As far as cities go, Providence is hardly your typical "asphalt jungle." A growing presence of leafy greens and tomato vines has found its way into the city, counteracting the notion that urban life and sustainability
will never be synonymous.
Despite a history riddled with heavy industry and environmental neglect, Providence now boasts a rising crop of community gardens. According to studies conducted in 2006 by the Providence Urban Agriculture Policy Task Force, a conglomerate of Rhode Island state environmental agencies and non-governmental organizations, there were approximately 1,000 food gardens in a city of 63,000 families, and this number will likely increase by half in the next ten years. The advancement of Providence urban agriculture focuses heavily on soil remediation. Many programs aim to assist people from low-income backgrounds in the South Side and West Ends of Providence who own property contaminated with high concentrations of lead and other heavy metals. Often remediation is only a matter of teaching a few simple skills, like growing mustard plants in the family’s garden beds to take up lead, or composting to create new soil. The people who live in these areas often lack access to fresh produce. Convenience stores stocked with processed snack foods outnumber grocery stores with quality produce selection. Urban agriculture focuses heavily on food justice—the idea that social inequality and economic limitations should not keep a person from having healthful food. Since 1981, the non-profit Southside Community Land Trust has been working to address these issues.
Downtown's green thumb
There are approximately 75 acres of vacant lots in South Providence alone, some worth as little as a dollar. But with access to a ten by ten-foot garden plot, families are able to provide themselves with around $250-worth of food over the course of a summer. Translated across the entire city and all community gardens, this means producing up to $250,000 of food grown each summer in Providence, according to the Providence Urban Agriculture League’s 2006 report.
“If someone sees a vacant lot in the West End, we hope that they’d think to come to us to consult about the ways we can convert it to something more positive for the community,” said Jessica Knapp, Outreach Director for Southside Community Land Trust.
In 2006, Southside was responsible for 200 of the city’s garden plots—essentially 20 percent of Providence’s community gardening at the time. The organization’s headquarters and urban farm lie around the corner from the Women and Infant’s Hospital, but its reach spans further. Currently, Southside operates a network of 11 community gardens in Providence and Pawtucket and acts as a resource for area residents concerning growing practices. Founded by Brown University graduate Debbie Schimberg in 1981, Southside’s mission has always been to “provide access to land, education and other resources...and [to] create community food systems where locally produced, affordable, and healthy food is available to all.”
“[We’ve] gone from a small, super-grassroots movement between a couple of neighbors into a real city presence,” said Knapp. “We aim to be the go-to source for how food is grown in the city.”
It's a local thing
Over the past few years, Southside has garnered support as both citizens and local politicians have taken more interest in food production and policy. The Providence Urban Agriculture Policy Task Force’s research shows that approximately half of Rhode Island farmland was lost to urban sprawl between 1964 and 1997, but the trend is now shifting in the opposite direction. In the United States, the rising visibility of food activists like Will Allen and Marion Nestle are partly the cause.
Allen—formerly a professional basketball player in Europe, now a MacArthur Grant recipient—has created urban farm centers in two of Milwaukee’s most distressed neighborhoods and created a workforce of farmers in the harvest of city-grown food. Nestle is another food activist whose work has pushed local farming to the forefront of environmental
and ethical debate; her advocacy has focused on denouncing genetically modified food because of its possible health effects and ties to major corporations.
“More and more people are seeing how food systems and sustainability have to be linked,” Knapp said. Rhode Island in particular has a high concentration of support for locally produced food. According to the 2007 Federal Census of Agriculture, 20 percent of RI farms sell directly to the public, the highest percentage in the United States. To expand on this interest, Southside has new initiatives for the upcoming year. This past spring, they received a $30,000 Community Food Projects grant awarded by the US Department of Agriculture to help “meet the needs of low-income people through increased access to fresher, more nutritious food supplies.”
This grant has alleviated some of the financial burden Southside has faced during the economic downturn. In 2005, 70 percent of Southside’s $975,000 operating budget came from grants, but many of these grant programs have dried up in the past year. This new source of income will help alleviate some of the organization’s worries and shift the focus away from individual solicitations over the next three years. Southside plans to use the money to help advance new programs and to support their Community Gardens network, a group of more than 25 urban farms in Providence, Pawtucket, and surrounding areas.
“Southside’s trying to bring in as many resources from community gardens nearby to build communication and share resources,” Knapp said. “New and old gardens have skills to share that will add [to] productivity among all the gardens.” Some of the gardeners with Southside have had land plots for 20 years, experience that equips them with skills and insight concerning bulk production and growing advice.
For new gardeners, anyone who wants a plot can sign up for the waiting list, which gives priority based on proximity to the plot and length on waiting list. As a result, many low-income families in the South Side and West End of Providence are the first beneficiaries.
Fighting off the man
Despite its advancement over the past few years, Southside has sometimes faced opposition from municipal bodies. Many of the abandoned lots that Southside has converted have fallen under the city’s Special Vacant Lot Law, which “allows qualified residents to purchase some of the vacant lots for a single dollar” if they put a minimum of five years work into the property. As more community gardens appear in these areas, the real estate value of nearby lots increases. This creates a new incentive for Providence to buy up the empty lots for more lucrative ventures like hotels and restaurants. This issue has directly affected City Farm, Southside’s three-quarter-acre plot of land in South Providence that serves as a major community hub for the organization. What was once a decrepit parking lot has since been converted into a site for farming apprenticeships and youth summer camps. In 2003, a private developer wanted to purchase the con-
verted tract of land for new homes. The development plans were dropped after Southside’s gardeners and the Nature Conservancy formed a community coalition and drafted opposition against them.
“City Farm is my favorite place in Providence,” says Laura Brown-Lavoie B’10, a volunteer and student at Brown. After working with a youth summer program at City Farm this summer, Brown-Lavoie set up an independent study with Brown’s Environmental Studies Department to collaborate with Southside and another farm in Johnston.
“The food grown [there] is sold at markets here in the city on Thursdays and Saturdays, contributing to a very local food chain,” Brown-Lavoie said. “They also sell their produce to local restaurants.” Some of these restaurants then return their food waste to City Farm to be put on compost piles. “This eliminates waste, and keeps a lot of organic material rotating into and out of the soil, instead of being sucked out of the land and transported to a landfill where its nutrients are wasted,” added Brown-Lavoie. “The farm attracts a huge variety of wildlife. [It’s] an oasis of biodiversity in the middle of a city block.”
In the coming months, Southside is looking to further expand its reach outside of Providence and into neighboring towns. Organizers are also working to figure out the greatest needs within the community with an upcoming project this winter.
“We’re hoping to explore a survey of the whole city to see what people in Providence actually need to grow food here and what sort of interests they have,” said Knapp. Southside plans to publish the findings by next spring or summer, and then continue with their endeavors. The work is constantly evolving.
“Each city has its challenges with this kind of work,” Knapp said. “But with our huge outpouring of support, we are really primed to move forward in the right direction.”
LILLIAN MATHEWS B’12 walks in peas.