25 January 2008

Stop Wasting Abandoned Property

On my train ride to and from work I pass through Philadelphia's unfortunate ring of garbage. I've begun to mentally catalogue the trash, deciphering what could be recycled and reused. Quite often the reuse qualities are garden related. Meg and I try to reuse before we buy new and this often involves creative scavenging*.

Along with the ring of trash there are also the overwhelming number of abandoned factory and apartment buildings. As the title of the post suggests, I think something should be done to utilize (recycle and reuse) all of this unused space. In my early teens I went with my church to Yonkers, New York on a two week mission trip to help reclaim abandoned homes and turn them into affordable housing. The program was called S.W.A.P. (Stop Wasting Abandoned Property) and it was created and run by a local Presbyterian pastor. What little funding they had came from donations. They were able to stretch that funding with recycled and reused materials. After experiencing what can be done with a little pride and inventiveness, I have to ask myself why we're building new (suburban sprawl) when we could be rebuilding.

Granted, a good deal of these abandoned properties are in low income, high crime areas that most suburbanites try to avoid (I'm sure we could all hypothisize why there is this divide). I believe that when cultural and ethnic diversity is embraced, it makes the community stronger. When I volunteered for SWAP, even as a teenager, I noticed how much a neighborhood could come to life when the people who live there have pride and purpose invested in where they live. So what if instead of building homes, an organization was developed to build gardens. I think it would be cool if each of these neighborhoods were to reclaim one of these buildings and turn it into a community garden. I'm sure this has already been done**, but what would it take to provide this opportunity to all communities?

Imagine if a community were to receive a grant to purchase a building, have is torn down, and turned into a community garden to replenish their local food cupboard (let's not forget that poor nutrition is also an issue in lower income neighborhoods). Many of these buildings are made of brick. The bricks could be used to make rows between the beds and stacked to make the actual raised beds. Then there is the ring of garbage to be utilized to make trellises, tomato cages, curing tables, work benches, bird baths, rain harvesters, and all kinds of other stuff.

There is no way Meg and I could run a project like this on our own, nor would we want to, but we are curious to know how we could get it started. If any of you have ever seen anything like this done and have some suggestions, please share. Thanks.

*Check out Patrick's post on the environmental benefits and hazards of the materials we choose to use or reuse in the garden. His post specifically targets PVC.

**I've actually been tossing this post draft around for a little while now and in the meantime read two posts that touch a bit on this subject. The first was from In the Toad's Garden and it talks about a mobile community garden. The second post is from Fast Grow the Weeds, which doesn't really talk about community reclamation (it's about saying enough to petty excuses and getting out there and doing something), but Ali from Henbogle (you've got to see her reclaimed sink) had a comment to the post that does point to some of the potential hazards of such a project.


Jen said...

I really enjoyed reading this post--I found your blog through a comment left on TinyFarmBlog.
I don't know of any projects exactly like you describe, but I am aware of the Alemany Farm in San Francisco. It is adjacent to a low-income housing development, and is maintained by residents of the development. I believe that the land was simply an abandoned field next to the freeway before it was turned into the farm, and now it's an important part of the community. Perhaps you could talk with them?

Anonymous said...

Good post.

On the issue of PVC I am torn -it happens to be the cheapest way to build a hoop house. Alternatives are very hard to find, but there are certainly real concerns with it. The best balanced article I have found is here:
though I am still up in the air.

All in all though, the important take away is to continue to strive to reduce our impact and create a better world. (re)Learning to save water in today's society will most likely prove critical, and as your post alludes to, there is alot of reusable PVC out there in the urban wasteland.

Your harvester is inspiring, regardless of materials.

Kelly said...

Jen, We're pleased to meet you and thanks for the link. We checked it out and it looks like a solid place to start. I'll try to call them next week and if they can offer any info I'll be sure to post about it.

Rob, The issues with PVC are new to me. Personally I like buying things once, taking care of them, and hoping they last forever. I have no patience with the capitalist routine of buying with the intent to later throw away.

However, between Patrick's post and the link you provided, I don't believe that we'll ever use PVC for potable water. You are very right though that it is an inexpensive material to use for very sturdy structures. In fact we have plans to make ribs for our row covers out of PVC this Spring. What I will do differently is look for used PVC before we buy new.

We're glad you like the harvester. It does have a few design flaws, but in all we are very proud of it. The difference in our harvest was undeniably better. We may add two new barrels to it for compost tea.

Thanks for the comment and the link. Take care of yourself and I'm sure we'll be chatting again soon.


Katie said...

Hi Kelly,

The idea of creative scavenging is very interesting. Chris and I are also looking into ways to reuse household items - but I like the way you put it.

I'm partial to FreeCycle or Craigslist.

Keep up the excellent work.

Katie at GardenPunks

Patrick said...

A lot of people around here also use PVC for row cover ribs. I'm going to try 'build a balls' this year (middle of the page):


Together with bamboo sticks (called canes in the British English on the page above), I plan to build cages for row covers and bird netting.

steven said...

On the infrequent train trips I take to New York I see a lot of beautiful old buildings that could be reused as housing.

I imagine some of the buildings have chemical/heavy metals issues and are probably too expensive to rehab for anything but pricey lofts, but there are plenty of good, empty buildings all over the Post-Industrial Northeast that should be re-purposed.

I've had first-hand experience living and working in buildings like this on the West Coast in the 80's. I've lived in a paint factory, a fish warehouse, an abandoned brewery and the top floor of an office building before settling into more conventional accommodations.

There are plenty of hardworking young people who could band together and collectively rehab these buildings with the help of local government and some creative relaxing of zoning and building codes.

I've been reading your series on the water harvesting set-up and I plan to copy it when I find a piece of land down in Georgia. One of my meetings on my trip down there last week was at a small food manufacturing plant and they've kindly offered me as many food-grade plastic barrels or steel barrels as I can use.

Kelly said...

Katie, it's always fun to find new ways to use items that would otherwise be discarded. Your plastic bottle seed starters certainly got a "hell yes" from Meg and I.

Patrick, thanks for the link. I'm curious to know how well they stand up to the elements. Please keep us post with your progress.

Steven, we're glad to see your trip went well. I was hoping that it would be food related.

I think reclaimed buildings have incredible charm. They make sense and there is a history to them that can't be found in a prefab pop-up community. And the unused space, man! They are wasting so much space.

Because I know of your love for Rome I can't help but think how the ancient Romans built on top of things when they became exhausted (or overthrown). Nero's Palace comes to mind.

There are plenty of hard working folk who would jump at the chance to make the lives of their family and community better. The local government has to be made aware of these desires. Unless someone speaks loud enough for their representatives to hear, politics will continue to be an obstacle when it should be an aid.

We're glad you enjoyed the rain harvester series. If you have any question when you construct your own, please send them our way. We are looking forward to see what you grow in that great southern climate.

Patrick said...

When you made this post I was so focused on PVC I didn't comment on the rest of the post.

Here in the Netherlands as well as several other places in Europe (like Denmark) this kind of issue is often delt with through squatting. The basic idea is an unused space is occupied by a person or group that wants it to be used for something else.

While the occupation is technically illegal, the police and courts don't usually take action right away, and give the occupants a chance to prove themselves. As time goes on, the squat gains legitimacy and it becomes harder to evict the occupants. Often squatters are given the right to gas, water and electric connections, as well as sometimes building permits. Some squatters are able to eventually fully legalize their status.

There was an 'organic' farm that was established in a squat in Amsterdam. It lasted until the city came by, tested the ground, and found it full of heavy metals and chemical waste.

There is another squat in the nearby city of Utrecht that claims to promote seed saving and old varieties of plants, but they have no obvious garden, no list of seeds to trade, no pictures of growing plants and their website is full of stories of conflicts with the police and not a lot else.

There has been a lot of talk about ending squatting, and several very high profile incidents of squatters doing very irresponsible things, but nothing ever seems to change and squatting goes on. In recent years however the city has become a lot less tolerant of squats, and fewer of them have managed to successfully establish themselves.

Kelly said...

Patrick, I wish there was that kind of leniency in the United States. You could bet that Meg and I would have the sweetest urban garden in Philadelphia. However, if anyone were to try that now, especially in Philadelphia, they'd get shot.

Anonymous said...

It was GREAT to hear somebody else saying what I keep yelling about!

I've been trying to figure out how to claim abandoned property in Philly and start some kind of permaculture/arts community, but the city is SO corrupt!

I was talking to someone who had bought an industrial warehouse, but they weren't very quick to give up any information. My guess is that the transaction included some greasing, if you know what I mean.

The city, the union, the mob, can you find any more obstacles?

It's a sin.

basia_mille said...

I just stumbled on Future House Farm, so now I'm in love with you guys.

I read Kelly's Jan. bit about recycling abandoned land in Philly, and how he wished there were more of it going in Philly. Right now there are about 300 or so (probably more) community gardens scattered around the city where people are doing a whole bunch of that--some are even within walking distance of Johnny Brenda's. Some are started with help from the Horticultural Society (the Flower Show people) (where I run a program called "Garden Tenders"); others do it on their own.

Although some actually get permission to use land, many are squatters; some eventually actually get to be landowners. But the gardens are beautiful and productive, and last year sent about 10,000 documented pounds of fresh produce to food pantries and soup kitchens, on top of feeding the gardeners. Not a lot of chickens, but I think you would find more than a few kindred souls.

Come and see for yourselves sometime--here's a standing invite for a tour. You might even see some water storage systems that look a lot like yours!


Kelly said...

Hello Dead Mouse Girl,
Sorry it has taken so long to get back to you.
After I put up this post I began asking around to see if there were already community garden projects in the city. I was pleased to see that there were, but unfortunately they all fail to receive the support needed to make any kind of real impact. What was also striking is that none of the people I talked to who were part of a community garden knew about the other groups with gardens. I think if any real change is to be made, the first step would be to get like minded folks talking to one another. It's easy for the city council to blow off one person, but they can't ignore any entire community (or can they).

Hey there Sally,
It's really good to hear from you. As I said to Dead Mouse Girl, I was very happy to see that there are quite a few active community gardens in and around Philadelphia. We would love to start talking with some of the local growers about what they do and why they do it. Hmm, I don't know. There is so much that could be said for sustainable agriculture, but my mind is going in million different directions right now. Part of me wants to rally to troops, but the other 999,999 parts can't seem to agree on how to rally the troops and why.