Mayor supports urban farming initiative

Providence aims to turn abandoned urban plots into community gardens in midst of economic stagnation

Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Mayor Angel Taveras announced a partnership with Southside Community Land Trust and the Rhode Island Foundation Jan. 14 in a project aimed at renovating the vacant lots that sprinkle the city’s undeveloped land parcels and turning them into small farming plots.

The Florida-based Local Sustainability Matching Fund and the Rhode Island Foundation together provided the project, Lots of Hope, with $100,000 to put toward developing urban farms throughout Providence and its surrounding urban areas.

Lots of Hope has become popular around the country, riding the coattails of urban farming success stories in Detroit and Chicago, said Dawn King, a visiting assistant professor at the Center for Environmental Studies.

Like Detroit and Chicago, Providence has seen many urban plots abandoned, likely due to the poor economy and subsequent decrease in population as former Providence residents seek work in larger cities, said King. Rather than let these plots succumb to overgrowth and litter, Providence will lease the land for a trivial sum of money to local farmers, she said.

“Right now, there’s a heavy demand for local food,” King said. “The city has a lot of open land, so why not lease the land for dirt cheap to local farmers?”

New Urban Farmers — an organization of urban farmers established in Pawtucket in 2009 — has had several positive effects on Pawtucket residents living in affordable housing units, said Emily Jodka, one of the two founders of New Urban Farmers.

After New Urban Farmers started its first community garden, the group connected with the Pawtucket Citizen Development Corporation, which brought its members into the larger Pawtucket family, Jodka said.

“We started going to a lot of community meetings and started to get to know the city and the Pawtucket Housing Authority,” she said.

The approximately one-acre plot New Urban Farmers currently owns was formerly a dilapidated playground but now serves nearby residents as a community garden providing fresh and local produce in an environmentally friendly and socially conscious way.

“We connected with not just City Hall, but with community groups in the city, which has been very helpful in growing our business,” Jodka said. “If we’re going to change the environment we have to get through that red tape.”

“You can’t always make big change on the fringe,” Jodka said.

“We’ve luckily received a great response working with the city of Pawtucket,” Jodka said. She is proud of her role paving the way for urban farming to become a successful food system, she added.

In cities acutely afflicted by the economic downturn, like Detroit and Philadelphia, “guerilla gardening” or “subsistence farming” is the reality for poverty-stricken residents, King said.

“A lot of people are doing this for subsistence,” King said. “We shouldn’t always romanticize urban farming.”

While Providence is a leader in the urban farming movement, the city is not dependent on the food produced by these farms, King said.

King said she believes urban farming could help Rhode Island revamp its economy, adding that it exemplifies the “triple bottom line,” — economic, ecological and social success.

Land used for urban farming mitigates flooding and brings down the temperatures in urban areas, she said.

“Middle of summer — it’s 20 degrees hotter on the pavement than it is above the top of the buildings. Just having unpaved areas can decrease temperatures,” King said.

Americans spend about 10 percent of their incomes on food, compared to 30 percent worldwide, King said. “We expect cheap food, and there’s so many people in the older generation that are so entrenched in the idea that cheap food is okay,” she said. “This generation … (wants) to live in a sustainable environment” and is willing to pay for it, she added.

King said she believes investing in urban agriculture will not only create new jobs but also attract a younger demographic that she said Providence lacks.

“Urban agriculture is pretty overall, and people want to see that,” King said.