SPECIAL SERIES : The Revolution Issue
Planting Action
Community secret gardens in the metropolis by the bay

One-acre of land sits quietly along side the bustling traffic of 7th Avenue in the Inner Sunset. Planter boxes of garlic, mustard greens, red russian kale, carrots and beets, among others, line its winding dirt pathways. A small wooden gazebo covered in winter vines of jasmine provides access to the heart of the garden where 10 workshop participants are engrossed in their own tasks. A small group surrounds a wheelbarrow full of freshly mixed soil, sinking their hands into the pile and emerging with fistfuls; shaking, sifting, squeezing, smelling, they attempt to discern its composition. Others excitedly dig through piles of seed packets: swiss chard, globe artichokes, arugula, winter squash and basil begin to fill six-pack plastic planters filled three-fourths with soil. Their watering technique is something to be desired, but they label their markers in dull pencil in hopes of seeing their own produce come to life.

Unless you live in the neighborhood, you would more than likely bypass this garden without regard, as it is relatively unknown to the casual passerby. But this nationally acclaimed demonstration garden has been an educational site for urban compost systems, organic gardening, and sustainable food production since 1990.

“Eating food is one of the most essential activities of our day but that importance is not mirrored in our attitude towards food,” says Blair Randall, Garden Education Program Manager for Garden for the Environment.

Originally a component of the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG), Garden for the Environment (GFE) is a San Francisco based organization, which focuses on urban agriculture as a means of ecological food production. By educating the public about the incorporation of modern sustainable agriculture, GFE hopes to instill the benefits of reusable organic food production and its contribution to generating safe and clean environments.

“A day at the Garden for the Environment is a chance to participate in a by-gone activity for a city dweller but undeniably the most important activity on earth; growing food,” says Randall. “I love watching this moment unfold. I love enabling this moment. I love helping this moment happen. I love watching a day at the GFE unfold in its many conversations and activities and moments of intense subtle beauty.”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, until recently, agriculture was considered an exclusively rural activity. Today, 30 percent of agricultural production in the United States (and 15 percent globally) originates from within metropolitan areas.

Sponsored by San Francisco’s Department of the Environment and fiscally sponsored by the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council (HANC), GFE aims to increase those percentages, as food sustainability is still a viable concern in urban areas. The David Suzuki Foundation estimates that a great deal of our food still travels over 1,400 miles before reaching our plates. In addition, the production of that food for a family of four, including packaging and distribution, can release up to eight tons of carbon dioxide annually.

GFE reaches the community through Gardening and Composting Educator Training programs, school education programs, urban gardening internships, home composting instruction and free or low-cost community education workshops. These programs highlight the fact urban agriculture provides a community-based infrastructure shifting power from the producer to the consumer.

“Many people come to this program when shifting career paths, to learn about gardening, or are just interested in joining a movement,” says Suzi Palladino, the school program and compost education manager for GFE. “They create this great force. It’s inspiring to watch them apply what they’ve gained.”

The foundation of urban agriculture is meant to interact with the urban ecosystem. And while land in major metropolitan cities is constantly in competition for other urban functions, there is still a viable and necessary need for, often vacant, city spaces to be utilized in a productive and dynamic way. Urban agriculture and gardens have long been an effective way to improve urban conditions. Laura Lawson, assistant professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Illinois and author of City Bountiful contends, “Urban gardening remains an appealing approach because it shows immediate results, is highly participatory and is relatively cheap compared to other strategies, such as new housing, more jobs or school reform.”

Victory Gardens 2007+ (VG2007+) is a program meant to take urban agriculture one step further. Not only does it promote sustainable food practices, but it also calls for cities to take a more dynamic and active approach in shaping agricultural policy. With a goal of being adopted by the City of San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department, VG2007+ aspires to have a subsidized home gardening program for residents and neighborhoods across the city.

“Urban agriculture is not only important due to the fact [that] the amount of people living in cities right now and the demands that importing food to feed these people is grand, but it is also important as a step towards sustainability, self reliance and less CO2 emissions," says Amy Franceschini, lead artist for VG2007+ and founder of Futurefarmers, Free Soil, and Cultivating Consciousness.

Victory Gardens was originally established during World War I and II. On both private and public plots of land, these “war gardens” were intended to alleviate the stress on the American food supply caused by the war. Participation in the Victory Gardens program grew rapidly as it was viewed as a means of indirectly supporting the war effort and also encouraged public morale and recreation. In 1943, 20 million gardens were producing eight million tons of food, 41 percent of all produce consumed nationally. San Francisco’s program was among the most successful in the nation with over 800 plots occupying Golden Gate Park alone.

VG2007+ is reviving the original Victory Gardens project with a similar spirit, but with new goals. With tools, training, start-up kits, exhibits and Web sites, VG2007+ hopes to transform back and front yards, roofs and public land into food producing plots. Thus creating and supporting a network of urban farmers and the beginning roots to sustainable urban agriculture practices in a major metropolis independent of corporate food systems.

In City Bountiful, Lawson asserts that gardens appear in “neighborhoods, often to express a new environmental ethic and reconnect neighbors during a time of social unrest. This reconnection with nature is often associated with improving social and psychological health. Today, gardens are often described as oases of green in a concrete-dominated urban world.”

In early fall of 2006, Franceschini, who has partnered with former president of the Board of Supervisors and Green Party member Matt Gonzalez, approached Randall and Palladino of GFE to propose a partnership with VG 2007+.

“This is really a chance to take our organization and garden and the issue of food security beyond who we normally reach,” says Randall. Randall has long considered the idea of having an artist in residence in the GFE garden and he admits that Franceschini is a perfect fit. “Art has a way of energizing any subject,” says Randall. “Victory Gardens can do that for food sustainability. There’s kind of a ‘cool’ factor to it and it could take an inherently good message further.”

Currently GFE will not only serve as the location of a city seed bank, but will also work with Franceschini to integrate and organize a series of public workshops, lectures and film screenings to aide in educating the public about VG2007+ and issues surrounding farming and food sustainability. Franceschini will use a small portion of the demonstration garden to show how a Victory Garden could manifest in someone’s backyard.

“The art aspect has given the project a tone of humor and symbolism,” says Franceschini. “I also hope that working in an organic way without any huge plan will bring it a fresh tone and leave it open for new ideas and input.”

Although it’s still in the early stages of its inception, VG2007+ has generated an extreme amount of interest and excitement among various organizations and city departments.

“Right now, the interest and momentum is most exciting,” says Franceschini. “I did not realize what an incredible demand there would be for such a program. I am also excited about working with real gardeners and activists to move this process in a ‘real’ direction.”

President of the Board of Supervisors, Aaron Peskin, has endorsed a public hearing scheduled to happen in May 2007. Franceschini and her team will formally request funding to expand VG2007+ with specific objectives in mind - reclaiming the original Victory Gardens in Golden Gate Park to create a public “teaching garden,” distributing a fixed number of low-cost starter kits, creating a city seed bank, and an online gardener registry.

“The most ideal outcome for me would be if the city would adopt the program in a serious way and see it as instrumental in their greening path,” says Franceschini. “If the city would fully develop the project to the extent that other cities could use our model, this would be my ultimate dream. And that people citywide would be benefiting from the bounties of their backyards. Can you imagine if every square foot of unused open space were dedicated to food production?”







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