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From Vacant City Lots to Food On the Table

How to grow food where we need it.
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Urban Tilth staff Adam Boisvert and Quentin Dean and a group of high-school apprentices paint the borders of raised beds at the Lincoln School garden along the Greenway bicycle trail in Richmond, Calif.

Photo by Lane Hartwell for YES! Magazine

I asked a facilities engineer in the school district administration how Urban Tilth started its four school gardens. “They just did it. Nice, huh?” he said, a bit sardonically.

Young energy drives Urban Tilth—20-something activists, recent grads looking for work, students—and not just A-students. Tania Pulido, age 21, joined Urban Tilth last October after years as a self-described “troubled youth.”

“I used to cut school a lot, and I barely graduated,” she says. She now studies new media and film, is a political activist, and leads gardening projects on the bicycle trail and at the schools.

Seven of Urban Tilth’s 11 staff are under 30, and several began as high-school apprentices. Jessie Alberto was among the Richmond High students who brought the school’s garden back to life. Now 20 years old, he trains students to garden at Richmond and Kennedy High Schools. He doesn’t like the words “behavior problem.”

“I want to say we have kids who are really high in energy,” he says. He puts these kids in charge of their peers on labor-intensive projects—weeding, pruning, and digging. “The thinking and the vigorous work calms them down,” he says.


Rights to the Garden

There is a basic question that comes up when you sow seeds on land you don’t own. When parking strips and vacant lots fill with flowers and fruit trees, property values spike, then rents and taxes.

Daryl Hannah and Julia Butterfly Hill brought national attention to South Central Farm, the famous urban garden in Los Angeles that was cultivated by 350 mostly Latino families. But their efforts couldn’t stop the property’s owner from bulldozing it to build a warehouse. What happens when land becomes more valuable as a condominium development or a mall than a public garden? 

What happens when land becomes more valuable as a condominium development or a mall than a public garden?

My last stop with Robinson and Boisvert is Adams Middle School, which closed last fall as part of the school district’s budget cuts. The school is up a winding street in the hills to the east of downtown. Property values rise with elevation in Richmond, and this school is on expensive ground.

There is a level, circular plot behind a row of trees where Urban Tilth has planted tomatoes, an heirloom green called purple tree collards, nopal cactus, carrots, peas, and raspberries. Boisvert and Pulido have sketched out permaculture designs for this land, including a rain garden and a water catchment system.

The school district is using this property for storage. Boisvert and Robinson admit that the land is worth millions. The school district has no plans to sell but concedes that Urban Tilth would likely lose the garden if the land attracted a buyer. Robinson is negotiating with a local land trust to see if they might be willing to purchase the garden and keep it in cultivation.

Meanwhile, the city has hired 26 high-school kids to work with Urban Tilth through a summer youth program. Robinson plans to use their energy to build a new orchard.

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Four years ago, Richmond became one of the only major cities in the country to elect a Green Party mayor, Gayle McLaughlin. Under the mayor’s progressive food policy, local gardening groups plant flowers and food plants in city parks through a program called “Adopt-a-Park.” The city also gives them free logs to border raised beds, salvaged containers, wood chips, soil, and anything else that can be scavenged and repurposed for a garden. The city manager and mayor and local gardening groups are discussing a possible urban food ordinance: Gardening activists hope to make it easier to grow produce in Richmond front yards, gain access to water, and raise animals like bees, chickens, and goats.

I ask Robinson if she worries whether Urban Tilth’s prospects would shift suddenly if the city administration changes hands.

“I don’t,” she says. “What’s really important is the food we grow and the time we spend investing in people. We know people in Richmond are smart people. We have a huge reserve of brain energy here and historic connection to the land. And we just need to draw on that, respect it, and have faith in it.”

There’s more than food and land at stake here. If Urban Tilth can make gardening traditions into longstanding cultural institutions, and use a tomato plant or a raspberry vine to convince a teenager that Richmond is worth saving, their efforts will outlast anything that happens to the gardens themselves.


Madeline OstranderMadeline Ostrander wrote this article for A Resilient Community, the Fall 2010 issue of YES! Magazine.  Madeline is senior editor of YES! and grows potatoes in her backyard.

Header image by Lane Hartwell for YES! Magazine


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