Agriculture was once one of the founding industries of the United States. Now with increased attention on food systems and many people finding themselves in city-settings, urban farms are sprouting up around the country. In Providence, Rhode Island, the Southside Community Land Trust has helped make this possible for many urbanites. They help transform vacant, polluted lots into productive food gardens and offer educational programs to community members. Their three-quarter acre commercial City Farm is an important part of the Land Trust, selling produce at the local farmers markets and offering a 10-week summer enrichment program for students.
City Farm finds its home in the heart of South Providence. It is an area with a turbulent history of conflict and neglect. Originally a marshland, the plot has seen its history of dwellers pass through. A strong Jewish and Irish community once thrived and the now-farm was once host to seven houses. During the 60s, many people left for the suburbs and houses were abandoned, some even burned for insurance claims. The area is still marked by today’s economic conditions- vacant houses with boarded windows feature “Do not enter” signs. However, amidst the decay signs of hope can be found in the greenery sprouting up all over.
Rich Pederson and Laura Brown-Lavoie work together to make the farm run. They emphasize the importance of composting as the base for production and healthy soil at any farm. The farm is filled with homemade compost bins ranging in style and fermentation cycle. Some hold compost that has been brewing for over three months and is ready to spread on the land. Others are actively added to on a daily basis with organic scraps coming from all over. The farm has an exchange system with several local businesses including the nearby White Electric Coffee Shop which contributes coffee grounds in exchange for fresh flowers, several local restaurants that donate food scraps and the police station which reacts rather strangely when asked for horse manure and sawdust. Over 500 pounds of compost is processed per week and temperatures in the middle of the heap can reach 160 F!
Thanks to the vibrant compost and a good system of crop rotation, the farm is able to produce around 4,000 pounds of food on little land. Over 80 different plants are grown and ones that are productive all season, such as basil and arugula, are favored. The biodiversity of the farm also includes edible flowers and medicinal plants and produce is regularly donated to local pantries and community partners.
Integrated into the green-filled plot, several quirky innovations can be found. Solar panels and water catchments help with energy and resource conservation. A series of planter bins made from bathtubs, wooden crates and old toilets prove how the farm has grasped the surrounding urban environment and incorporated it into its own landscape.
City Farm serves primarily as a commercial and educational endeavor, but it also greatly impacts social relations. Food becomes a tool for bridging age, race and gender based divides. The Southside Community Land Trust has given many newly arrived immigrants land access that enables them to continue to practice traditional growing methods while meeting other members of the community. With about 25% of children in upper South Providence showing high lead exposure, the Trust also offers an important educational workshops to teach residents about soil remediation. Without the pristine environment of a rural setting, the Trust has made much progress in transforming the existing environment into a healthy, liveable place where residents can incorporate gardening and farming into their daily life and find pride in doing so.
Images © Amanda Silvana Coen for Inhabitat