry (hit hard by the same recession responsible for the glut of abandoned properties in the region) could stand to gain over 14,000 jobs per year over five years, reports the City Parks Alliance.

The process of cleaning up vacant sites can be green and economical, too. The Dirt (ASLA blog) featured an article recently detailing how abandoned brownfield sites can be cleaned up with a process called phytoremediation, in which plants absorb toxins into their tissue. Some plants eliminate the toxins entirely, while others have to be removed as hazardous waste. In any case, the process, used by Cleveland in some of its pilot projects, can be 90% cheaper than traditional methods while providing the added bonus of improved air quality and stormwater retention.

Cities pursuing redfield to greenfield strategies are varied in terms of geography and economic history, but their ethos, summed up nicely by ReImagining a Greater Cleveland, is the same:

A city’s weakness is only as weak as their lack of ability to see potential in the opportunity any ‘crisis’ affords.

Some news from around…

  • San Francisco’s newest Pavement to Parks project, which will provide more room on Powell Street for pedestrians, is sponsored by…a car company (Streetsblog San Francisco)
  • The upside of Wisconsin’s abandonment of high-speed rail: more room for parks in Madison (The Cap Times)
  • What to expect from the second phase of New York’s High Line, which will double the length of the park (The New York Times)
  • Pittsburgh’s Schenley Plaza will soon be enveloped in a “learning cloud” that can educate visitors about park features through their mobile devices (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
  • “Interesting, but functionally irrelevant”: how an underused bus shelter explains the predicament of a St. Paul park (St. Paul Pioneer Press)
  • How public-private partnerships are helping New York parks to recover from September’s tornadoes (The Brooklyn Ink)
  • Brownfields, greyfields, and now redfields: failed commercial properties may be the next frontier in urban park development (Miller-McCune)
  • An announcement fit for the New Year: four San Diego parks are set to be redesigned to accommodate future public celebrations (The San Diego Union-Tribune)