Describe a garden and words like tranquil, quiet and refuge spring to mind.
Not so much in Hillsborough County, Fla., where new community gardens are just that: part of a community, with the accompanying noise and foot traffic. Luckily, the plants don’t mind. The gardens’ visibility is crucial to their integration and their goal: making more fresh produce available as part of a walkable community.
Michele Ogilvie, an executive planner at the county Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), saw as much when she became a community gardener herself. While tending to her eggplants, lost in her task, she was startled to hear people walking, talking and biking nearby.
“I forgot it was right on the trail,” she said. “There are people walking right by you.”
Many of the gardens are connected by a 23-mile paved multi-use trail that the MPO helped plan at the request of the neighborhoods, many in the city of Tampa. After the trail was completed, Ogilvie said, the neighborhoods, encouraged by the successful partnership, asked for help developing their garden network.
“It’s not usual that neighborhoods say ‘let me help you — we will find the place, we will feed the people, we will bring the people — all you have to do is show up, listen to us, catalog it and turn it into a plan,’” Ogilvie said. “That’s three-quarters of the work. We just had to follow their lead and take care of the planning.”
The network is thriving and expanding thanks to that partnership and now the fruits (and vegetables) of that partnership is part of the Aetna Foundation’s Healthiest Cities and Counties Challenge, which has awarded a $10,000 grant to the partnership to further its goals.
“The efforts to improve food quality through our community garden coalition, while fostering walkability, bikeability and transit use, will serve as a guide to other communities interested in improving community health through active living,” said Lesley “Les” Miller, Jr., a Hillsborough County Commissioner and the MPO chairman.
The gardens themselves are as varied as their neighborhoods, all places where analysis of health and economic indicators saw low income, high rates of chronic disease and no grocery stores or transit options. Some are first-come-first-serve for plots, available for a monthly membership fee. One is maintained by a church, which pledges a certain amount of produce to a local food bank. Another is owned by the Salvation Army, which incorporates gardening into its therapy. All are advertised by wayfinding signs that Ogilvie hopes will encourage interest in the gardens and keep them visible to residents. A few of the gardens took some scouting to find.
“We saw a police substation with a lot of property that wasn’t being used,” Ogilvie said. “We just asked if they were using it, they weren’t, and that’s going to be one of our gardens once we remediate the soil.”
The gardens can be a bargaining chip with owners of nuisance properties.
“If they agree to let us use their property as a garden for a certain length of time, we can have fines relaxed, and everyone wins,” Ogilvie said.
That’s an example of how Ogilvie said the MPO and communities can work together.
“Because we’re government, we’re able to open all types of doors, but they can do far more than we can,” she said. “We can get them free meeting spaces or publish something. They call each other and make sure people show up to do things. We know each other’s strengths and it’s a true partnership.”
She acknowledges that community gardens won’t feed everyone, but they are a step in the right direction in offering an opportunity for good soil, water and a place to grow healthy food — all of which are hard to come by in the neighborhoods that need it the most.
“And it’s sustainability at its best,” she said. Hillsborough County and 49 other finalists will be judged independently on how their programs effect measurable change in their health determinants — in this case food deserts and walkability — for cash awards ranging from $25,000 to $500,000, following an expert site visit and analysis of health indicator data.Hero 1