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Miracle Grow: Urban Gardening

Picture this: Braddock as the county seat of urban agriculture.

That’s the long term goal of Braddock Mayor John Fetterman. “Braddock has an abundant inventory of underutilized or vacant lots – it is important to develop a comprehensive plan to deal with those lots, including farming," he says.

Imagining farms in the wake of Braddock’s industrial past is a new and dramatic vision of redevelopment, one that’s fueled by urban ecology. The transforming of urban lots into urban gardens and farms is a hot topic throughout Pittsburgh, with everyone from the mayor and Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz School to the Sprout Fund and community organizers, supporting research and funding to develop the area’s vacant lots, which number 14,000 in Pittsburgh alone.

The goal? Soil remediation and beautification to start. Vacant lots provide local food production opportunities, create new green-collar jobs and stoke community revitalization. Through literacy, nutrition, and teaching the basic values of teamwork and good citizenship, grassroots gardens improve transitional neighborhoods by reclaiming abandoned land.

The Edible Schoolyard

“Gardens give kids an example of how to make their world a better place,” offers Laura Winter, who runs the 4,000 square foot Green Millenium Garden in the Central Northside. For instance, when asked to describe the garden one child enthused, “A place where everybody is a friend and works together.” Wednesday nights, this garden draws neighbors for harvesting, learning about nutrition and nature, and strengthening community ties. Children take home what they grow, infusing an urban neighborhood with freshly picked produce and flowers. It’s about getting back to nature and instilling community pride.

Winter, who credits the Green Millenium Garden as a catalyst for earning her education degree, completed her student teaching at Dilworth Traditional Academy- a great fit for a green thumb. Dilworth and Helen Faison are two Pittsburgh Public Schools that recently planted Edible Schoolyards, a movement that started at a Berkeley school in the 1990s by food pioneer Alice Waters. It is now a model program that teaches nutrition through gardening.

In 2006, Grow Pittsburgh, a sustainable agriculture non-profit, joined progressive parents and administrators to initiate Pittsburgh’s first Edible Schoolyards.

“Hard work yields good fruit,” notes Dilworth’s Principal Monica Lamar. Students dig, plant, harvest and taste on the grounds of their own schoolyards. For their first planting season, farmer Josh Burnett worked with the children to plant indigenous crops of vegetables and fruits. These garden fruits yield academic and life lessons: studying the life cycle of plants reflects the district’s science curriculum while it imparts the value of hard work, good nutrition and responsibility. But the bigger picture vision as Lamar sees it: “A garden helps us understand why we need to take care of Pittsburgh.”

Literacy Lesson
While gardens are a natural for teaching science, a group of dedicated Manchester citizens cultivate a garden as a vehicle for literacy, too. “After 10 years of getting kids into Harvard and Yale while watching kids in my own neighborhood end up in jail, I realized I needed to help,” says Carol Gonzales, former private school educator. Along with horticulturalist Ginny Landis, they shepherd Up with Reading, Up with Life, a program that mentors elementary school children at Emmanuel Episcopal Church and in a Manchester garden. Kids are paired one-on-one with after-school tutors at the church, and continue in the garden during growing seasons. In the summer, the kids bridge the gap in the garden with reading, art, nutrition, and harvesting.

A key advantage to garden programs is that they fight urban blight while restoring hope, like the Stone Soup and Serenity Gardens started by Wilkinsburg residents five years ago. To realize the gardens, citizens such as Wilkinsburg School Board member Jerome Garrett persisted with absentee landlords to secure the lots.

“We had a multidimensional approach to reclaim seven abandoned lots, stop dumping, and create an opportunity for people to socialize,” says resident Josie Bryant. It was a boost to the community when families turned a dumping ground into a beautiful spot where they gather to harvest and share meals. “Some communities don’t have the tough issues that Wilkinsburg has,” Bryant says. “The garden is a free-standing, living example of the empowerment of people – a reason to say, ‘Look what this little seed can create!’”

Fueling Braddock
Neighboring Wilkinsburg is Braddock, a community spearheading vacant lot innovation through the Braddock Youth Project and biofuel production. An employment program, the Braddock Youth Project hired youth to design a garden in a vacant lot and, along with Americorps staff member Andrea Arrington, created a garden in just six weeks. The intent is to do a soil remediation program using brassica plants; the plot will eventually harvest food in place of detritus. 

Grow Pittsburgh has recognized Braddock’s potential as a hot spot for urban agriculture, having acquired Braddock land for their farm.

In Lincoln Larimer, ambitious permaculturist Carol Walsh of the Urban Farm Initiative is also turning a lot into a local marketplace. Walsh became involved last summer when children visited the ¾ acre Odessa Street plot – donated land with a mandate to “bring the community to the land.” Similar to the Braddock Youth Project, these Lincoln Larimer youth will plant brassicas to remediate the land over three to five years. The plan is for the community to create a viable business off the land, says Walsh. One market is herbs which are now being brought in from California at a high cost. “We can grow them ourselves,” she adds.

While Youth Places may spur teenaged green collar jobs, there is also a decades-old, seasoned youth conservation program: the Student Conservation Association (SCA). Pittsburgh is fortunate to host one of their eight U.S. field offices, including a high school program centered on leadership development through environmental advocacy. Approximately 24 youth participate in SCA annually, working on local conservation as well as in our national parks.

SCA youth interned with Healcrest Farms last August, farming Garfield lots and developing Healcrest’s business model. Nathan Shaffer, youth coordinator says, “A student who had participated in another SCA project was able to consult Healcrest regarding tools that would complete their hoop greenhouse. These kids build technical skills, work on projects in teams, and learn things that are applicable in just about every area of life.”

Amidst all the life lessons is this kernel of truth: Pittsburgh’s urban farming projects represent seeds of hope for a green economy that is reflected in our region’s development - from green building and river restoration to innovative ecological research, green collar jobs, and most of all, neighborhood improvement.

Jen Saffron misses her vegetable garden from long ago and loves the North Side Farmers’ Market.


The garden at Helen Faison Academy

Laura Winter teaching neighborhood children at the Green Millennium Garden

Farmer Josh Burnett and Principal Monica Lamar at the Dilmore School Garden

Josie Bryant (far left) and Stone Soup and Serenity gardeners

Creed Pollard-Scott transplants a flower in the Green Millenium Garden

All photographs copyright © Renee Rosensteel


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