Good News for Los Angeles Community Garden

A Los Angeles man who planted a community garden, and subsequently received a citation from the city ordering its removal, has received the good news that his garden will be permitted to stay. Ron Finley, a fashion designer by trade, ignited his passion for urban gardening when he enrolled in a UC Cooperative Extension gardening class through the Natural History Museum, taught by Florence Nishida.

Finley looked at the grassy parkway between the curb and his home, near the Crenshaw neighborhood of South Los Angeles, and envisioned something different, something more functional than the water-hogging lawn. He’d planted banana trees in the space before (and removed them after receiving a citation from the city), but he was an amateur gardener with little experience growing crops. In the fall of 2010, he, his neighbors and Nishida cleared the space and planted seeds, wondering if anything would stick. Later that fall, the strip was peppered with seedlings, and by early spring, the crops were ready to harvest.

The garden has already fostered a strong sense of community – Finley’s give-and-take approach allows neighbors and community members to assist in tending the garden in exchange for free, locally-grown produce. He started a nonprofit group called L.A. Green Grounds, which posts eco-friendly tips and healthy recipes on its website. In order to help novice gardeners transform their own backyards into urban farms, the group reaches out to community members by hosting “dig-ins”, in which residents recruit friends and neighbors to help with labor, and L.A. Green Grounds provides gardening advice and help with planting.

Finley’s hard-earned success hit a roadblock in the spring of 2011, when, following a complaint by a fellow L.A. resident, he was cited by the L.A. Department of Public Works for constructing a garden on city-owned property without a permit. Finley was told that he had to pay $400 for a gardening permit that restricted him from growing non-drought-resistant plants and plants above 3 feet tall. He collected over 500 petition signatures from neighbors and strangers and was granted a hearing, which was later postponed indefinitely by city councilman Herb Wesson, who expressed his support for the garden.

Now, though, the garden continues to thrive, thanks to the efforts of Finley and his community. Committed to sustainability, Finley collects and stores rainwater to irrigate his garden in the summer months. In an NBC Los Angeles interview, Finley described his straightforward approach to community gardening, saying that he chose to revamp the parkway because, “why water grass when you could be feeding people and growing fresh food?” The parkway is 10 feet wide and 150 feet long, providing ample space for fruits and vegetables.

South Los Angeles suffers from poverty, crime and health issues like poor nutrition, diabetes and obesity. The area has been determined an urban food desert by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meaning that an overwhelming number of its residents do not have consistent or affordable access to healthy, fresh foods. The country’s economic state hasn’t improved the problem, either, and some of Finley’s neighbors struggle to afford healthy food.

The neighborhood’s high-traffic location on Exposition Boulevard exposes the garden to intrigued passersby, who ask residents about their garden and are invited to take shares of crops home. The future Expo Line of the L.A. Metro system will run past the neighborhood, bringing even more people to admire the garden.

His garden is a positive message to children and adults regarding the importance of nutrition, as well as the ease, accessibility and rewards of urban farming and sustainable living. Finley hopes his community garden will inspire others to take similar steps, and dreams of an L.A. in which neighborhood foodsharing is second-nature, with each street growing a different crop and distributing the bounty among neighbors.

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A New Urban Garden Opens in Downtown Detroit

Detroit-based software company Compuware has completed construction on an urban vegetable garden in the empty space where the condemned Lafayette Building once stood. The downtown garden, called Lafayette Greens, was planted by a team of 15-20 volunteers and expert gardeners. Compuware founder Peter Karmanos devised the idea for the garden, believing that it would be a good way to get his employees, most of whom live in the suburban Detroit metro area, more involved and invested in the urban community where they work. The garden is expected to produce its first harvest in August. Volunteers who tend the garden, including Compuware employees, are entitled to a share of its crops, while the rest will be donated to the city’s Gleaners Food Bank. In an interview with Model D Media, Compuware employee and garden manager Meg Heeres said that the company began executing their idea by “interviewing our employees, asking if they would be involved with it. The proximity [to their office] seemed to be very important to everyone.” She also stated that the city-owned plot “was sort of a perfect site because the Lafayette Building had just come down, and it sort of created a hole in this downtown corridor.”

Among the crops in the organic garden are cucumbers, tomatoes, apple trees, peach trees, leafy greens such as cabbage and kale, beans, winter green tomatoes, rhubarb and herbs. Though Compuware’s goal is to grow an edible landscape, the three-quarter acre plot also includes lavender and perennial flowers. The garden has raised beds supported by galvanized sheet metal as well as colorful galvanized pots, which sit on a circular cement patio. Raised bed gardening is an efficient method, as it allows plants to be spaced closer together to increase crop production, and allows for the monitoring and differing of soil types to accommodate the needs of different plants. Raised beds also have better drainage than traditional garden beds, reducing the chance of overwatering, which can be fatal to plants. A children’s garden with a gallery wall, a rainwater tank, a tool shed, and seating for events round out the garden.

Downtown Detroit has long suffered from an economic downturn and a severe population decline, resulting from rising crime rates, among other factors. Many vacant buildings are a danger to public safety, as they can harbor gangs and increase the community’s crime rate. Like many Motor City buildings, the Lafayette Building, which was boarded up in 1997, has a storied history that ultimately resulted in its sad decline. The triangular building was erected in 1924 by architect C. Howard Crane, who also designed the Fox and United Artists theatres downtown; Crane’s unique V-shaped design, marble and bronze accents, and ample windows that allowed natural light to shine through and provide an uplifting workspace all allowed the building to be considered one of the greatest high-rise office buildings in Detroit. Past tenants of the building have included the federal court, nonprofit groups and other small businesses and restaurants. The Lafayette Building suffered from the city’s population decline — catalyzed by the 1967 riots — as well as thousands of dollars in unpaid bills by tenants, and after falling into disrepair in the 1960s, the building was finally torn down in 2009.

Compuware plans to open another garden on the site of the former Hudson department store building, also in downtown Detroit. The two gardens, which will both be tended by the company’s employees, join more than 875 urban gardens and farms that currently provide nourishment for Detroiters. These urban paradises have sprung out of a critical need to offer food security to the city’s residents, many of whom struggle with poverty and hunger. Though Compuware is not part of the green job sector, its garden is an admirable effort to grow organic food in an unlikely setting and to help revive a struggling city.

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