Urban Agriculture: The Promise of Plenty and the Menace of Maintenance

This post was written by a Doni Kaye, a participant on the Repair the World Onward Israel Service-learning Program in Be’er Sheva. The group members are encountering social change initiatives in the Negev region and receiving training to be leaders when they return to their campuses in the fall. Doni is volunteering with Earth’s Promise.

Volunteering at Earth’s Promise has taught me how urban agricultural spaces have the potential to greatly benefit the community in numerous ways, and at the same time, that facilitating the success of these endeavors is no walk in the park.  In addition to adding more greenery to jungles of concrete and brick, urban gardens and farms cause unattractive sections of urban decay to blossom into aesthetically pleasing and socially and economically useful focal points. When integrated into an urban setting, centers of cultivation encourage a spirit of cooperation among community members, which precipitates communal cohesiveness and local economic sustainability.  The goal of empowering the people illustrates why much of our efforts are focused on surveying and eventually ameliorating the relationship between community members and agricultural spaces.  The end goal is for the community to establish a system in which agricultural spaces can be maintained and improved while in the hands of community members with external support mechanisms fading into the background as primarily benefactors and secondary rather than primary caretakers.  This central goal gives rise to the interest of Earth’s Promise in promoting a relationship toward urban agricultural projects in which the community is enticed and has a vested interest in caring for and up-keeping these green spaces.

Over the course of our time as volunteers, we have seen and taken part in a variety of urban agricultural projects, and witnessed how they vary in the degree to which they achieve the vision of facilitating a thriving community agricultural epicenter, serving as a source of pride and inspiration for all.  In order to illustrate some of the challenges to making this dream a reality, it is necessary to distinguish between a couple different agricultural spaces in which we work.  Some community gardens are divided into individual plots in which the owner is responsible for cultivation and up-keep.  Within these gardens, there are communal spaces not assigned to individuals.  Ostensibly, the onus is on helpful individual plot holders and employees to keep these spaces tidy.  As volunteers, we have seen how despite these tacit obligations for maintaining communal spaces, they invariably become neglected and overgrown.  These untidy spaces often encroach upon individual plots.  Consequently, these neglected communal spaces are more than just a nuisance – they frustrate individual gardeners and harm the health of the garden as a whole.  We have helped to clean up these areas, but our efforts often leave us disconcerted.  Though Earth’s Promise is committed to funding and maintaining these communal gardens, our manual labor produces only transient relief for the individual gardeners and the community at large, temporarily solving the maintenance dilemma facing these areas without producing any structural or dynamic changes.  In-between volunteer visits, these spaces become overgrown and unkempt.  Without contributions from individual plot holders and other community members, the gardens collectively cannot consistently be producing at their highest capacity – nurturing and nourishing both camaraderie and plant-life.

The enigma of maintenance is even more pronounced in communal gardens.  At the beginning, these projects do a wonderful job of bringing the community together.  However, individuals have very little to no interest in taking care of the public space between the initial planting time and the culminating period of harvesting.  Even if some altruistic community members wish to work on the garden, the daunting task of cleaning up a wildly overgrown space which is not consistently up-kept, might discourage them from doing any gardening.

 In light of our recent visit to the community garden in Arad, this problem is at the forefront of our thoughts.  We were thunderstruck by what we saw in the community garden adjacent to the Ethiopian absorption center.  What we saw was a forest of towering weeds tangled around and dominating already struggling crops.  It was apparent that little or no gardening had been done from the initial planting.  It took five of us several hours to return the plot to a reasonable looking and relatively healthy state.  While this labor of love was rewarding for us all, it was accompanied by the disconcerting thought that such maintenance is not sustainable, and requires assistance from motivated volunteers.  The vision of creating admired and respected epicenters of community empowerment through agriculture has yet to be realized.

In my mind, the main question to ask in response to this experience was: how can we associate the community garden spaces with pride and respect in a fashion that encourages people to care for them?  An internal structural change must occur in order to change the dynamic at play here.  Earth’s Promise has taken great strides to advance a more constructive relationship with community agricultural spaces focused around pride and collective contributions.  Programs such as Ecothiopia, a festival displaying everything produced in the Kalisher community garden located by the absorption center, as well as celebrating Ethiopian culture, was designed to instill pride in the community for the hard work put into the garden.  As volunteers, we have been cleaning up communal areas in the gardens run by Earth’s Promise, and constructing a fence around the children’s garden for the purpose of conveying a message to youth: that the garden is a space to be respected and treasured, a place set apart, to be treated with care, and enjoyed by all.

 Earth’s Promise has its eyes set on the future as well.  On the horizon, the organization is working on establishing an urban farm, the embodiment of the self-sufficient agricultural project.  Urban farms are essentially productive gardens.  The income produced is sufficient for sustaining the farm.  An external source of support is not required to maintain operations; local businesses and agricultural support projects provide the demand for produce, and buttress and perpetuate gardening procedures.  Urban farms remedy issues of food security in urban areas by preventing “food deserts” in areas in which affordable and nutritious food is not usually plentiful.  Based on precedent, the implementation of the urban farm concept is likely to be successful in Beer Sheva.  In addition to filling up neglected spaces, urban agricultural projects are most successful in places most hard hit by urban decay, serving as a viable avenue for ameliorating the problem.  Urban farms still facilitate all the social benefits associated with community gardens; in this place of mutual value, people are encouraged to cooperate and act cordially with their neighbors.  This project works to adjust perceptions toward urban agriculture, inspiring people to contribute and cooperate, while promoting the betterment  of the entire community.

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