Higher-profile landscapes around city halls are also shedding their purely ornamental visage for an edible makeover. Such garden transformations have already occurred in Baltimore, Md. and Portland, Ore. In Montpelier, Vt., chard, beets, kale, collards, and red lettuces adorn the public grounds around the historic statehouse. Madison, Wisc. staffers ripped out the flowers around the Capitol and replaced them with potatoes, cabbage, carrots, corn, peppers, and tomatoes.

Municipal government officials have no doubt been inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama’s transformation of a portion of the White House South Lawn into a vegetable garden. But there’s an important distinction between the produce being grown at the White House and that at city hall. The food from the First Family’s garden is primarily for them and their dinner guests. At these green-thumbed city halls, the growing of food is an endeavor by the people, for the people.

“I want people to see city hall differently — that it’s our public land, and that it works for us and with us,” Sallie Maron, a Bainbridge Island resident who recently helped transform the landscaping around the town’s city hall into an edible bounty, told the Kitsap Sun. The volunteers planted more than 40 plants, including cauliflower, kale, and strawberries, and any resident is welcome to grab a tomato and some basil for their dinner. As another Bainbridge Islander remarked, “It’s for people in need or people who just want to try some fresh food.”

The Bainbridge Island folk were inspired by the tale of Provo, Utah, where — as in many municipalities across the country -
– the recession has reduced budgets and forced cutbacks on maintenance. Fussy ornamental landscapes adorning civic places just don’t seem a high financial priority for elected officials.

Seedlings in a cubicleCity planners in Provo, Utah germinated seeds for the city hall plaza in their makeshift greenhouse — in this case their cubicles in city hall.Photo: Darrin NordahlBut nobody likes to look at empty plots of dirt or weed patches outside their window. So in Provo, three planners volunteered their time to re-establish the landscape outside their city hall — but did so in a manner that adds immense value to the landscape and the community. They sowed melons, beans, cucumbers, and beets in the many brick planters.

During their first season (which was last year), the city planners harvested 350 pounds of produce from 250 square feet of dirt and donated it to the local food bank. This year, with a bit more gardening know-how under their hats, they plan to cultivate an expanded 500-square-foot space from which they hope to reap more than 1,000 pounds — quite a harvest from such diminutive plots. (The group is also blogging the progress of the city hall “farm.”)

San Francico City Hall victory gardenSan Francisco planted a Victory Garden in front of its city hall during World War II.Photo: SF Public LibraryAs with many of the urban agriculture projects, the idea of growing food on municipal land is not new. (See the introduction to the Feeding the Cities series, “The History of Urban Agriculture Should Inspire its Future.”) Vegetable gardens have helped bolster America’s food supply when times were tough during the Long Depression of the 1890s and the Great Depression, as well as both World Wars. The most popular of these public veggie patches — the Victory Gardens of World War II — were planted not only by patriotic citizens around the nation, but by city governments in public spaces to provide, teach, and inspire their people.

With unemployment in many cities, food stamp use, and pressure on food banks at an all-time high, it simply makes sense to grow food, not flowers, where possible. Victory Gardens supplied the nation with 40 percent of its fresh vegetables. It is staggering how much edible bounty can be produced from small-scale gardening efforts on public land. The time is ripe to revisit Victory Gardens in public spaces: with just a little bit of organization and encouragement from our government officials, we could bring the community together to brighten the landscape and nourish the needy.