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Where Are Olympia's Community Gardens?

Emily Lardner

After church two weeks ago, a few of us were standing outside looking at the lawn, discussing its potential as a site for a vegetable garden. In the context of that conversation, a woman who recently moved to Olympia from Seattle asked, "Where are the community gardens here?" Good question. We have reason to expect municipal support for community gardens, given that the city of Olympia has committed itself to sustainability principles. Moreover, Part 2 of the City's Response to the Challenge of Climate Change includes expanding local agriculture as a potential adaptation strategy. So far, though, there's little formal support for community gardens. Some have flourished despite this situation, and others have been grown at local schools and at The Evergreen State College for many years.

There are several community gardens around Olympia, indicators of strong grassroots interest. One is at least a decade old. Located just west of the intersection of 13th and Central, it exists year-to-year with permission from the landowner, Jeff Berschauer. Another emerged three years ago, organized by Jonah Hankin-Rappaport and Jen Ownbey on Jackson Street between Cushing and Milroy, on a city right-of-way. In October 2007 the City of Olympia recognized them as Neighborhood Heroes, in an awards program designed to "recognize community members who showed outstanding leadership in environmental sustainability by addressing systems such air or water quality, or food supplies."

The advantage of the community garden on private land is simplicity; the disadvantages are the lack of visibility and long-term stability. Speaking as a private landowner, Berschauer lamented the absence of a program, like Seattle's P-Patch Trust, that is aimed at acquiring, building, protecting and preserving community gardens. Short of that, he thinks local landowners would be willing to work with the City to make sites available on a year-to-year basis in exchange for site improvements (temporary fencing, potted trees) and a potential short-term reduction in property taxes. He thinks this could work on a county-level as well, with larger tracts of undeveloped land.

Many cities now actively support community garden programs. Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods partners with P-Patch and its web page includes advice for starting a garden, beginning with identifying a likely place, e.g., land that is vacant, home to unused buildings, or under-used parking lots. P-Patch staff work with community groups to get access to the land, whether it is privately or publicly owned. P-patch info is available at http://www.seattle.gov/Neighborhoods/ppatch/. The city of Portland, Oregon began a community garden project by doing an inventory of all properties under City management. Like Portland, the cities of Bremerton and Vancouver organize their community garden projects directly, through the administration of their city Parks and Recreation departments.

Jennifer Kenny, Associate Planner for Olympia, said there is plenty of grassroots interest in community gardens, and she thinks other people will come forward, as Ownbey and Hankin-Rappaport did, to ask the City for help establishing gardens on available lands. Ownbey described the evolution of the garden on Jackson as "a group of people wanting to find unused space to garden." They found a space and the City agreed to let them use it as long as Utilities had access to manhole covers. The gardeners work with the surrounding neighbors to build and maintain support.

Readers interested in advocating for a more formal community garden program in Olympia could make use of the public comment time at City Council meetings: ask for an inventory of public lands, ask that community gardens be included in the general/comprehensive plan, and ask that City Council establish a task force to lay the groundwork for a robust program. The Olympia Community garden on Central and 13th still has plots available: call Diane at 786-0143 for information. For information about the garden on Jackson, call Jen at 754-6894.


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