ITP Thesis Week 2009
Monday, May 4 - Friday, May 8

Local Roots

Kate Monahan

A gardening and recycling outreach initiative that helps schools and public gardens create and distribute planters made out of recycled containers to encourage healthier, happier urban communities.

The Local Roots program instructs and supports a network of community gardens, schools, and other local organizations as they transform recycled food containers into easily-maintained, water-conserving planters of vegetables and flowers that are then sold affordably within their neighborhoods.

This initiative is designed to:
- Improve community eating habits, help feed those in need, and enable others to save money on fresh produce
- Foster community connections and pride
- Benefit the environment by reusing containers otherwise headed for landfills, creating new green spaces, and reducing the amount of energy used to import food from outside the NYC metropolitan area.
- Recruit new gardeners by making it easy, appealing, and affordable to try
- Create new opportunities for hands-on environmental education programs
- Create appealing, therapeutic community gathering spots and green spaces in otherwise unused or unattractive locations
- Supplement community garden, school, and other organizational budget

Person-to-person and community interaction play the leading roles in this project, but an important supporting element is a social website that includes a discussion board, map of participating organizations, sales and events calendars, gardening tips, information about related organizations, detailed instructions on how to implement the system in communities across and beyond NYC, and multimedia documentation of participant experiences.

There are a wide range of potential benefits of and compelling reasons for encouraging urban gardening on a widespread grassroots scale. Following are some of the problems and challenges this project attempts to address.

Food Shortages
Currently, Emergency Food Programs (EFPs) such as food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters provide food to 1.2 million people in New York City each year. The most recent (2006) Hunger in America joint report by City Harvest and the Food Bank For New York City shows that among EFP client households in NYC, 62% are food insecure. The research shows that more than 34% of client households in both New York City and State faced times during the year when they are hungry and do not have sufficient resources to buy food. In fact, 22% experienced times during the past year when they did not eat for a whole day because they did not have enough money for food. This situation is worsened by the fact the Consumer Price Index for food increased 11% in the New York area in recent years.

34% of NYC EFP client households had to choose between paying for food and rent/mortgage during the year of the survey, more than one-third had to choose between food and utilities/heating fuel, and 22% had to choose between paying for food and medicine/medical care. The number of EFP clients continues to rise; 82% of NYC EFPs experienced an increase in the number of people turning to their program for food assistance during 2006. It is increasingly difficult for EFPs to rise to this huge demand, with many having to turn clients away. Among NYC food pantries that turned clients away in 2006, for example, 84% did so due to insufficient food resources. These worrisome statistics are not unique to the NYC area; many are as bad or worse for the rest of the country.

Encouraging and facilitating the production of food via gardens through a program like Local Roots could help ameliorate these hunger issues, and help struggling New Yorkers reduce their food bills and have a fallback during scarce times. A single tomato plant, for example, can yield up to 35-50 pounds of tomatoes in a single season, many of which can easily be canned or frozen to continue feeding the gardener throughout the year.

Environmental Factors
Urban Heat Island Effect
New York and many other cities suffer from what is known as the "urban heat island” (UHI) effect, in which buildings, roads, sidewalks, and rooftops absorb heat and cause higher temperatures than surrounding areas with more natural surfaces. The UHI effect causes “an increase in energy demand for air conditioning, the production of photochemical pollutants such as smog-creating ozone, and respiratory and heat stress-related illness.”

Green rooftops and gardens help reduce this effect through transpiration from plants, shading, and increased reflectivity of sunlight off of heat-absorbing surfaces. Additionally, green roofs can help reduce fossil fuel consumption by insulating buildings and thereby reducing fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions—a major cause of global warming.

Combined Sewage Overflow
Urban gardens can also help reduce the serious environmental and financial problem of combined sewage overflow (CSO)—the runoff of untreated sewage into waterways that occurs when contaminated rainwater flows off of paved surfaces and overwhelms sewage treatment centers. New York City has invested billions of dollars to offset this problem and update sewage treatment plants, but one of the most effective solutions is to simply increase soil and vegetation, with studies showing that green roofs retain 50-75% of rainwater that falls on them.

The introduction of a modest number of plants to neighborhoods via the Local Roots program will not alone have a significant impact on the city’s UHI and CSO problems. Nonetheless, by educating and inspiring new gardeners, the initiative aims to raise awareness of these issues and recruit new participants in a larger urban agriculture movement large enough to help ameliorate these problems.

Food Transportation Costs
One of the motivating factors behind the “locavore” movement—adapting your diet to local, seasonal foods (discussed in more detail below)—is to lessen the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels to ship food in from a distance. When the average North American sits down to eat, each ingredient has typically traveled at least 1,500 miles from farm to plate. A study in Iowa found that eating a regional diet “consumed 17 times less oil and gas than a typical diet based on food shipped across the country.” With nearly 50 percent of people in the world now living in urban environments, the transportation of food from outside cities has a large impact on the environment that could be lessened through increased urban agriculture.

Limited Community Gardening Resources
There are an estimated one million community gardens in the US , but there are currently only approximately 600 registered community gardens in New York City. Contrast this number with Berlin, Germany, which has nearly 80,000 community gardens. The relative scarcity of community gardens in NYC means that for many New Yorkers there is no conveniently-located garden for them to join, and even when there is, there are often long waiting lists for gardening plots, and very limited hours of operation that make it difficult for many to participate.

Local Roots aims to extend this limited resource by making it a simple matter for community members to take some of the benefits of their nearest community garden home with them. The Inside Urban Green blog puts it well: “While a worthy endeavor, community gardens serve only a very small percent of our urban population. Portable planters are an excellent way for community gardens to reach out to the surrounding community.” And although some community gardens already host annual plant sales, they are primarily seedlings that require the new owner to buy their own planters (presumably made from new materials), with little immediate or ongoing support for their care.

The kind of outreach facilitated by Local Roots is mutually beneficially to the community and the gardens. It has been shown that community gardens that don’t have close ties to the neighborhood tend to fail. And by purchasing planters at low prices and raising plants at home, neighbors who would not otherwise be able to participate in the community garden still get to support its efforts and create ties with its members, while also enjoying the benefits of affordable, locally-grown vegetables. In describing the rising popularity of NYC community gardens in the 1970s, the Eco Tipping Point blog describes how “success breeds success. [Community members’] involvement and success with gardens allows them to ask: What else can we do?” This type of enthusiasm and momentum is exactly what the Local Roots initiative is attempting to create.

Social & Economic Climate
Financial stress in this flagging economy, unemployment, turbulent oil prices, global warming, and a series of recent E. Coli food contamination outbreaks have combined to create a fertile environment for community agriculture initiatives. One indicator of this is the popularity of the locavore movement mentioned earlier, which has achieved popularity and cultural cache. As food columnist and author Corby Kummer describes it: “The highest form of luxury is now growing it yourself or paying other people to grow it for you. This has become fashion.” Similarly, environmental planner Kate Zidar, who grows mint and strawberries on the roof of the environmentally-themed restaurant Habana Outpost in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, points out that “there’s a huge convergence of economic need and a population of locavores at this moment to make food-producing gardens more popular.”

A recent New York Times article on the movement describes how local food is moving into the mainstream: “Last year, the New Oxford American Dictionary picked locavore as its word of the year. A National Restaurant Association survey this year of more than 1,200 chefs, many of whom work for chain restaurants or large food companies, found locally grown produce to be the second-hottest American food trend, just behind bite-size desserts.”

As evidenced here, there is a clear humanitarian and environmental need for and openness to additional community-based agricultural resources. Although I had initially intended to focus my thesis on generating more green rooftops in New York City, my research into these problems and challenges convinced me that a small-scale grassroots action had the potential to have a far greater impact. Whereas green rooftops generally require a significant (though certainly worthwhile) initial investment of time and money—usually by a building owner—anyone with a few spare dollars and rooftop access, a fire escape, or a small plot of land can implement a garden that will have a significant impact on their quality of life, and a small but nonetheless beneficial impact on their environment.

As described in the following section, I have attempted to facilitate a grassroots movement to increase awareness and implementation of urban agriculture by creating a simple system that leverages existing resources to make it as easy as possible for New York City residents with little expendable income, gardening expertise, or spare time to experience the rewards of growing their own food and creating therapeutic green spaces in our urban landscape.

The following projects and organizations provided inspiration, context, and key information in the development of Local Roots.

Added Value
Added Value is a non-profit organization promoting the sustainable development of the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. The group works with local teenagers on a variety of environmental initiatives, including one that has turned an old playground into an urban farm. The farm serves as a “vibrant intergenerational space and experiential educational environment” that “provides sustenance to residents, creates meaningful work for neighborhood teens, generates economic activity and improves the health and well-being of our community.”

Public Farm 1
Public Farm 1 (PF1) was an urban farm and outdoor social space installed in PS1's outdoor courtyard during the summer of 2008. The designers’ intent was to “combine playful programs with educational ones, creating a sense of community around the shared experience of growing food.” The farm was built entirely of recyclable materials, 100% solar-powered, and utilized rain collection for irrigation, and combined planters with social spaces, art installations, and a farmers market for the food that was grown.

- GreenHouse is a program for inmates at the Rikers Island prison that “uses horticulture as a tool to help redirect lives in a positive and productive manner.” The program provides inmates with training and hands-on experience in designing, installing, and tending gardens.

-GreenTeam is an aftercare services for graduates of GreenHouse in which interns work on gardening contracts while pursuing full-time jobs.

-GreenBranches is a long-term program to design and install high quality gardens around NYC libraries using plants and shrubs from the GreenHouse program. GreenTeam interns engage in hands-on educational training at the GreenBranches gardens.

Rooftop Garden Project
Under the slogan “liberating spaces for healthy cities,” the Rooftop Gardening Project is a community organization in Montreal, Canada that supports and advocates the widespread adoption of rooftop gardening through education, inspiration, and affordable growing kits. In their demonstration garden, volunteers “experiment with hydroponics, permaculture and organic gardening principles to develop soil-less growing techniques and containers that are ecologically sustainable, affordable and light-weight enough to be used on rooftops, balconies, walls and other small urban spaces, empowering urban residents to produce their own food, green their neighborhoods and build healthy communities.” The food that they grow and harvest in the demonstration garden is donated to seniors and others living with a loss of autonomy.

Victory Gardens
The original victory garden initiative, in which all capable citizens of the US, Canada, England, and Germany were encouraged by their governments to grow food at home, started during World War I and was revived during World War II. By growing their own food at home, citizens were able to reduce the war-related pressure on the public food supply, help support themselves, and feel a sense of pride about making a patriotic contribution. These gardens produced up to 41 percent of all the vegetable produce that was consumed in the nation at the time.

The idea has recently served as inspiration for a variety of projects, including the SF Victory Gardens 2008+. Funded by the City of San Francisco, the group aims to create a network of home gardens and gardeners, and support the transition of yards, window boxes and unused land into organic gardens. The group redefines “Victory" in this case as “growing food at home for increased local food security and reducing the food miles associated with the average American meal.“ The Garden Registry, one of the tools created in support of the project, is a inspiringly well-executed online resource that maps participating gardens.

Another victory garden-themed project of note is the White House Garden. In response to lobbying efforts by various environmental and gardening groups, the Obamas recently worked with local school kids and other volunteers to install an organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn. According to Michelle Obama, the garden “will provide food for the first family’s meals and formal dinners (and) educate children about healthful, locally grown fruit and vegetables.” “My hope,” the first lady said in an interview in her East Wing office, “is that through children, they will begin to educate their families and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities.”

Green Guerillas
Started in 1973 by NYC artist Liz Christy, the Green Guerillas used unconventional methods to reclaim and transform unused and neglected city spaces as gardens and community gathering spots, helping to spark the modern NYC community gardening movement, and serving as inspiration for movements like guerilla gardening. The group uses “a unique mix of education, organizing, and advocacy” to help gardeners cultivate and manage community gardens that thrive as parks, urban farms, and outdoor community centers.”

Rebel Tomato
Rebel Tomato is an online resource for people involved in youth gardening created by the American Community Gardening Association using United States Department of Agriculture community food projects grants. The site is an appealing and accessible “one-stop-shop” designed to generate enthusiasm for and share information about starting and developing youth gardening initiatives.

Brooklyn Botanical Garden
The Brooklyn Botanical Garden has a wide range of offerings in support of community horticulture, including:
- GreenBridge
This program is designed to promote conservation and community through gardening by sharing the knowledge and resources of the BBG with community gardens, block associations, community centers, and other Brooklyn groups.

- Greenest Block in Brooklyn Contest This annual contest encourages and rewards neighborhood residents and merchants for participating in community gardening and beautification efforts. As part of the program, the BBG sells affordable window box kits and shares information about urban horticulture.

- Project Green Reach
PGR is an outreach program for Brooklyn K-8 teachers and their classes that provides curriculum packages, training, plants, and instructional tools, as well as transportation to and a guided tour of the BBG.

Just Food
Just Food is a non-profit organization that “works to develop a just and sustainable food system in the New York City region.” They are the organization behind NYC’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and City Farms initiatives. City Farms is a program that offers workshops, training materials (including an incredibly handy toolkit ), and networking opportunities for NYC communities to grow more food. The CSA initiative partners NYC residents with regional family farms, enabling city-dwellers to receive high quality, affordable, locally-grown produce each week, and helping struggling farmers earn a living wage.

This project is primarily aimed at NYC community garden participants, school teachers and students, and residents with access to an outdoor space and a willingness to try their hand at gardening--particularly lower-income residents who would benefit most from an affordable supplementary source of healthy food.

User Scenario
In this initial phase, I am working directly with participants to get Local Roots up and running, but the goal is to create a self-propagating, community- and website-supported program, as conceived in the typical use case scenario that follows.

Step 1. Gathering Materials
- Ordering or Planting Seedlings
The first decision an organization participating in Local Roots will make is whether to purchase seedlings or plant and raise their own. New York City offers several programs that may be of assistance, depending on the organization.

At the beginning of April, the Council on the Environment of New York City accepts wholesale orders for a wide variety of locally-appropriate plants. The seedlings are available for pickup in early May, and can be used in any community greening project, including, (importantly) for direct plant sales to individuals to help fund community greening projects. Participating organizations are encouraged via the Local Roots website to select varieties suited for both full and partial sun, and to initially restrict their offering to popular options. For the initial phase, for instance, I ordered 250 seedlings of heirloom tomatoes, bell peppers, basil, cosmos, and impatiens for approximately $80. The number of plants an organization purchases will be based on their budgetary restrictions and their best estimates of likely sales.

Alternately, organizations may choose to purchase seeds and soil to raise the seedlings themselves (if they have adequate indoor space in which to do so). This option is more affordable, particularly for community gardens, which can receive free seeds and soil through Green Thumb, NYC’s primary community garden organization, but it requires more time and effort. This might, however, be the most appealing option for local schools, which could integrate the seed-rearing into an educational curriculum on agriculture and nutrition, such as those available through the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.

- Containers
Once the seeds have been planted or the seedlings ordered, the next step is for the organization to reach out to nearby restaurants to acquire donations of used food containers to use as planters. The Local Roots website contains a list of suggested restaurants, and an area on the discussion board for participants to share tips with each other. Although organizations are welcome to select any containers that they wish to use, the website suggests three-gallon plastic containers with handles, similar to the one shown in figure 1 because they are in fairly common use, portable, and watertight. The benefit of using containers from restaurants is that they are free (keeping the overall cost of the planters down) and would otherwise be added to the city’s already-teeming landfills.

- Peripheral Materials
As part of the Local Roots support, I suggest that participating organizations create sub-irrigation planters out of the recycled containers. Sub-irrigation planters conserve water by keeping a reservoir of water below the soil where it is not as susceptible to evaporation (see figure 1). They therefore have the added benefit of needing less maintenance from the plant owner, and because the plant only take up water as they need it, they are less likely to suffer from under- or over-watering -- a common cause of plant death.

In order to transform the containers into sub-irrigation planters, a few inexpensive materials are required, which organizations can either purchase, borrow, or secure by donation from local hardware stores: a 6” length of 1” plastic tubing for each planter, a power drill with a 11/4” bit, a box cutter, and 3/4"x13 5/8"x48” expanded polystyrene panel foam insulation (each sheet of which is enough for two planters).

Step 2. Preparing Planters
Once the containers and peripheral materials have been gathered, the organization’s members choose a day to complete the planter construction, either by following the instructions available on the Local Roots website, or in a workshop with myself or other volunteers. The planter design is adapted from a simple model developed and tested by the Rooftop Gardens Project (see figure 2). As a final step, the planters can then be decorated by the participants (particularly if the organization is a school group) and with the care instruction available for download and printing to stickers from the Local Roots website (see figure x). Constructing the planters will be an easy participatory event that builds group cohesion and generates enthusiasm for the project.

Step 3. Sowing the Plants
Once the sub-irrigation planters are constructed and filled with soil, they are ready to be sown with either the plants ordered from CENYC or the seedlings grown by the group. Ideally, this step will be completed within a few days of the seedlings arriving from CENYC, or, if home-grown as soon as the local climate supports outdoor growth (in New York City, the first week of May).

Step 4. Distributing the Plants
The highlight of this project comes when the planters are ready to be sold to the community. The Local Roots website provides materials and suggestions for how best to plan and advertise the event, but each organization will also play an important role in deciding how to best market the plants within their communities. However it is organized, the plant sale will create an easy, impulsive opportunity for community members to engage with their local organization and engage with urban agriculture in way they may not have otherwise attempted. All of the beneficial environmental and educational side effects are precipitated by this feel-good community event.

Step 5. Supporting and Expanding the Community
Once the Local Roots planters have been distributed within the community, participants are encouraged (by organizational members and by the stickers on the planters) to continue the dialog on the Local Roots website. The website itself is designed to be dynamic and engaging, with a clean, friendly, and easy to use interface. The discussion boards, tutorials, and social media sections (e.g., photos, video, testimonials) of the site encourage new and participating gardeners to share knowledge and inspiration, thereby forming and strengthening community bonds.

In order to test and develop this initiative, I ordered 250 seedlings of heirloom tomatoes, bell peppers, basil, cosmos, and impatiens from the CENYC, all for the low cost of approximately $80. I then visited dozens of local and chain restaurants asking for donations of containers. The reception I received from the restaurant managers was overwhelmingly positive, though many did not use containers of a suitable size, or didn’t use enough to be a viable source for multiple containers. Eventually, though, I was able to garner the containers I needed through the kind assistance of the following restaurants:
- McDonald’s
- Whole Foods
- Trader Joes
- Bagelsmith (in Williamsburg, Brooklyn)
- Oasis (in Williamsburg, Brooklyn)

Multiple visits to each of the above locations was required in order to pick up small numbers of containers as they became available, a process that will be facilitated in the future by a more systematic approach that encourages the staff to set aside the containers throughout the Winter and early Spring in preparation for planting season.

School Case Study
Through networking and community outreach I was able to recruit Michael Parrish, a 3rd grade teacher in Manhattan, to integrate the Local Roots initiative into his curriculum for Earth Day. Because his school already set aside classroom time for environmental education, Local Roots was a natural and welcome match. I visited Michael’s classroom several days in advance of Earth Day to meet with his class and get them excited about the project. I then returned for their Earth Day event, which was attended by the students’ parents, and provided one container for each student/parent pair to decorate with green-themed drawings.

For materials, Michael and I selected various colors of Sharpie markers, as they are permanent, weather-resistant, and the students are already familiar with using them in other art projects. Due to time and space restrictions, these classroom containers were not converted into sub-irrigation planters, though in future iterations of this system, this process could be implemented prior to bringing the containers to the classroom for decoration. Once decorated, the containers were set aside until the seedling arrived from CENYC, at which point I returned to the school to help the kids fill the containers with soil and plant on seedling in each container.

Once the planters were complete, the children were given the choice (with input from the parents the week before) on whether they wanted to bring them home, leave them at school to be tended in the classroom, or donate them to someone in the community. Those that were left for donation were handed out to community members in an awareness-raising event at the end of the day. Those that were left in the classroom or brought home by the students continued to serve as inspiration and instruction throughout the growing season. The classroom events were documented through photographs, video, and an article which will soon be added to the Local Roots website to serve as inspiration for other teachers.

Community Garden Case Study
The remainder of the seedlings not used by the students were brought to the community garden. Volunteers were recruited to fill the containers with soil donated by Green Thumb and transplant the seedlings into them. Due to the sheer number of containers (more than 200), they were not individually decorated, but instead affixed with the appropriate Local Roots sticker, which includes care instructions for the plant and information about the website.

As the final step, I will assist the garden in producing flyers and a poster to advertise a plant sale in mid-May. Members of the garden will tend the plants in the week between the planting and the sale, and then assist in selling them and discussing the project with community members at what I anticipate will be a fun afternoon event.

Due to the timing of the arrival of the seedlings from the CENYC, the full results of this first trial of the Local Roots initiative are not available at the time of writing, but based on the reaction of the community members involved to date, I think this project has a great deal of potential. By leveraging existing resources and enthusiasm for grassroots environmental efforts, Local Roots lowers the bar to engaging community involvement and encouraging New Yorkers from all walks of life to try their hand at gardening. By reducing waste, bringing a new source of food into people’s homes, serving as a simple educational tool, and providing people with an easy way to support and engage with their local schools and community gardens, the project seems to inspire good feelings and enthusiasm for all involved.

I will be hoping for and working towards the future propagation of this initiative throughout the city and beyond. There are countless opportunities for integrating this system in school Earth Day curricula and annual community garden plant sales, and I hope that through a vibrant online community and community word of mouth, this initiative will continue to grown and spread the benefits of casual urban argriculture.

The words of the Just Food City Farms toolkit serve as a good summation up the inspiration for and results-to-date of this simple yet impactful project: “Passing on the gift of training in food growing from one person to the next leads to greater community self-reliance and greater food security. The resources are all here: soil, rain, sun, and people. The right training, encouragement and inspiration can lead to less hunger, better health, and greater prosperity for NYC’s neighborhoods.”