A com­mu­nity gar­den brings peo­ple to­gether in down­town Hous­ton

in down­town Hous­ton, work­place friend­ships grow over pots of plants

Austin American-Statesman - - LIFE & ARTS - By Mon­ica Rhor

HOUS­TON — A funny thing hap­pened af­ter Keiji Asakura sug­gested the cre­ation of a veg­etable gar­den in the mid­dle of the con­crete cor­ri­dor and sky­scraper canyon that is down­town Hous­ton.

It ac­tu­ally came to fruition — with a swift­ness that stunned the land­scape ar­chi­tect and the non­profit group that shared his vi­sion.

Within three weeks, seeds, plants and con­tainer pots had been do­nated, city of­fi­cials had hopped on board and a nascent gar­den had sprouted out­side the 25-story Bob Lanier Pub­lic Works Build­ing.

Now, a mere two months later, herbs, veg­eta­bles and flow­ers are flour­ish­ing on a bustling city street. A com­mu­nity has been forged among co-work­ers and strangers who once did lit­tle more than brush shoul­ders on crowded el­e­va­tors. Skate­board­ers and street peo­ple have grown pro­tec­tive of the fledg­ling plants.

And this ex­per­i­ment, which in­volves non­profit groups, the city’s Sus­tain­abil­ity Of­fice and em­ploy­ees of the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Works and En­gi­neer­ing, has be­come liv­ing proof that ur­ban gar­dens can take root in the un­like­li­est of places.

“We caught light­ning in a bot­tle,” said Mark Bowen, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Ur­ban Har­vest, the non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that spear­headed the project. “This is proof that there is some­thing great to be gained from gar­den­ing with other peo­ple.”

The Down­town Hous­ton Con­tainer Veg­etable Gar­den Project is also part of a trend in cities across the coun­try, where once-va­cant lots, apart­ment build­ing win­dowsills and rooftops are be­ing turned into com­mu­nity gar­dens which help pro­vide fresh pro­duce for the gar­den­ers, farm­ers mar­kets and food banks serv­ing the needy.

Al­though com­mu­nity gar­dens date back at least to Eleanor Roo­sevelt’s World War II Vic­tory Gar­den, more and more cities are now us­ing them as a tool for eco­nomic devel­op­ment and neigh­bor­hood re­vi­tal­iza­tion.

In ad­di­tion, first lady Michelle Obama’s veg­etable gar­den at the White House and the lo­ca­vore move­ment — which en­cour­ages peo­ple to eat lo­cally grown food — have cre­ated new in­ter­est in ur­ban gar­den­ing.

In Cleve­land, the city is con­sid­er­ing leg­is­la­tion to cre­ate ur­ban agri­cul­ture dis­tricts. In Mi­ami and Mil­wau­kee, of­fi­cials over­hauled city or­di­nances to make ur­ban farm­ing eas­ier. Other cities, in­clud­ing Detroit, are look­ing at gar­den­ing as a way to re­claim blighted blocks.

“More and more cities are be­com­ing open to com­mu­nity gar­den­ing,” said Vicki Gar­rett, projects co­or­di­na­tor of the Amer­i­can Com­mu­nity Gar­den­ing As­so­ci­a­tion, which has seen new mem­ber­ship nearly dou­ble in less than a year.

In many cities, she said, com­mu­nity gar­den­ing ad­vo­cates still must plow through a bog of govern­ment bu­reau­cracy. Hous­ton, on the other hand, is “very proac­tive,” Gar­rett noted.

That might be due largely to the city’s new sus­tain­abil­ity di­rec­tor, Laura Span­jian, who came to Hous­ton from San Fran­cisco, where city of­fi­cials cre­ated a vic­tory gar­den near City Hall. Al­though tem­po­rary, that project served as in­spi­ra­tion for the Hous­ton gar­den, which is de­signed to be per­ma­nent.

Span­jian had just ar­rived in Hous­ton when Bowen and Asakura ap­proached her about start­ing a down­town gar­den. She em­braced the pro­posal, as did Mayor An­nise Parker, who was among the vol­un­teers dig­ging in the dirt out­side the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Works on June 4.

That day, a small squadron of pub­lic works em­ploy­ees scat­tered seeds in 36-inch con­tainer pots and se­lected veg­etable seedlings for their gar­dens. Each pot was as­signed to a floor of the build­ing, with em­ploy­ees from that floor as­signed to care for it.

Der­rick Neal, a staff an­a­lyst in the depart­ment, was charged with get­ting city em­ploy­ees on board. At first, he won­dered if they would be will­ing to give up lunch hours and free time to gar­den in Hous­ton’s un­for­giv­ing hu­mid­ity and sum­mer heat.

“Con­cep­tu­ally, it didn’t seem like it was pos­si­ble,” said Neal. “But once it started, the buyin be­gan to spread like wild­fire.”

These days, the down­town gar­den­ers of­ten spend lunchtime tend­ing to the pots or shar­ing recipes us­ing the veg­eta­bles they are grow­ing. Once a week, they get gar­den­ing tips and ad­vice from Bowen, a hor-ti­cul­tur­al­ist.

“Some­thing as sim­ple as this brings a mes­sage to peo­ple down­town,” said Asakura, as he vis­ited the gar­den on a re­cent shower-soaked af­ter­noon. “It’s about con­nec­tion, about bring­ing peo­ple to a place where they can con­nect and talk.”

Even the rain that day did not stop gar­den­ers from clus­ter­ing around their pots, where they cooed over ba­nana pep- pers, basil, okra, egg­plants, rose­mary and mint like proud par­ents. There are even le­mon trees, in con­tain­ers in the build­ing’s base­ment atrium.

And the down­town gar­den­ing project won’t stop with con­tainer pots. On the draw­ing board are plans for a larger vic­tory gar­den and a farm­ers mar­ket near City Hall.

“We haven’t heard of any other city do­ing this the way we have,” said Span­jian. “The goal is to show peo­ple that they can grow lo­cal veg­eta­bles any­where. We want to be a model for other cities and other busi­nesses.”

The gar­den­ing fever al­ready shows signs of spread­ing. Of­fice work­ers from nearby build­ings of­ten stop by to in­quire about the down­town gar­den, and a neigh­bor­ing bank has expressed in­ter­est in start­ing a rooftop gar­den.

“It adds green­ery and beauty in an un­ex­pected place,” said Neal. “This is what gar­den­ing is about — to­tally or­di­nary peo­ple do­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary things.”

Pat Sul­li­van pho­tos

Dur­ing her lunch hour, Hous­ton city em­ployee Belen Garza walks through the maze of pots filled with herbs and veg­eta­bles at the Bob Lanier Pub­lic Works Build­ing.

Mark Bowen, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Ur­ban Har­vest, prunes a basil plant. The gar­den is a co­op­er­a­tive ef­fort by city of­fi­cials and the non­profit group.

Seeds and pots were do­nated to the city to start the gar­den. Each pot is tended by vol­un­teers who work in the 25-story build­ing, home to city of­fices.

The work­place gar­den­ers re­ceive gar­den­ing tips once a week from Bowen.

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