Monday, August 22, 2011

Turning NYC yards into food forests

For most New Yorkers, food is something grown far away and trucked to the neighborhood supermarket. Occasionally, someone has a garden in their backyard. Recently, as local produce has become popular, neighborhood green markets offer the harvest of farms within the NYC metropolitan area. With NYC food and agriculture policy rapidly changing, we’re sure to see many innovations.

Rooftop farms are newly glamorous but let’s not forget the 52,236 acres of private yards in NYC. [ “Regionalizing the Food System for Public Health and Sustainability,” Columbia U. Urban Design Lab, Nov. 2010, p. 17] Now, they’re mostly planted in lawns and ornamental species.
What if we started seeing the food-producing potential of our lawns and yards?

A growing number of landscape designers are planting food forests, which combine fruit and nut bearing trees with lower layers of bushes, vines and groundcovers – all of which have edible yields. Food forestry is a central theme within
permaculture, an ecological design movement recently featured in the New York Times.

How might we start food forests in NYC yards? Here’s a few starting points for collaboration between landscape designers, permaculturists, fans of locally grown food, and entrepreneurs.
- Inventory the fruit and nut bearing trees and understory that can make up food forests in NYC.
- Compile a wiki with best practices about their planting, care and harvest.
- Put together sets of marketing materials about food forest options for NYC backyards.
- Create options of various sizes and species customized for space, yard condition, client type, etc. - like a take-out menu.

Who makes it happen?

Anyone who has knows how to apply food forest design principles, and plant trees and shrubs – and who recognizes a new business opportunity. Who’s available to help out? The entrepreneur could put out a call for permaculture design course graduates who want to learn practical skills.

Where does it start?

Go to church groups, environmental justice communities, nonprofits in low income communities, propose a variety of options. Permaculture has a long tradition of permablitzes - volunteer efforts much like barn raisings.  Start out by offering permablitzes as long as the recipient raises funds to pay for plants and materials.

Use projects like those to train a pool of skilled participants. Entrepreneurs can take material from the wiki - or the existing books and articles that certainly already exist in the gardening literature - and turn them into open source marketing materials. That sounds idealistic, but only the most enterprising and skilled individuals will actually turn this into a business, so they can earn social capital by adding to the available forest gardening information free to the public - and promote their own services. They could start by promoting backyard food forest makeovers in their own neighborhood, starting with free gigs to raise awareness, leading hopefully to paid gigs.

Raising awareness of urban agriculture benefits

Even where there are active community gardens or community supported agriculture (CSA) group buying services, lots of New Yorkers don’t see the context that makes more urban agriculture not just desirable, but a necessary part of our future. So hosting film screenings on these topics in your neighborhood is a good way of building awareness, and finding out who has some yard they want to turn into a garden. The key is probably making personal connections with leaders of neighborhood civic groups and explaining how they could get their own backyard garden or plant the first food forest in their neighborhood.

Post your comments, suggestions, and improvements!  

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

August update: Will Allen, September film screening, a proposal, 350 on 9/24

Beyond Oil NYC Update - August 2011

In this issue:

- Screening of Transition video shorts, 9/14
- Report and photos from Growing Power workshop on greenhouse building in Brooklyn
- A proposal on how neighborhood groups can make money from promoting sustainability
Join on 9/24 with Moving Planet


Here's a monthly update from our exploration into making NYC more sustainable.
In July, Will Allen, the founder of Growing Power, led a workshop on urban agriculture in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. We have great photos from Murray Cox. We also organized a well-attended screening of End of Suburbia at Orchard House Cafe, and helped promote a screening of Urban Roots at the Horticultural Society. We're going back to Orchard House in September with a new approach: a series of short videos rather than a single documentary.

My talk at a June conference on African children in conflict zones led to an invitation to co-host an online radio show about African environmental issues. So far that's going well. At the NYC Solar Summit that month I got some ideas on promoting solar PV installations, now in process. Look for details in the fall.

What started as an article on applying Transition organizing methods turned into a proposal for brainstorming events that would bring together entrepreneurs and sustainable business sectors. The goal would be to identify new business models that would allow neighborhood and civic groups to earn revenue from sustainability projects. And incidentally, build public support for PlaNYC. Since the next Mayor may be less green than Bloomberg, or face more economic constraints, PlaNYC is less sustainable than you might think...



Transition Video Shorts and Networking, Wed., Sept. 14, 7-9:30 PM
Orchard House Cafe, 1064 First Avenue (at 58th Street), NY, NY 10022 No charge.

Transition organizing starts with raising awareness about concepts that are very basic, but not widely discussed: to be sustainable communities must address not just climate change, but resource depletion and the economic changes now underway. Following some shorts like "The End of Growth;" "300 Years of Fossil Fuels in 300 Seconds;" and ABC's April report on world oil production, we'll screen a great presentation by Richard Heinberg on his new book, followed by networking and discussion. Here's the trailer.

Urban agriculture in Brooklyn

On July 19 and 20 - the hottest days of the year - Will Allen and his team from Growing Power came to the Brooklyn Rescue Mission in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, to build their signature urban agriculture system: a greenhouse with a fish tank, and industrial size worm bins. Photos by Murray Cox. Read the report.

A modest proposal about how neighborhood groups could make money by promoting sustainability - and help maintain future PlaNYC efforts.

It explains how representatives of entrepreneurial groups and sustainable business sectors could come together, to find ways for neighborhood civic groups to earn revenue through sustainability projects. Just one good idea could provide funds for struggling nonprofits, while also building public support for PlaNYC.

Maybe the City's official program to build public support - the Change By Us social media website - will make a real difference in the number of New Yorkers getting involved with green programs. Please look at it and let us know what you think.

Maybe City leaders can be convinced to support social movements that catalyze neighborhood level sustainability organizing, like Transition or Bright Neighbor, a great online platform that's being used throughout Portland, OR. That's probably not likely - but isn't it worth raising the suggestion?

Review the proposal here. With just a few co-sponsors among business schools, green business groups, or civic groups, the process could take off. Add your response to the comment section.  If you don't like it, please say so - and please suggest what you think are better ideas.

Join on Sept. 24 with Moving Planet

Join a bike/march and rally in NYC in support of moving away from fossil fuels and toward a clean energy future. It's part of an international day of action called Moving Planet, aimed at demonstrating the strength of the climate movement and showing decision makers that the climate crisis must not be ignored. Share the new video:

Contact 350's NYC volunteers are partnering with with Al Gore's Climate Reality Project "24 Hours of Reality" on Sept 14th, and with Climate Week NYC Sept 19th - 26th,

If you've made it this far, thanks for reading.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Growing Power Workshop in Bed Stuy, part two

This is the second part of a report on a urban agriculture workshop using Growing Power's integrated system of greenhouses, fish tanks, worm bins and composting.  Thanks again to photojournalist Murray Cox for use of his photos. 

Growing Power uses worms to create fertilizer used in their hoop house garden beds, and to make worm compost for sale.  Read about it here. During the workshop, some worms from one of the Mission's existing bins were transferred into a new bin. 

The bins need to have lots of holes in the bottom. 
Really lots and lots of holes. 

This is not your home-scale worm bin in a plastic tub. (This past year I've been using such a bin, with much frustration. I'm now planning to return to taking compostables to a drop-off site. Sigh.)  Next step is adding layers of compost, and layers of brown - dried plant matter - as well as worms. 

It was an honor to hear directly from Will Allen about how urban communities are using these techniques to raise food locally and be more self-sufficient.

There were lots of interesting conversations with other attendees at the workshop about how to promote urban agriculture in NYC. 

In a previous post, I set out a proposal for increasing public participation in sustainability initiatives and PlaNYC.   What if we could set up a series of brainstorming meetings in which subject matter experts in sustainability intiatives get together with MBA types and those skilled in developing business models?

Might they be able to figure out ways for neighborhood groups, civic associations, and faith groups to make money for themselves while implementing sustainability initiatives?   One way of structuring those meetings would be the World Cafe method, but as part of the approach, I'm inviting people who see some possibility here to suggest better ways to organize it.  It's open source, so please look at the post and add your comments - or suggestions on how to improve it - below.  Thanks! 

Growing Power Workshop in Bed Stuy, part one

On July 19 and 20, Will Allen and his team from Growing Power came to the Brooklyn Rescue Mission in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, to build their signature urban agriculture system: a greenhouse with a fish tank.  About 30 people came for the workshop.  

Brooklyn Rescue Mission is led by the Reverends DeVanie Jackson and Robert Jackson. "BRM envisions urban farming as the starting point for a self-reliance movement, empowering neighborhood residents to take ownership of their own food supply, nutrition and neighborhood revitalization. BRM endeavors to build community pride, provide healthy provisions to its neediest residents, encourage youth entrepreneurship and develop a communal culture towards land use and community health through an innovative sustainable food system."

This post showcases the work of photojournalist Murray Cox.  Murray is currently living in central Brooklyn and seeking sustainability projects to document.   See his work at, and let him know about potential projects. We appreciate Murray's permission to share his images.

Two carpenters who have been working with Growing Power for years directed attendees through the process.  July 19 was the hottest day of the year, with temperature over 100 F.  It was a little cooler the next day.

Hoop houses start with foundation pipes, hammered several feet deep into the ground at precisely measured intervals.  The frame of the hoop house is made from steel pipe that is light enough to be bent on a carefully designed wooden form called a jig.  Two lengths are bolted together and bent into a hoop.  The hoops are set down on the foundation pipes.

Sturdy wood boards are secured at the ground level, and horizontal pipes and boards connect the hoops.

Next is the construction of a frame for a fish tank and a shallower tank to be mounted above it. 

We shared battery powered drills to create holes for large bolts.

A large piece of thick rubber liner will turn the lower part of the frame into a watertight container suitable for fish. 

The upper tank with a similar liner will contain a layer of gravel and water plants. Water from the fish tank will be pumped up into that tank, where the plants and the bacteria living in the gravel purify the water for return circulation to the fish tank.

You can try this at home - with the guidance of skilled carpenters! The Growing Power method is not very high tech, but still requires serious skills.  Fortunately there are plent of very handy people who can assemble hoop houses and aquaponics tanks.

Next steps for the house would be the addition of plastic roll-down liners that can keep the house warm enough to raise vegetables through the winter, as well as keep the worms and fish comfortable.

The Growing Power method composts food scrap and vegetable waste, then feeds the compost to worms in large industrial size bins.  Worm emulsion, liquid drained from the worm bins, nourishes plants in the hoop house.  See for details.

Click here for the second part of this post, more of Murray's photos of other parts of the process: compost and worm bins.  And some thoughts about how NYC civic groups can learn how to produce real goods and services through sustainability initiatives like this.