The idea for the BlackSpace Urbanist Collective first emerged in 2015 at the Black in Design Conference at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “The conference was about Black urbanism and looking at it from the perspective of architects, artists, urban planners, and other designers,” Emma said. It’s a perspective that was, and still is, often overlooked in the mainstream urbanist world despite a long history of racist systems and actions, from the urban renewal and highway projects that devastated Black communities in the 20th century to the contemporary processes of development and gentrification. Naturally, it struck a chord. “We wanted to continue having the conversation after the conference, so we started having brunch,” Emma said.
In its first few years of existence, those brunches were an informal communal extension of the conference for the Black designers and planners who craved it. “When I look back,” Emma said, “a lot of that time was about unlearning and sort of unpacking a lot of the things that were happening in our professions and the toxicity that we inherited through our institutional jobs, our education.” Having been educated in, and often working in, predominantly white places, the opportunity to do that work was significant for BlackSpace’s members.
One afternoon in April 2013, located between North Graham and North Aiken Street in the Garfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Leah Thill anxiously awaited the arrival of neighborhood volunteers. Thill, then 23, was a first year AmeriCorps participant with the Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience (PULSE) and garden coordinator at the Kincaid Street Community Garden. The plan was to fill ten more new garden beds with soil, which involved transferring several hundred pounds of dirt from piles to wooden framed sections. Not an easy task! But, no adults showed up that day.
Instead, Thill was joined by an army of ten enthusiastic neighborhood kids, no older than thirteen years of age, who worked all afternoon to haul all of the dirt with just one wheel barrow and a few orange buckets. As most kids tired after two hours, Thill recalled one young boy who, as he kept the dirt flying with a wide smile on his face, burst, “This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time!”
It is this kind of excitement that inspired the creation of the Children’s Discovery Garden, a special section of the Kincaid Street Community Garden designated especially for the neighborhood’s children. The community garden had its first season during 2013, and while it began to bring the members of Garfield together in new ways, it became clear very quickly that there wasn’t enough planning or programming to engage the youth who wanted to be involved.
“I would just be out in the garden and [they] would come and want to help, but they didn’t really have their own space and they would want to water everyone’s plants, and they would want to weed everything. I think some of the adults felt a bit encroached upon.” Thill explained, “We really wanted to make gardening and the garden a place where they could be and have their own space.”
The creation of the Children’s Discovery Garden is a community driven effort, made possible by the collaboration of about twenty families, PULSE participants, like Thill, who live communally in a house adjacent to the garden and neighborhood volunteers with the Garfield Community Action Team (GCAT) who are involved in fundraising for the garden and coordinating volunteer events to the make the expansion happen.
Between the construction of a Little Free Library by GCAT and a local youth art gallery, Assemble, signage differentiating the herbs, tomatoes, and berry bushes, and special gardening time on Wednesdays from 6pm until dusk, the Kincaid Community Garden members have been working hard to create a special place for the children.
One of the most challenging aspects of trying to do agriculture in an urban area is how expensive it is to bring in all of the soil, lumber, and other necessary materials. But this community is unstoppable in their determination and creativity. Instead of spending $2,000 dollars to build a fence, they made their own garden fence out of pallets donated to the garden by a local hospital, and the Little Free Library was constructed entirely out of doors donated from a company non-profit called Construction Junction. Jarmele Fairclaugh, age 43, a regular garden volunteer who has lived in Garfield for twenty years, said, “What I keep telling [the children] is, ‘It’s hard work now, but just wait until things start growing.”
And, according to Fairclaugh, the children are learning a lot more from the garden than just patience. They’re growing vegetables they’ve never seen and seeing the benefits of earthworms.
“It’s teaching them to get along with each other. It’s teaching them to be responsible, not only for themselves, but for other people’s property. It’s teaching them that you can work with all types of people. They’re learning how to interact with other adults, they’re learning how to interact with other races,” said Fairclaugh. “It’s teaching them to have pride in their community and pride within themselves.”
Even beyond the children, Kincaid Community Garden has been a uniting force in the neighborhood. With parts of Garfield and many of the surrounding areas experiencing rapid gentrification and rising rent prices, a gathering space that strengthens communities through shared experiences and the creation of relationships built on trust and friendship has become ever more valuable.
“I think as a neighborhood as a whole, we needed [the garden] because it just seemed like we never talked to each other,” explained Fairclaugh. “For me, it gives me a chance to actually get out and meet people and learn something and then be able to share that knowledge with other people.”
And there is no better place to start that sharing than with the neighborhood children. With your support, the Garfield community can continue to become stronger through the communal experience of growing food together in a place that nurtures curiosity and fosters exploration in young and old alike. Thank you to everyone who contributed financially or donated their time and energy to make the Children’s Discovery Garden expansion come to life.
It was the start of 2013 in Memphis, Tennessee, when GrowMemphis, a non-profit that supports a local network of community gardens, was ready to cultivate their first batch of seedlings. Their greenhouse, equipped with electronic temperature controls, is designed to create the perfect conditions for budding vegetable plants. But no matter what they tried, their pepper seeds would not sprout. Just when they feared they might lose their baby pepper plants, a local gardener and volunteer at the organization named Nathaniel (who asked that we not use his full name) from North Memphis, suggested trying something different. He took the seedlings home to his own personal garden where he re-planted them in anything he could find—the bottoms of cut-up soda bottles and plastic bags, anything. Lo and behold, the seeds began to sprout.
This is the spirit of GrowMemphis. Born as a project of the Mid-South Center for Peace and Justice in 2007, the initiative’s mission focuses on growing a sustainable local food system through community empowerment. GrowMemphis provides aspiring leaders with the skills, resources and training necessary to run their own successful neighborhood garden projects. Through a recent partnership with ioby, GrowMemphis raised $2,583 for the New Garden Campaign, an initiative to build one new garden in the future. Each year, through both the addition of new and existing gardens, the organization brings together projects focused on a wide range of social issues, such as community health and economic empowerment. Chris Peterson, GrowMemphis’s executive director explained that, through an ever-expanding network, the organization is always benefitting from a broadening knowledge base. Since its beginning in 2007 with just three gardens, GrowMemphis celebrated a total of thirty gardens at the end of 2013, and is looking to reach a new total of forty by the end of this year.
The implications of this extraordinary achievement go beyond the success of the organization itself. In 2010, a survey conducted by the Gallup Organization named Memphis the hungriest city in America, with an astonishing 26% of the metropolitan area’s population reporting insecurity about where their next meal would come from. Emily Holmes, a board member at GrowMemphis and a professor at Christian Brothers University who teaches a course on food issues, explained that the city has a number of food deserts, defined by the USDA as areas where people don’t have access to fresh food or grocery stores with healthy, affordable options. In addition, she described health issues including diabetes and obesity, with rates of prevalence increasing in younger members of the population.
“One thing that community gardens do is provide a source in the neighborhood for fresh produce that people can grow themselves and have available to them immediately,” Holmes said. Additionally, in a city that suffers from urban blight, vacant, neglected properties and absentee landlords, “community gardens can help to beautify neighborhoods. They provide a sign of hope, of something living and growing, and they provide a community gathering place…where people can learn how to work together and advocate for themselves and their own needs.”
GrowMemphis is working diligently to create this type of environment. Just this year, an experienced garden leader teamed up with Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality (HOPE), a group of formerly or presently homeless individuals, to create a community garden. Not only does this space allow the people of HOPE to produce food for themselves, it brings them into the community by providing a place where they can interact and work with those individuals who do have homes. “We want our network to be as diverse as possible,” Chris said. Gardening “gives people something in common that they might not otherwise have.”
Whether they are planning a monthly garden meetings that bring together garden leaders from all sorts of backgrounds, or hosting fundraising parties like the one Emily Holmes hosted with her husband to raise money for the New Garden Campaign, the team at GrowMemphis is breaking down barriers to food access by building strong communities dedicated to working together for a better future in Memphis.
The GrowMemphis campaign is fully funded thanks to donations by people just like you, and you can learn more about your continued support can cultivate this great work in Memphis here.