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Christopher Weber's Posts


Pretty vacants: Urban communities fill empty lots with gardens, skate parks, and creative possibility

It's harvest party time at A Small Green Patch in Brooklyn.
A Small Green Patch
It's harvest party time at A Small Green Patch in Brooklyn.

In 2011, videogame developer Tami Johnson, then 29, wanted to create an outdoor community space for her neighborhood in Brooklyn. In search of just the right spot, Johnson found an unusual website that mapped all the borough’s vacant lots. It was like a Zillow for perfectly good land obscured by urban blight. She scrolled through and found 348 Bergen Street.

The lot was small, less than a 10th of an acre, and narrow as a brownstone, with twisted trees, tall grass and, of course, take-out wrappers from some of Brooklyn’s finest restaurants.

The website linked Johnson to neighbors who also wanted to build something on Bergen Street. Together, they got the owner’s permission to borrow the lot, then crammed it with amenities: a working farm, beehives, a garden raising ingredients for a local dinner church, and a natural dye garden for a nearby arts center. They started a community composting operation and hosted exhibits, concerts, and classes. They named the place A Small Green Patch.

The group that made it all possible by creating that online map is a nonprofit called 596 Acres. The organization formed in 2011, when lawyer Paula Z. Segal and programmer Eric Brelsford teamed up to promote the potential of Brooklyn’s fallow acres. (You guessed it -- there were 596 of them.) The first lot they helped secure was 462 Halsey, now a community garden. They have subsequently helped organize more than 100 campaigns and liberated 17 lots, with 10 more in the works.

Since Grist first featured the group back in 2012, 596 Acres has inspired young lawyers, organizers, urbanists, and gardeners around the world to create similar websites using their cities’ own data. In Philadelphia, you can scope out vacant lots on the websites Possible City and Grounded in Philly. In New Orleans, Living Lots launches this November. Comparable sites will soon go online in Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia.


New show of guerrilla urbanism is both inspiring and a little creepy

Spontaneous Interventions

Remember when DIY urbanism was verboten? When seed bombing, farming on vacant lots, and squatting in empty buildings were frowned upon if not outright illegal? Those days are apparently over. Instead, these guerrilla tactics have become symbols of American ingenuity and the rebirth of urban cool.

That's the take-home message from a new exhibition called “Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good,” which was funded in part by the U.S. State Department. The show, which first appeared at last summer's Venice Architectural Biennale, not only encourages these guerrilla tactics -- it co-opts them by turning them into art.

Join Grist as we explore the wild landscape of our cities.
Susie Cagle
Join Grist as we explore the wild landscapes of our cities.

And if that sounds a little weird, well, it is.

The exhibition, which opened late-May in Chicago and runs through September, celebrates DIY urbanism as a design movement. It sprawls across three galleries in the Chicago Cultural Center. Want to learn more about chair bombing in Brooklyn or a crowd-built St. Louis skate park? They’re collected on posters that pull down from the ceiling like old-fashioned window shades.

Read more: Cities, Living


High-end European-style bike tracks — the next big thing in the hood?

bloomerpark velodrome

In the early 20th century, if residents of America’s burgeoning cities didn’t feel like going dancing or to the theater, they had another option for live entertainment: bike racing. Now, thanks to some ambitious bike activists, the pastime has returned to some of the nation’s roughest neighborhoods via crowdfunded, volunteer-built velodromes.

What’s a velodrome, you ask? Picture a wooden Nascar track with high, banked turns. They offer riders dizzying, X-Games-style thrills, as seen in this bike-cam video -- and some pretty spectacular spills to boot. They used to be commonplace in the U.S. According to bicycle historian David Herlihy, America’s first velodrome was built in Brooklyn in 1869, and many hockey stadiums doubled as velodromes for epic, six-day endurance races.

But although track racing has remained popular in Europe -- it’s been an Olympic sport since 1896 -- stateside, velodromes went the way of the icebox after World War II. Recently, however, these tracks have begun to reappear. A 166-meter velodrome opened in Chicago in 2011. That was joined, in August 2012, by a similar one in Cleveland. Yet another velodrome will soon go up in Pittsburgh.

And here’s the kicker (or kickstand, if you prefer): These velodromes occupy previously vacant land in struggling parts of town. Think $3,000 bikes zipping through neighborhoods of $3,000 houses.

Why would anyone build an elite, European-style athletic facility in the rustiest precincts of the Rust Belt? The answer comes from the convergence of two renaissance movements -- one aimed at reinvigorating cycling, the other America’s inner cities.

Read more: Cities


Upping the steaks: How grass-fed beef is reshaping ag and helping the planet


Bartlett Durand is the rare local-food entrepreneur who has no trouble turning a profit: Durand’s Black Earth Meats processes and sells grass-fed beef, and these days grass-fed beef sells like crazy.

Located near Madison, Wis., Black Earth is an abattoir, an old-fashioned butchery containing everything from a slaughterhouse to a retail store. Its sales have doubled in four out of the last five years. Durand expects them to jump again this year, from $6 million to $10 million. Orders have poured in so swiftly that, in addition to artisan butchers, Black Earth had to hire a “chef liaison” to translate orders into cow anatomy.

“Chefs have been trained in the box beef codes and don’t always know where the meat comes from on the animal,” Durand explains. “A chef will say, ‘I want a filet de round.’ My butcher will say, ‘What the hell is that?’”

Grass-fed beef, like “filet de round,” is a concept that eludes people outside the beef industry. So a little background is in order.

In the months after birth, a calf drinks the rich milk of its mother. Once weaned, it might be lucky enough to follow mom around the pasture for a little while, munching grass -- but sooner or later, it is customarily sent to a feedlot to be fattened on grain, a process somewhat like tossing an animal on a full-tilt assembly line. Cows left to fatten in the field are the ones that become “grass-fed beef.” They gain the same weight, but more slowly, taking up to 14 months more, and yield a leaner beef. Some farmers of grass-fed beef are purists and leave the cow in the pasture till the day it dies. Others “cheat” by giving the cow a month or two of grain at the end, but in the comfort of the barnyard, not a 10,000-head feedlot. Durand sells both kinds.

Durand is a trim 45-year-old who has deep roots in agriculture. His grandfather was a geographer who studied milksheds. “I was a vegetarian in college because of how meat was raised and handled,” Durand recalls. When he married into a farm family, he started helping out and ultimately quit his job as a lawyer to pursue food full time.

In the $79-billion beef industry, his company is miniscule. Four giant companies control 80 percent of the beef market. “A really big kill for us would be 50 cows in one day,” says Durand. “A small packinghouse processes 1,500 to 3,000 a day.”

Yet his business has the customers to grow. Black Earth buys cows from 78 farmers. To keep up with demand, Durand must convince them to raise more cows on grass alone. He must also lure new farmers to the field. And farmers, though intrigued, are justifiably wary. Is grass-fed beef a fad among chefs and yuppies destined to peter out, or a major new market?

Read more: Food


Eau de Chicago: Perfume uses local ingredients to bottle Windy City’s essence

If someone told you that you smelled like Chicago, chances are that you’d dash home to bathe. But what if the remark implied not “You smell like raw sewage,” but instead “You smell like something grown in Chicago.” That compliment is now possible due to an unlikely new product: A locally sourced, city-grown perfume. Think of it as a CSA in a bottle. That you wear on a date. Or something like that.

The fragrance, called Tru Blooms Chicago, hit stores this fall. It is the brainchild of Monte Henige, CEO and owner of Tru Fragrance, a manufacturer located in the Chicago suburb of Willowbrook.

In January, Henige found himself in a brainstorming meeting. The subject of urban agriculture came up. Nothing is hotter these days than locally grown produce, right? So Henige began to play with the idea. What about a farm-to-table beauty product? Voila! Tru Blooms Chicago was born.

Henige collaborated with many of Chicago’s city agencies to grow key ingredients for the perfume --  roses, lavender, and violets -- in 22 local gardens. Everyone from the park district to the planning department to the office of tourism got involved. So did the Chicago Botanic Garden and urban-ag stalwarts such as Growing Power and Growing Home. The city loved the idea, especially because Tru Fragrance paid for everything, investing more than $1 million in the process.

A little more than two acres were rented and planted, spread across the city. Some flowers took root in prominent locations -- Grant Park and Water Tower Place, for instance -- while others were sown in neighborhood gardens and urban farms. You can locate the gardens using this nifty online map.

Countless perfumes have been inspired by cities like Paris, but according to Henige, none have actually come from those cities. “We believe the product is the first of its kind in terms of how it’s integrated into the city,” he says.

Read more: Food, Living


Overgrown: What happens when urban farms get too big?

Suzie's Farm
Children tour the 140-acre Suzie's Farm in San Diego.

Environmentalists have grown used to thinking of urban agriculture as something that occurs on pinched vacant lots in former industrial towns. But as farms of 20 acres or more start appearing in more cities, their owners are reworking the definition of “urban farm,” and causing some agtivists to question whether bigger really is better.

In San Diego, there’s the 140-acre Suzie’s Farm. In Albuquerque, there is 40-acre Skarsgard Farms. Not only are both located within the city limits, they both grew more than $1 million in organic produce this season.

The success of such farms, combined with urban agriculture’s broad appeal, is inspiring city officials to consider dedicating large chunks of vacant land to farming.

In San Francisco, redevelopment plans for the former Navy base on Treasure Island include an “urban agriculture park” of more than 20 acres, according to Michael Tymoff, the project director. In Cleveland, a 26-acre farming district has taken root where houses once stood. In Kansas City, Mo., leaders are considering turning a 420-acre former prison, or some portion thereof, into a farm.

Read more: Cities, Food


Chipotle in hot salsa over tomato pickers’ rights

Protesters outside the Chipotle Cultivate festival in Chicago. (Photo by Just Harvest.)

It’s a long drive from Florida to Denver, but Leonel Perez and his colleagues at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) don’t mind. In fact, they arrived in the Mile High City three weeks early for Cultivate, a food, beer, and music festival sponsored by Chipotle Mexican Grill.

They were not drawn by a love of burritos. In the days leading up to Cultivate, Perez, Jake Ratner, an organizer for Just Harvest USA, and several other CIW organizers will hold dozens of community events, speak at many churches, and give classroom presentations at all Denver’s major universities. Then, on Oct. 6, the day of the festival, Perez will build a giant stack of tomato buckets just outside the festival to represent the daily toil of 30,000 impoverished tomato workers.

Over the last decade, Perez and others at CIW have pressured major food companies like McDonald's, Whole Foods, and Sodexho to join something called the Fair Food Program. Now, they’re ratcheting up pressure on the burrito giant in hopes of a similar deal.

“We’ll continue these demonstrations until Chipotle signs,” says Ratner.

Read more: Food


Growing Power scores $5 million to feed our nation’s hungriest cities

Young urban farmers. (Photo by kt_ries.)

Food-justice organization Growing Power -- with its now-iconic greenhouses, composting worms, fishponds, and multiple generations of graduates -- is well-known as a model worth replicating. Now, Growing Power has announced a bountiful $5 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to fund “community food centers” aimed at relieving hunger in five of the nation’s poorest areas.

Modeled on Growing Power’s Milwaukee farm-headquarters, the centers will be located in Detroit; New Orleans; Forest City, Ark.; Shelby, Miss.; and Taos, N.M.

“It’s all wrapped around providing healthy, sustainable, local food to folks, especially our youth,” explains Will Allen, founder and director of Growing Power. “Many of the young people in those communities go to bed hungry every night.”

Read more: Cities, Food


Counting the harvest: How numbers can save urban gardens

Photo by Matt Harris.

A couple of years ago, a community garden in my Chicago neighborhood got the boot. A university owned the land, and even a determined grassroots campaign could not stop it (cue Joni Mitchell) from turning 140 bountiful plots into a parking lot. The eviction, and similar ones taking place nationwide, highlight one of the biggest challenges facing urban agriculture: a lack of land tenure.

The story of displaced urban gardens is nothing new. Remember L.A.’s doomed South Central Community Farm? Or Rudy Giuliani’s 1999 fatwa on community gardens?

In the past, protests have coalesced around the threatened farm or garden. Now, a loose coalition of scholars and activists is taking a different tack. They’re proactively surveying gardens in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago in hopes that hard data -- servings harvested, revenues earned, and more -- will make landlords think twice before summoning the bulldozers.

Read more: Cities, Food


Amid drought, farmers flood social media

Photo by Shutterstock.

Twitter has been credited with everything from promoting democracy to predicting the stock market. So it’s not surprising to hear that, along with other forms of social media, Twitter is bridging the gulf between farmers and consumers -- a goal of environmentalists since Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond.

Critically, social media has buoyed the small, non-commodity farmers suffering most from the parched conditions.

Take Harvest Moon Farms, for example. The 35-acre organic operation in southwest Wisconsin, owned by Bob and Jen Borchardt, has suffered horribly from the drought. Recent rains came too late to save the Borchardts' greens, their principle crop.

Tweets cannot restore lost crops, of course, but they can help leverage dollars and other aid. The Borchardts are staging a string of fundraisers called “Drought Aid 2012” -- beer tastings, restaurant specials, a benefit concert -- to recoup some of their losses. A friend, a Chicago photographer named Grant Kessler, has assembled a social media campaign behind it. He created a webpage for a beautiful video Bob made and publicized it all via Twitter and Facebook.

“The video and the donate button on their website was immediately successful,” says Kessler. “In the first 10 days, it garnered $10,000 through the website alone. This was heavily supported by Twitter and Facebook posts that directed people to the video.”


If you want to know the latest on the drought, one of the best places to eavesdrop is the Twitter feed “#drought12.” The unfolding conversation reads like an agricultural support group, with farmers from different regions comparing notes on how best to cope.

Here, for instance, is a sample of the #drought12 feed on August 8:

Read more: Food