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Urban planting: Turning blight into bounty in the inner city
Olga Bonfiglio, U.S. Catholic
Armed with soil and seeds, Catholics in blighted cities are taking social justice into their own hands.
In Camden, New Jersey a jumble of railroad tracks, freeways, and abandoned factories lace through the Waterfront South area on the Delaware River just across from Philadelphia. During heavy rains, a nearby wastewater treatment plant frequently leaks raw sewage onto the streets.
An urban exodus from Camden has left 4,000 empty lots in a 10-square-mile area; half of the houses have been abandoned. This makes the city a prime place for people to dump stuff they don’t know what to do with. One day an old speedboat ended up on Broadway, one of the city’s main streets. Two weeks before, a huge abandoned factory caught fire and burned to the ground.
Camden, once a thriving manufacturing center, is today better known for its crime, corruption, poverty, and urban dysfunction. It also must contend with the consequences of the industrial era: high concentrations of polluting facilities, diesel emissions, and contaminated Superfund sites (highly polluted locations the E.P.A. designates for cleanup).
Parishioners at Sacred Heart Church have been trying for years to turn things around in their neighborhood, and most recently they have focused on food.
“Food is the most basic justice issue,” says Andrea Ferich, director of sustainability at the parish’s Center for Environmental Transformation. “If you don’t have it, what justice is that?”
Ferich and her neighbors are hoping that the plants sprouting in their city garden will bring new life to Camden. Before the land was turned into a vegetable garden, it was a trash heap amid boarded-up rowhouses. Now it features lush green growth on raised beds, a greenhouse, and a farmers market.
To turn the tide of urban decay in cities like Camden, residents across the country have invested in backyard, community, and school gardens in order to provide themselves with good, healthy food. Catholics are among those creating, promoting, and volunteering in this effort as they attempt to meet Jesus’ call in Matthew’s gospel to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger. What they are finding is that feeding people enhances dignity among the poor, promotes justice, builds community, and offers healing.
(October 2011 issue)
Author Olga Bonfiglio is a long-time EB contributor. She writes:
“Last spring, U.S. Catholic magazine decided to investigate the urban gardens movement from the standpoint of Catholic spirituality. The editors contacted me to write a story. I talked with several urban gardens program directors from across the country and wrote the following article: Urban planting: Turning blight into bounty in the inner city–which turned out to the be cover story for the October 2011 issue of the magazine!
The prominence given to these stories is significant for the urban gardens movement, which is being recognized more and more as a mainstream grassroots effort aimed at transforming our cities and overwrought national food system.”
Rob Hopkins: Making The Red Pill Taste Good
Chris Martenson and Adam Taggart
Rob Hopkins is a true pioneer of the movement to intelligently prepare and adapt society for entering a post-Peak Oil future. His brainchild, Transition Towns, has been one of the most successful initiative to-date in inspiring hundreds of cities, towns and communities around the globe towards using local cooperation and interdependence to shrink their ecological footprints.
Many readers on our site lament the inertia or hostility we all frequently encounter when trying to ‘wake up’ family, friends and neighbors to the warning bells we see on the economic, energy and environmental fronts. Chris and I often get asked for advice on how to make the red pill ‘tasty’ for the uninitiated. So we look at the success Rob’s model is having at spurring individuals and communities to action, and ask him: what’s your secret?
In short, it’s about making Transition “feel more like a party than a protest march”. Make it personal to the participants. Focus on celebrating the local benefits and empowerment it produces. As Rob says, the core Transition principles “are not about taking people back to something worse then today; they are a step forward. They are about building resilience, bringing people together, giving them the sense that anything is possible in such a way that everybody benefits.”
The stories that we tell ourselves determine the decisions we make. Transition is all about providing new stories that help people come to terms with pressing issues from a positive angle. “When we started Transition,” Rob reflects, “I imagined it was an environmental process. But increasingly I think of it as a cultural process. It starts to become this story that the town tells about itself.”
Participating in Transition does not mean that you have to already ascribe to Peak Oil or climate change or the end of growth. It can simply be a source of projects that yield positive ROI on the resources you have to invest. Rob mentions an example in his hometown of Totnes, UK where the community is funding on-site wind turbines: “You would rather have your money in a local energy company where you know the people who run it. You’re excited about its progress. You know other people that are a part of it, rather than just having your money off in distant shares of something that you have no control over.” Localized economic development is an extremely powerful new trend Rob sees society as just beginning to scratch the surface of.
… In this interview, Chris and Rob discuss what we can learn from the growing number of Transition Town case studies and where the movement is headed next.
(23 September 2011)
47-minute podcast at original. -BA
Practicing the permaculture he preaches
Andy Grimm, Chicago Tribune
Hard-core environmentalist Marshall Willoughby will be ready when the oil runs out
… Willoughby, 66, is happy to give tours of his house, a 120-square-foot geodesic dome made from plastic foam panels covered with a thin layer of concrete. He likes to show off rough-hewn contraptions he has built to provide creature comforts: his laptop, tankless water heater and lights run on a bank of old batteries charged by solar panels, homemade windmills, or an Army surplus generator powered by a contrivance that burns wood gas.
He pumps water from his own well. He piles his waste beside his garden beds, composting his own feces into the topsoil. In drums near his melon patch rest gallons of his urine, being converted by bacteria into ammonia fertilizer. He gets about half his calories from his garden, the rest from occasional bike trips to the grocery store or a local hot dog stand.
With his gaptoothed grin and his yard strewn with rusting machines, Willoughby knows how it looks. In the most genial way possible, he will tell you that you are the crazy one.
“People are so damn ignorant about energy,” he said.
… One day, Willoughby believes, there will be no gas for your cars and your toilet will not flush. If that day comes — and Willoughby thinks it will soon — he will wake again on the floor of his dome, load wood into his generator, and his life will not have changed at all.
He has become acquainted with permaculture first out of concern for personal economy, then for the ecology, and finally, ideology.
His second guiding belief is in the imminence of “peak oil,” a controversial theory that the earth’s petroleum reserves are near their maximum output and that they will dwindle fast — faster, Willoughby thinks, than his neighbors will be willing to trade in their McMansions for domed sheds.
Both practicing permaculture and preparing for peak oil align with everything Willoughby’s life has affirmed to him, a life in which improvisation has been valuable.
(23 September 2011)
Portland as a “Resilient Community”
Kyle Curtis, Blue Oregon
If there is an organization in Portland that has to do with livability and sustainability issues, chances are Jeremy O’Leary is invovled with it to some degree. With prior experiences with the city’s Peak Oil Task Force, along with Transitions PDX, overseeing TheDirt.org, Portland Permaculture Guild, participating with the City’s Local Energy Assurance Plan (LEAP), and also the FooDiversity group that looks at food and garden issues in East Portland. Jeremy is also an IT staffer for Multnomah County, for which he served on the steering committee for the Multnomah Food Initiative. Considering all of these organizations that he is involved with- as well as his personal interest in emergency preparedness issues- it is safe to say that Jeremy firmly has his pulse in regards to livability issues both for Portland and the surrounding region. As such, when looking for an expert to discuss these issues with, there were very few other options to contact. In a recent sit-down interview, Jeremy described the Transitions Initiative, the recent natural disasters that have rocked the country and world in recent months, and whether Portland should be considered a “resilient community” or not.
To begin with, could you describe the Transition Initiative? What is it, and what are its objectives? Would you be able to easily describe these efforts for those who are uninformed and unaware?
Sure. Let’s provide a little bit of context. Transitions is a global effort started by Rob Hopkins. Rob was a permaculture instructor, and the more he learned about Peak Oil, he figured that it would be a great way to teach permaculture to deal with the effects of Peak Oil. In effect, the Transition Initiative focuses on the effects of Peak Oil, which includes “global weirding”- my preferred phrase to describe the changes of climate- as well as the economic crisis that would be created by a lack of easily available cheap energy.
But the underlying theme of the Transition Initiative is the creation of resilient communities. Very few people know that the first American city to have a Transitions “Great Unleashing” was Sandpoint, Idaho- not exactly your liberal mecca. There was a mixture of liberals and conservatives invovled in the project, with one conservative saying, “I don’t particularly believe in global warming or Peak Oil, but this is simply the right thing to do.” As for Transition’s local history, I was personally involved with the City’s Peak Oil Task Force. During this process, we looked around for models of neighborhood resiliency to deal with Peak Oil. A friend of Hopkins came to Portland and did a presentation about the Transition Initiative. It was exactly what we were looking for. The Portland Metro region is all ready a fairly advanced transition area, carrying out a lot of stuff that Transition groups all over the world talk about- gardens, bike culture, the efforts of City Repair. All of these efforts are doing great work in Portland. At the same time, a model designed for a town of 10,000 will only be scaled up so high. I should offer a cheerful disclaimer, however, and that is to acknowledge that the Transition Initiative is very much an experiment, and there is no guarantee that these efforts will succeed in dealing with life after Peak Oil. However, there is another acknowledgement that if why try to do everything by ourselves, these efforts will be too little. At the same time, if we wait for government, then it will be too late.
(26 September 2011)
Green Hands, green heart
Linda Lombardini, Ann Arbor dot Com
Clifford Dean Scholz is working on spreading green know-how, and he’s doing it handily.
Clifford started the Green Hands Reskilling Initiative earlier this year. Its motif is a Green Hand sign that you place in your window to let others know you have green skills to teach and talk about. It’s like the Blue “Helping Hand” signs from the ’60s and ’70s, but for grownups
“When I was growing up in the Lansdowne neighborhood of Ann Arbor, I was taught that if I were ever hurt or lost or scared, I could safely go to a house that had the Blue Hand sign in its window,” Clifford says. “The Green Hand is also an invitation, telling adults there’s a person in your neighborhood willing to ‘Green Handshare’ skills and knowledge. You can put an email address or phone number on the sign to screen the responses.”
The Green Hand means the people who live there invite you to learn how to reskill yourself: learn to bake bread from scratch, sew a quilt, grow a garden big enough to feed your family all year. In other words, rekindle the household and husbandry arts lost to mass manufacturing and big-box stores.
“Suppose you’re raising chickens, as is now legal in Ann Arbor,” he says. “Put up a Green Hand and let others know you have a skill to share.”
The Green Hand Reskilling Initiative sounds warm and fuzzy, but there’s also an urgency to it. As a Peak Oil educator, Clifford is looking into a future where petroleum is too costly to continue business as usual, and seeing the need to build community connections and local economies in response.
(23 September 2011)
Clifford Dean Scholz is an EB contributor. -BA