Community Gardens Flourish in Lawrence, Kansas

Common Ground: City Turns Vacant Lots into Urban Assets

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Eileen Horn is sustainability coordinator for Douglas County and the city of Lawrence, Kan.

Posted: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 6:41 pm | Updated: 12:26 pm, Sat Feb 22, 2014.

Community gardens have the potential to beautify vacant lots, augment local food supplies and enhance the urban environment in a variety of ways. But, successful program management requires careful planning and ongoing support, according to Eileen Horn, sustainability coordinator for Douglas County and the city of Lawrence, Kan.

In the winter of 2011, the city surveyed its vacant and underutilized properties, identified appropriate sites for agriculture, and made these sites available to citizens through an application process.

During the 2012 growing season, four pilot sites were opened to the public through partnerships with neighborhood associations, nonprofit organizations and schools. The sites include a neighborhood community garden, a youth-focused garden in a city park, a community orchard for free picking, and a market farm coordinated by college and middle school students. In exchange for receiving a free license for use of city property, each applicant created a community benefit plan for their project.

Horn presented an overview of the city’s “Common Ground” community gardens program in an April 18 webinar hosted by Sustainable City Network. A video recording of the webinar can be downloaded at sCityNetwork.com/webinars.

Home to the University of Kansas, Lawrence is a town of approximately 88,000 people located between Topeka, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo. Despite last year’s devastating drought, the four gardens maintained by 41 gardeners and 640 volunteers managed to generate an estimated 5,800 pounds of produce at a market value of approximately $11,700.

Horn said the city was encouraged to develop a community garden program by citizens active in a grass-roots effort to promote local foods. A food policy council had already been established by Douglas County in 2009 and participation in the local farmers’ market had been growing exponentially for several years, she said.

“Although we had some privately funded community gardens around the city, many of them lacked continuity or potentially lacked funding, so some of them would fizzle out after a couple years,” she said.

Spurred by research from the food policy council that revealed more than 10,000 area residents had limited access to grocery stores and healthy food choices, and less than 0.1 percent of the area’s farmland was devoted to vegetable production, Horn said the city decided to investigate how community gardens might play a role in mitigating the area’s 54 percent overweight/obesity rate without being overly burdensome for city staff to implement.

Lawrence drew inspiration from successful community garden programs in Cleveland and Boston, both of which provide city property but rely heavily on local organizations to take responsibility for operating the gardens.

Key goals established for the Common Ground program included supporting the local food economy; supporting the city’s healthy food initiatives; helping address food access issues in the city’s “food deserts;” providing for potential “agritourism;” supporting neighborhoods; and avoiding maintenance costs of existing vacant lots.

“A lot of the applicants ended up donating their excess produce (550 pounds of it) to food pantries and organizations that serve families in need,” Horn said, “and this was a great way to help address food access issues in our community.”

As the city looked for properties that would be appropriate for community gardens, certain characteristics emerged.

“We were especially interested in looking for vacant or under-utilized properties,” Horn said. “Being near neighborhoods was a key point, because we wanted to be sure people could walk to these community gardens, feel pride and keep an eye on them to protect them from vandalism.”

It was also important that sites had access to existing water infrastructure; were unlikely to face development pressure; and had a known land-use history. The latter consideration was particularly important for ensuring that food grown in the gardens would be healthy and free of toxins.

“The past use of a particular site – for example, if it was a house that had lead paint on it – can be really critical,” Horn said. “It could potentially be a source of contamination for your garden, so we definitely wanted to avoid that.”

The city identified more than a dozen sites of various sizes. Some were on undeveloped park land and some on vacant lots. A few proposed sites were on county land outside the city limits, but those were eventually ruled out. The city tested the soil for contaminates and reviewed the sites for potential stormwater issues. A press release was issued, site neighbors were notified and public meetings were held to gather citizen input.

Once the sites were established, the city published a request for applications on its web site. The application asked prospective garden organizers for a narrative description of their project plan, design drawings, a business/fundraising plan, a community benefit plan and an agreement to adhere to city codes and procedures.

“We wanted to know what kind of production they were going to be using,” Horn said. “Was it a community garden; was it a market farm; were they going to be selling the produce; donating it; working with a school? If it was a community garden, then they didn’t have to do a business plan or talk to us about their business model. But, if it was going to be a market farm, we asked the growers to explain to us where their outlets were. Were they going to be selling at the farmers’ market, were they setting up a community-supported agriculture program, etc.”

Design drawings helped city planners determine if there would be any conflicts with city development codes. Horn said no codes were added or revised, although the city already had some applicable code with respect to gardens, urban chickens, hoop houses and such.

“In recognition of the fact that they get free access to this land and they could potentially be using it for commercial gain… we asked them to propose a community benefit plan,” Horn said. “In the community benefit plan, they outlined what they were going to do to pay that back or pay it forward. And we got some really creative proposals to donate food to the food pantry, to teach classes and workshops, to partner with schools. There were some really creative components, so I would highly recommend including the community benefit plan if you’re considering a program like this,” she said.

These plans also help answer potential concerns about the program unfairly competing with commercial growers, Horn said.

A dozen applications were reviewed and scored by the Douglas County Food Policy Council, which sent its recommendations to the city commission.

In 2012, four sites were awarded “rolling” three-year license agreements: a children’s community garden in a city park; a garden operated by a nonprofit neighborhood group on a vacant lot; a community orchard; and a market farm operated by a local community college’s sustainable agriculture program in partnership with a foundation that supplies food to local schools.

The rolling license is renewed for another year after each successful year of operation, assuming the grower complies with the program. The city pays for the installation of water meters at each site, and the growers pays for any water infrastructure beyond the meter. Growers pay the “irrigation-only” rate for the water they use. In some cases, the city provides liability insurance and allows the gardens to be subleased to multiple participants.

Growers must maintain properties in compliance with noise and weed codes, and must adhere to the city’s agricultural chemical policy. Oversight is provided by Horn and the food policy council, however, Horn said numerous city departments have been involved in creating and maintaining the program.

“This required the participation of our water utility, our planning department, our waste-reduction/recycling division, which donated compost, our city manager’s office, the city attorney… this was a multi-departmental effort,” she said. Her busiest months, when she spends 10 to 20 percent of her time on the Common Ground program, are January during the application phase and March, when the gardens begin operations. “They kind of run themselves after that,” she said.

Horn called the success of the first year “remarkable.”

“I had one citizen complaint call (concerning weeds at one of the gardens) over the course of the entire growing season,” she said. “It was really amazing to see how the community supported and embraced this.”

As a result, the city has expanded the Common Ground program for 2013. Added was an “incubator farm,” which will be operated by three independent market farmers who will donate some of their produce to food pantries, and another nonprofit neighborhood community garden.

Horn’s advice to cities considering similar programs include:

  • Target “food deserts”
  • Partner with organizations with proven capacity
  • Educate commissioners about the community benefit plan
  • Monitor and evaluate
  • Form solid partnerships with community groups

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