The organic growth of Dayton’s urban gardens

By Tara Pettit

Dayton’s neighborhoods are extraordinarily active outdoors this spring as shovels dig, composts heaps pile up and hoop houses erect in several neighborhoods. All the activity can only mean one thing for a city that has proven its motivation in recent years to transforming empty urban space into beautiful, productive land: it’s community gardening season.

But it’s not a typical community gardening season this year for Dayton, as a new level of commitment and intensity is integrated into newly forged community partnerships and expanding educational opportunities associated with existing garden projects, as well as pioneering ventures.

For Dayton, “urban gardening” is evolving into a term that doesn’t quite encapsulate the breadth and depth to which it is actually being implemented and practiced in the life of its neighborhoods. The city has begun to see its communities transformed by the positive and often healing effects that ecological restoration can bring in the form of redeveloped urban green spaces, as focused projects evolve to now encompass a multi-faceted philosophy and way of life advocating sustainable community well-being.

Dayton is undoubtedly journeying deeper into the depths of its dirt as neighborhoods are exploring new opportunities to maximize benefits from collaborative garden projects, including the potential for innovative urban farming solutions.

As Dayton digs deeper, those involved in current endeavors are uncovering hope for a more sustainable and vibrant community life as new ideas and the possibilities that come with them grow into a reimagined reality for Dayton—fresh, ripe and ready for a new future to be harvested.

Planting the seed

As of January, 90 active community garden spaces exist in Montgomery County, according to Lucille Beachdell, Five Rivers MetroParks community garden manager.

Of those 90 gardens plotted sporadically across the region, there also exist many different bed sizes, types and purposes as no one project is exactly the same and not all of Dayton’s urban gardens serve its community or beyond in the same function.

“There are so many garden projects in our region transforming their areas, whether it’s on a larger city scale, or just within their neighborhoods,” Beachdell says. “They all are doing this in lots of different ways.”

For example, to track and organize all the garden projects in the area, Five Rivers MetroParks utilizes six key categories to define a garden’s function: community program gardens, donation gardens, educational gardens, rentable plot gardens, resident-only gardens and urban agricultural gardens.

The majority of Montgomery County’s active projects fall into the rentable plot category, which give members in that community an opportunity to rent a plot for their own use while gardening alongside neighbors.

“I do think you find that sense of community and shared sense of people working together to really revitalize a neighborhood in many of our city’s gardens,” Beachdell says.

Dayton’s foray into urban gardening started out as a handful of pilot projects in the 1980s under an independent community gardening program until it was absorbed by Five Rivers MetroParks in 1995.

MetroParks expanded the community garden model across the region, which laid the groundwork for what is now the network of 90 gardens existing within its fold.

MetroParks vision to see a continuously expanding network of gardens in Dayton can be understood within a locational context in terms of park mapping and effectively implementing natural corridor space in between to create habitat for pollinators and creatures.

“The idea that we can reuse spaces in neighborhoods to be feeding people, as well as providing ecological habitats is really a wonderful thing,” Beachdell says. “The more all of us do, whether it’s in vacant lots or in our own personal yards, to make the world a more hospitable place for our creatures, the better off the environment is and the better off we are.”

Environmental enhancement within urban spaces is a fundamental impact of urban gardening on a larger scale—and a notable trend across the United States as our cities refocus planning to accommodate for open green space.

Beachdell believes Dayton compares to other Midwestern cities in its efforts to incorporate green space utilization into its city planning and hopes to see those efforts continue to flourish under a city government that “has been very supportive in [their] goals.”

“You can see in the last nine years there has been significant growth in the gardens in the national interest of changing the way we eat, what we put on our food and the idea that we can influence our health by what we eat,” Beachdell says. “It is a realization our nation is coming to, but it’s a realization here, as well.”

Community fertilization

Dayton’s urban gardening efforts have also fostered relationships within communities.

A leading example of efforts to restore community by preserving green space is the McPherson Town community garden. This particular neighborhood has reimagined what community life could be like when an urban garden project is leveraged to grow a different kind of community model fertilized by the idea of “neighbors helping neighbors.”

McPherson Town’s garden formed in 2009 as a result of community members desiring to make fresh, local produce readily available to the community. Neighbors sacrificed personal belongings, including the space to garden, to grow the garden into a 27-plot space.

“Our garden is focused on neighborhood collaboration and community building,” Aimee Noel, the garden’s project coordinator, says. “It’s a way to bring us together and a way to share life together.”

Noel describes the typical trip down to the garden to pull weeds or collect produce as a 30 minute or more visit with other neighbors in the garden when everyone seizes the opportunity to catch up on neighborhood news or with each other’s lives.

As Noel has worked closely with Five Rivers MetroParks and other community gardening coordinators in the area, she has come to appreciate the “different personalities” of each Dayton garden.

“Each garden fulfills a particular need for that neighborhood,” Noel says. “For us, one of the most important things is working together to create a shared local source of food because we want to know where our food comes from. I would like to think we are a role model for neighborhoods working together.”

Transforming the terrain 

Since the establishment of their first urban garden several years ago with the help of Mission of Mary Cooperative—a nonprofit organization seeking to improve community life through engaging in urban agriculture—East Dayton’s neighborhoods have started re-evaluating and addressing the quality of life of its members through green space management.

One of the ways neighborhoods in this area are doing this is through further developing their three existing urban garden sites and investing more into their partnership with Mission of Mary to expand the reach and outcome of those current projects. Additionally, these neighborhoods are working to address areas of concern by extending positive influential factors of a green space strategy throughout East Dayton with the productive use of open green space.

Twin Towers green space strategy is part of a larger integrated strategy for community improvement, backed by the 18 years of work that East End Community Services has been doing in the neighborhood through its nonprofit mission to meet the needs of neighbors in East Dayton through access to quality housing, education and health.

As development of an additional garden location focused on urban agricultural production and education in partnership with Mission of Mary, East End Community Services and the University of Dayton Hanley Sustainability Institute is underway within the Twin Towers neighborhood, corresponding ideas and plans to “rebrand” east Dayton neighborhoods as vibrant communities committed to green and sustainable living have also been a focus for various neighborhood association groups.

Ervin has worked closely with Twin Towers Neighborhood Association to implement positive themes into the redevelopment of community life that aligns with the construction of the new urban agricultural site, which will be located at Lincoln Hill (an open area where the old Lincoln School used to stand). Centered on eco-friendly living and sustainability, Twin Towers marketing strategy around the projects and related initiatives will serve to attract people to a community that offers enhanced urban agricultural amenities.

“We also think the new ‘ag’ center will help improve housing values around the site,” Ervin says.

Coordinating neighbors’ involvement in the development of Twin Towers green space is the neighborhood association’s president, Leslie Sheward.

Sheward has witnessed the Dayton neighborhood she grew up in transformed back into one that values community wellbeing. She remembers the days when Victory Gardens brought forth the evening’s home-cooked meal and sustained the community, both physically and socially.

“Growing up here, we had 4-H and chickens in the neighborhood,” Sheward recalls. “Every neighbor had a garden, which brought us outside and gave us an opportunity to engage. You never drove to the store to get your carrots. You went out to the backyard and pulled the carrot right out of your own garden and took a bite out of it.”

Sheward recognizes the challenges Twin Towers and other East Dayton neighborhoods face today that have prevented the development of community life centered on individual wellbeing. One of those challenges is the higher percentage of rental properties compared to home ownership, which contributes to a high turnover rate and lack of foundation for true community bonds.

Sheward grieves for the individual hardships faced as families are plagued with substance abuse issues, which she acknowledges as another key aspect to be addressed when envisioning a restorative community plan.

“So many people in our community are in the survival stage,” Sheward says. “They’re overwhelmed and don’t have time to take on other responsibilities. But once you start addressing the root of things keeping families from being structured, start healing those roots, you can then plant something and see how it grows.”

The association hopes the new garden site and development of urban agricultural projects will stimulate interest in working toward a shared central space, and purpose, to improve life for everyone.

Sheward acknowledges, however, that getting people involved will be a slow process of retraining mindsets toward the benefit of growing healthy food over settling for fast, convenient food.

“We have to give people hope and something to look forward to, which is something our gardening efforts can bring,” Sheward says.

Expanding Eco-Education

Not only will Twin Towers’ new Lincoln Hill garden site offer a community-focused culture, but it will also serve as an innovative educational hub, as development has already begun to transform five acres of land into a sustainable, multi-purpose “green solutions” laboratory.

The site is projected to offer resources for experimentation with solar parking lot canopies, green roofs, cooking oil to power campus vehicles and other green engineering projects. Students from multiple disciplines, from engineering to biology and psychology, will partner with the community to create an educational learning lab and develop the site.

The lab will address the food insecurity in the East Dayton communities and find solutions to “increase neighborhood access to fresh, healthful foods while offering open green space for community gatherings,” Tess Keener, Lincoln Hill Urban Garden project coordinator, says.

Keener explains that the University of Dayton has worked closely with representatives of the East End communities, like Sheward, as well as Mission of Mary, to enhance community-based research in topics like site soil conditions and ecosystem services, residential food access, community-based assets and neighborhood-based economic development strategies.

“Residents will be encouraged to use the space for recreation and gatherings, as well as for learning about land stewardship practice and sustainable food production,” Keener says. “Ownership of this site can create a sense of pride within a community to being neighbors together for the betterment of their community and land.”

Other educational opportunities around community gardening, sustainable food practice and ecological preservation also exist in the area to draw awareness to Dayton’s gardening efforts.

Five Rivers MetroParks has started exploring children’s education avenues with its school-based integrated programs that teach children how to grow food through its experimental gardens located on school sites.

“We started the program because the best way to get people to do something is getting their kids connected to something,” Beachdell says.

Many other garden project coordinators share Beachdell’s idea, believing that one of the best ways to market their community’s garden and to get neighbors involved is to get area kids excited about gardening and working together to create something productive, useful and fun.

“We have to look to the younger generations now to get involved and in order to get older generations involved,” Sheward recognizes. “It’s easier to get kids’ hands in the dirt.”

Farming for the future?

As Dayton continues to dig up roots of urban gardening possibility, the city is beginning to uncover a largely untapped area: the development of urban agricultural enterprise.

Growth in the area of urban agricultural business excites Stephen Mackell, farm manager of Mission of Mary’s garden sites, who has invested in small urban agricultural business at the co-op’s garden locations for several years now through the organization’s community supported agriculture (CSA) program.

While maintaining regular education and outreach events such as gardening and cooking classes, kids day camps and a teen job program, the group also carries forth a shared vision of increasing local urban food production to address the lack of fresh food in many of Dayton’s neighborhoods.

The organization now runs its three (and now four) garden sites as urban farms where food is grown and distributed to neighbors through five key ways: the CSA membership program, neighborhood farmer’s markets, community meals, donations and regular sales.

“There are different ways we can shift to reimagine city planning for the health of its citizens,” Mackell explains. “One would be having food production happening right here in our neighborhoods, right where people are living. We’re still seeing vacant areas as a negative thing because we have to mow them all the time and there’s little money to rebuild. But we can transform them into food production areas.”

This year, Mackell will grow 20-25,000 pounds of food on an acre and a quarter of urban land.

Mission of Mary’s work is not the only example of urban farming being maximized within the Miami Valley. Dayton’s Food Bank also maintains 2,500 square feet of urban gardening space to produce approximately 2,000 pounds of produce, which it distributes in its mobile farmer’s market trucks throughout the Miami Valley.

Horticulturist Manager Alex Klug explains that they design their farming space so each crop meets the needs of about 50 mobile pantry clients.

“Majority of the food we provide is healthy and nutritious, like fruits and vegetables, so our urban farms and mobile farmer’s market program really fits in with our overall mission,” Lora Davenport, the Food Bank community relations manager, adds.

Davenport and Klug believe the program serves as a model for addressing large, systemic food insecurity issues.

“Dayton is a great place to grow food because we have fantastic soil and water,” Klug says. “It benefits everyone from a larger approach.”

Mackell expresses similar sentiment, encouraging Dayton to take community gardening to a new level by investing more in food production yield.

“I see our growth in this area as unlimited potential and what we’re trying to model for neighborhoods,” Mackell says. “While we may only have small locations, that can add up to a lot.”

As citizens start reimagining how available urban land is used, the city is being reimagined for a sustainable future.

Dig in, Dayton. 

Tara Pettit is a regional journalist and communications specialist with a focus on the arts, social/environmental justice issues, and community activism. She is passionate about cultivating intentional community and engaging in collaborative creative projects that make healthy community possible.  You can reach her at TaraPettit@DaytonCityPaper.com. 

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Tara Pettit is a regional journalist and communications specialist with a focus on the arts, social/environmental justice issues, and community activism. She is passionate about cultivating intentional community and engaging in collaborative creative projects that make healthy community possible. Reach her at TaraPettit@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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