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Green vs Gray: Growing Sustainable Communities

Philadelphia Urban Creators - Life Do Grow Farm

As a kid I grew up close to nature. In the suburbs of Baltimore, the house I grew up in sat across from the woods of Gunpowder State Park. My self-made path would get more worn each year, for the park acted as my daily refuge — a reading spot, a hiking spot, a swimming spot. Over a decade of my life was spent at that house, yet when college rolled around I was ready to depart from my childhood comfort and take on a major city, exploring the new culture of Philadelphia. I had grown accustomed to hiding out at Gunpowder, but the thrill of city life indicated a new chapter of my life. Being apart from nature did not lead to a sense of withdrawal, but a new eye for natural beauty, especially unexpected natural beauty that arises from a city — for nature always has a way of creeping out of the cracks. Corner parks, urban gardens, window-planters, weeds growing out of sidewalk cracks — all these would bring a smile to my face. But I couldn’t stop thinking, would I appreciate such simple pleasures had I not grown so accustomed to loving nature in my up bring? How do we make sure that city dwellers appreciate nature have a chance to see its meditative, therapeutic value?

To fulfill a general education science requirement in the school of liberal arts, I enrolled in a class, “Green vs Gray,” that studied the many functions of urban ecosystems. Focuses of the class were: how to make sustainable practices applicable to daily city life and how to extend these values into the Philadelphia community. The class was accredited with a lab component, with the ‘lab’ consisting of volunteer days with an environmental organization of our choosing.

After studying the ethics of permaculture, which, simply put, is care of the earth, care of people, and return of the surplus to both the earth and the people, a few afternoons throughout the semester were devoted to the Philadelphia Orchard Project (POP). POP’s projects were focused in low-income neighborhoods to provide healthy, local food to neighborhoods located in food deserts. I chose to volunteer on days when the organization worked with local elementary school’s after-school programs to provide edible forests within lots of the school building.

Not only did I develop a better understanding of the potential urban foresting — which designs gardens with many layers of plants, focusing on inspect repellent scents, levels of shade, and root growth — but I also developed a passion for edible forests within my backyard. Each year I now plant many layers of vegetables, and the time I spend outside maintaining the garden throughout the summer is also time spent getting to know my neighbors who are passing by. Urban gardening makes a neighborhood feel more lived in and it is amazing how neighbors are willing to say “hello, how are you,” if you see them on a regular basis, rather than a typical relationship based on hand waves.

It’s one thing to love gardening, but it was a new experience to show kids, in rudimentary ways, how to get excited about food, and to begin to think about where it comes from. Some kids who had never experienced the benefits of urban gardens, could only list a few vegetable names when on the spot, but the kids who had worked in tandem with other urban garden projects, could list vegetables as common as carrots and as obscure as celery root or rhubarb. To watch the kids try to out-best the others with their obscure vegetable knowledge was elating and it gave the volunteers instant gratification in knowing that the work they did that day mattered and will have lasting effects. Urban garden projects, like POP, show the correlation that growing food leads to greater appreciation of the product and healthier lifestyles. It is beyond satisfying to know that one growing season in a highly-dense urban city can be an educating, hands-on approach which gets kids engaged in thinking about where food comes from and growing sustainable practices for themselves and their community.

About Megan Critzman

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