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How I Helped Set up a Local Permaculture Park

Josh Dolan is a New Dream Get2gether team leader who is leading an effort to establish a Permaculture Park Project in Ithaca, New York—a neighborhood shared green space along the Cascadilla Creek in the city’s Northside community. His team was selected as one of our 2015 Get2gether Neighborhood Challenge winners. New Dream spoke with Josh in late 2015.

Tell us how you got started on this project.

I’ve been working for Eat Smart New York at Cornell Cooperative Extension for seven years. Early on, I worked in food gardening, and my background is in permaculture. When I started this position, I was looking for more opportunities for community gardening in the city. I’d also been trying to introduce the idea of permaculture and edible landscaping as a possible alternative or addition to community gardening. About three years ago, our local community gardens were under threat of development, and there was a big push from residents to save them. At the same time, we began a study with the local parks commission to see whether there were any other viable options to replace or complement the community gardens. So we started looking at city parks as well as non-park city properties.

We identified several sites and started moving forward on two of them. At the first site, Conley Park, our office is on one side of a small creek, and the park is just on the other side, so it’s very convenient for us. We pitched the idea of doing permaculture design there with community input and also doing edible planting. Three years ago, in the fall, a colleague and I, along with a couple of volunteers who had backgrounds in landscape architecture, started trying to tame a bed at the site. The park had originally been set up as an integrated pest management demonstration site, but it had been idle and was very weedy. So we started trying to get out the weeds and gather some momentum. We did a bit of planting. We put in an apple tree and some perennials, and, over time, we were able to gather more and more momentum. We held regular work parties throughout the growing season and invited some college students from Cornell to help out. Ultimately, we were able to get the weeds under control and do more planting.

How did your project benefit from New Dream and ioby’s Get2gether Neighborhood Challenge?

For our second phase of the project, we were waiting until we could figure out how to fund it. It was more expensive and required more infrastructure development. That was when one of our teammates came across the Neighborhood Challenge fundraising opportunity, and we thought it was a great idea, with the potential to raise just the right amount to get our phase two off the ground.

We filled out the application, got accepted as one of the challenge participants, and did the fundraiser. We met our goal pretty easily and now are in the midst of developing phase two.

Prior to this, had you done any other crowdfunding? If so, how would you compare your experience using ioby against other platforms?

Yes, we made a half-hearted attempt before for the park. I’ve also run a couple of crowdfunding campaigns for my personal business as well as for some other gardening projects. Cornell Corporate Extension has a crowdfunding platform that we used, called PEAKS. For my business, I’ve also used Indiegogo. I think ioby provided a lot more support and tips. Also, the Neighborhood Challenge match helped greatly influence and boost how many people gave and how much people donated.

Do you think there’s a big demand for these kinds of projects?

This is the only permaculture project in Ithaca. But since it started, we’ve been contacted by an alumnus of the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute, which is about an hour away. He has since started a permaculture project in Auburn. They just broke ground in fall 2015. One of the main goals of our work is not just to make this kind of project in Ithaca, but also to spread the idea around New York State. 

I think the idea and popularity of permaculture has grown by leaps and bounds over the last couple of years. On the west coast, there’s a lot more activity. The Beacon Food Forest project in Seattle is one of the larger-scale models out there, while what we’re doing is smaller. There are also many other smaller projects and private sites that are under the radar. But the project in Auburn is the first park that was inspired by our work.

What are you planning as next steps for the project?

We raised money for, among other things, interpretive signage, mainly to explain different aspects of permaculture, as well as maps describing some of the plantings. We’re also planning to put up some arbors at either end of the park. We’ve completed the installation of raised beds at the south end of the park and have a few more to construct at the north end. For the signage, we’re installing metal engraved signs, and we want to really fine tune our messaging. We’re also working with a local blacksmith to make some artistic sign masts.

When do you plan to launch the new park? How are you planning to get the word out?

We had a ribbon cutting at the site in the spring of 2015. Our mayor, Svante Myrick, is very energetic, and he came down and gave a really good speech about how he had never planted a tree in his life before this event ¾ it was a big step for him. In the past, we had given him a seven-foot banana tree to keep over the winter, which is quite a spectacle and helps get the word out about what we’re doing.

Once we get the signs installed in the spring, we will want to have some kind of dedication ceremony for the completion of this second phase. After that, we’ll probably go back to the drawing board and see if the city would be open to doing some more permanent installations, like a cob oven or a pavilion in the park to make it more of a community multi-use space. Right now, folks mainly use it as a dog park, and it gets quite a bit of use from the science center next door. They have a lot of summer youth programs and bring kids to the park for outdoor activities. I’ve noticed that more people have started coming down to check it out.

What advice would you give to folks in other cities who might be considering doing something similar?

I think it’s critical to start by finding your allies, both in the neighborhoods where you plan to work as well as within the city government¾people in the city council and planning department. The city forester in Ithaca has been very supportive, and a couple of neighborhood leaders have been very helpful as well. Also, find your allies around the region and around the country. We’ve learned from a number of other projects. There is also typically a local permaculture community with a lot of young people involved who are looking for experience and projects to sink their teeth into and hone their design skills. In many cases, there’s funding for these kinds of projects, so it’s helpful to do some research before you begin. We were able to secure state funding through a grant called Creating Healthy Places that helped us with some initial costs, and we also had in-kind funding through my time as well as that of my colleagues, allowing us to work on this project.

The Neighborhood Challenge partnership with ioby was helpful because it allowed us to frame our work as a neighborhood initiative and not just another landscape project.

Now that you’ve participated in the Get2gether Neighborhood Challenge, would you recommend it to others? What advice would you give them?

I think it’s a great opportunity—not a huge amount of money, but perfect if you are launching a smaller project or are just getting started. It also gives you an opportunity to test out crowdfunding and to talk about your project with friends and neighbors. It was very successful for us.

Josh Dolan is a School and Community Gardens Specialist at Eat Smart New York. You can learn more about the Permaculture Project and New Dream’s Get2gether Neighborhood Challenge here.

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