Sunday, August 24, 2014

Gardens Ephemeral

Urban gardens are nice, but don't be too carried away in their location or purpose.

I first learned about urban gardens through a book I read, entitled Reimagining Detroit. A few years back, I wrote a short review on it at Carbon-izer, decrying most of the ideas as unrealistic and/or expensive (ironically, some of said ideas author wanted to avoid), with one notable exception: urban gardening, which was the most well-researched bit as it did the most research behind it and reported the drawbacks of it, as well.

Urban gardening of course needs land, the larger being better, and in nearly every urban environment, there's a vacant lot or otherwise unused patch that's able to be used for food production (barring certain things like industrial uses, and even then, flowers could work).

The most important thing about urban gardening is that people recognize unless you truly live in an area with zero real grocery stores for miles around (we'll discuss food deserts later), it's really not about "eating healthier" (the right choices at your local store do that) or "eating cheaper" (not when you factor in opportunity costs), it's a labor of love and a way to make vacant lots less sad looking.

That's not to say that you can't sell some of your wares at farmer's markets, but (hopefully) you aren't selling them so that you or your family can have shoes and food to eat. It's just a nice bonus, not something to live off of.

Let's take a look at one urban garden, in Houston. Unlike Detroit, where vacant lots are everywhere (and almost certainly has gardens that are technically squatting), Houston has a number of high-value lots that change hands. One in particular was the Midtown Community Garden, which was a 13,000 square feet garden that was essentially leased for free to a non-profit if they cleaned up the site, which was overgrown and vacant and had been for years (a Google Earth view shows that houses were once there back in the late 1970s, but was totally vacant for a few decades).

It worked well, and the Midtown Community Garden thrived, with one big thing they overlooked: due to general reinvestment in the Inner Loop area and especially in that neighborhood, that little plot of land was worth a whole lot of money, selling to a developer for just shy of a million dollars, giving the gardeners just 24 hours to vacate.

Let's take a look at the facts here:

- The gardeners knew it was never "their" land and could be sold out at any time. Even in 2010, the Midtown renaissance was well underway, so a contingency plan should've been thought up or discussed.

- It's plausible that since the plots were sub-parceled out, the gardeners (who paid for plots) didn't know it was borrowed land that could change (and thus plots paid for would be worthless). In that case, it's the "caretaker"'s fault.

- 24 hours is a short time to vacate, and all existing plants would likely be tossed. So yes, the only thing really wrong was the short time to evacuate, but...

- It was at the beginning of a growing season, so it was probably best that it was March and the plants hadn't matured yet.

Urban gardens should be a part of the community, as a lot full of plants is a cheery site to see (certainly better than an overgrown lot), but unless you buy up land for yourself and work that out with taxes and zoning, urban gardens, especially in changing neighborhoods, cannot be expected to remain forever. There are many restaurants that lived and died in that time, and lots open up continuously in Houston, and so, gardens must move.

Could there be a place where a garden could be safe? You could probably buy a lot with a Kickstarter fund, buy up a plot, and use local zoning laws to plant a garden, but that's less attractive as you'd have to pay market's easy to agree on a garden in a low-rent lot (and cities like Minneapolis do allow tax-forfeited properties to be free garden sites) but the problem is people want a neighborhood garden in their neighborhood, which may not be disadvantaged and have lots of vacant lots. The solution is simple. Part of the underlying causes of urban gardening today is sort of a rebellion, not so much as a way to fight back not governments or even big business (let's face it, you aren't going to win a war against the grocery stores, even the smaller ones), but rather the oft-oppressive urban fabric. As with most underdog movements, you can't simply stay in one place. You have to keep moving.

As much as we'd like it, gardens should move around as land uses change and the city moves on, as seasons change. Besides, who wouldn't want to see something "sprout" up somewhere unexpected?

Picture Credit: Life in the 'Ville, "Somerville Loves Urban Gardening!"

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