Five Questions: Getting More Out of an Urban Garden Than Vegetables

September 15, 2009

Columbia University’s campus garden started as a student-only project, but now reaches out to a local housing project and other members of the neighborhood. The project is intended to improve the cityscape, provide healthier food for community members, and extend the boundaries of learning beyond the campus.

CE: How did the on-campus garden get started?

Gardener Becky Davies
Becky Davies, urban gardener and a Columbia student, sharpening her harvesting skills at a farm in Massachusetts. (Becky Davies)
BD: I was interested in getting involved in some kind of sustainable food activism on campus, and I couldn’t really find any. I found one blog by one sustainable food group on campus that previously existed, but it wasn’t active, and I could only find one former member and she was about to go abroad. I contacted her then after she left for the spring I rounded up some students to see if we could restart the club. I recruited about 10 people and we decided to put in a garden on campus.

I guess I had always been interested in environmental studies but I didn’t go to Columbia intending to be involved in sustainable food. When I was in New York City my first winter and needed something to engage in, I knew that there was growing interest in sustainable food. I saw potential for sustainable food as a focus on campus. Though it can be hard to see, even in Manhattan there is underutilized space. What’s difficult is convincing people that we should be looking at what space and resources we have differently and using them differently. Now, when I walk around the city, I can see what we should be doing, all the space that isn’t being used.

CE: What was the most difficult right at first?

BD: People weren’t really sure that we could manage a garden, because space is so tightly regulated at Columbia, and the landscaping is so regulated. But we decided to ask and just try to see what we could do. We made a proposal to facilities. We said we’d like to put in this garden, and this is how we’d do it and here’s what we would grow. We created a contract that said if we didn’t properly maintain the space then Facilities had a right to appropriate it. Starting with our first club meeting in February of 2008, we had our initial garden planted by finals in May. A professor of mine, an urban sociologist named Sudhir Venkatesh, then sponsored me to stay over summer and expand my efforts working on sustainable food, allowing me to reach out to the broader community.

Now the on-campus garden is succeeding with a new manager and cohort of students to care for it. During the summer the volunteers in the on-campus garden get to take home what grows and during the semester students set up a stall and sell the produce to the community, farmers market style. We aren’t harvesting a ton of produce but we aim to set an example, to show everyone the potential for urban agriculture and give the community a chance to engage with growing and eating local food.

CE: Is this garden only providing food for students? Or does it extend beyond the campus?

BD: I wanted the project to reach more people than solely students-I wanted to get members of the community involved. So I connected to a neighboring public housing development, the Ulysses S. Grant Houses. I visited the community center and Tenants Association there and I asked the directors if they were interested in building a garden at the Grant Houses, which they were. Although it started as a garden, it evolved into an educational program, particularly for kids but also for the Grant Houses community at large.

CE: So you have a garden in the public housing?

BD: We actually don’t yet. It has been over a year since I started working on the project so I thought we would have built the garden by now. There’s so much bureaucracy involved in negotiating between Columbia and the New York City Housing Authority. There are lots of people we’ve had to get permission from and contracts to complete that I never anticipated worrying about. Nonetheless, we keep forging ahead with the aim to build and cultivate the garden, to create an outdoor classroom for the community. The food we grow there will all be for the residents, whether they want to take it home or donate it or whatever they choose. These kinds of projects only work if the community makes the decisions about how they want the project to work.

CE: What is the primary value of the project?

BD: That’s an interesting question because I went into it with an ecological perspective, thinking that the primary value was the environmental benefit of growing food locally. But seeing how the garden could function as a tool for community development has changed my mind. For me personally, that was a revelation, and is now the primary value of the project.

I hope that’s true for the residents as well, that they can see how the garden can provide ways for them to use their own talents and skills to build their community, using the garden as a tool and a grounding force to address other issues like the intergenerational divide among youth and elders, or vandalism on the property. The project has a different nature from the on-campus garden, which is tended by a group of revolving students. The Grant Houses garden projects looks at broader community-wide assets and concerns. There’s a health dimension too. The project aims to provide fresher, high-quality food to residents. It improves the physical environment, too.

I also hope the project provides a way for Columbia students to learn outside of the classroom, to see the link between the resources that people have access to and the way neighborhoods function, and how that is reflected in their health. Both sides, I think, can benefit from the education; there’s not just one giver and one receiver in this type of joint effort.

Becky Davies is a senior at Columbia University majoring in urban studies. She seeks solutions to inequitable resource access through community development and education, and believes that academic learning is best achieved through its practical application. In her free time she edits an urban studies journal and runs competitively. 


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Published: September 15, 2009