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Moment of roof: Urban farming entrepreneur explains how he got on top

Mohamed Hage is not your typical urban farmer. The Lebanese-born entrepreneur, now living in Montreal, got into food as a technological challenge: He wanted to come up with a better way for family back in Lebanon to grow crops. But to say he has a green thumb would be a bit of a stretch; instead, he relies on a knack for high-tech gizmos and marketing. In 2011, his business, Lufa Farms, opened the world's first commercial greenhouse on a roof in Montreal. Today, the company has two rooftop farms and a staff of about 30, including "more programmers than farmers," he says. Next year, Lufa expands to Boston, with plans for world conquest from there.

I caught up with Hage at the SXSW Eco conference happening this week in Austin. Here's what he had to say:


L.A.’s Ron Finley wants to make gardening gangsta

Stephen Zeriglaer for Alternative Apparel

In 2010, Ron Finley planted a garden on the 150-foot-long curbside strip outside his house in South Central Los Angeles. The produce -- tomatoes, kale, corn, you name it -- was free for the taking, and the colorful riot of herbs and flowers and vegetables got a lot of attention. The only unwelcome scrutiny was from the city of Los Angeles, which owns the land. Finley received a citation for growing plants that exceeded height limits, and for failing to purchase a $400 permit. By circulating a petition and bending the ear of a receptive city council member, Finley convinced the city to leave his garden alone. Around the same time, he helped start an organization called L.A. Green Grounds, dedicated to installing free vegetable gardens in curbside medians, vacant lots, and other properties in blighted areas.

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

Then, in February of this year, the self-described “gangster gardener” -- an outgoing straight-talker with a penchant for catchy one-liners -- gave a TED Talk. “The drive-throughs are killing more than the drive-bys,” he said, exhorting urban dwellers to get outside and “plant some shit.” The talk instantly rocketed him to green-thumb stardom. As of this writing, the talk has attracted more than 1.3 million views, and Finley has appeared on Russell Brand’s late night talk show and been profiled by The New York Times, among many others.

This fashion designer -- he’s dressed the likes of Shaquille O’Neal -- and collector of black entertainment memorabilia, highlighted in a recent movie poster exhibit, now spends much of his time delivering talks and planning new urban gardening ventures. All the media attention has brought new funding, including support from the Goldhirsh Foundation. (But in Los Angeles, the bureaucratic wheels grind slowly. Planting on curbside medians remains a tricky proposition.)

Finley had just returned from a permaculture workshop in Sonoma County when we spoke. We chatted about fame, sex, and his diabolical plan to take over the world.

Read more: Cities, Food


Can bringing wetlands back to our coasts protect us from future megastorms?

Destroyed beach house in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy on November 4, 2012 in Far Rockaway, NY
Beach house in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in Far Rockaway, N.Y.

Kevin Shanley says too many cities have an outdated approach to storm protection that makes them vulnerable to the coming mega-storms. The CEO of SWA Group, an international landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm, Shanley is an advocate of using “green infrastructure” -- human-made systems that mimic natural ones -- as bulwarks.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, people are taking note. Some experts believe New York City would not have sustained such severe damage had the original wetlands that lined the coasts not been uprooted by development. In fact, some parts of Staten Island remained relatively unscathed because they were protected by the massive Fresh Kills Park and its wetlands.

Kevin Shanley
SWA Group
Kevin Shanley.

What’s needed, Shanley says, are policy shifts “rooted in a natural system-approach that work with nature’s tremendous forces.” Beyond policy changes though, Shanley has also worked on projects, in Texas and elsewhere, that show how these human-made systems could work. But he cautions that more research is needed if communities’ lives and livelihoods are to rely on human-made nature.

Shanley was recently in Washington, D.C., speaking at the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation on improving the resiliency of our coasts in an effort to protect them from increasingly damaging storms and sea-level rise brought on by climate change. I caught up with him there.

Q. What were the lessons of Hurricane Sandy?

A. There are real-world lessons and then “should-be” lessons. The real-world lesson is that everybody is at risk. These storms don’t just happen to Florida or Bangladesh. They can hit New York City. The storm could have hit Washington, D.C., with disastrous results. We’re not ready.


Black to the land: Project explores connections between race and place

Gastronomically enlightened Grist reader that you are, you’ve probably participated in a CSA, or at least heard of them. Community-supported agriculture is so common that in many circles the acronym needs no explanation. (Sorry, mini football helmet collectors, we’re talking about farmers who sell “shares” of their seasonal fruits and veggies, then deliver them to members when they’re ripe.) But a pint of locally sourced strawberries says you didn't know a black man came up with the idea.

Beginning in the early 1970s, an Alabama horticulturist and Tuskegee University professor named Booker T. Whatley started promoting direct marketing as a tool for small farmers. This took the form of what he called “clientele membership clubs,” as well as pick-your-own farms. Whatley traveled widely, giving as many as 50 seminars a year, and produced a small-farms newsletter with 20,000-some subscribers. Here’s how he described the membership clubs in a 1982 Mother Earth News interview:

The farmer has to seek out people -- city folks, mostly -- to be members of the club ... The clientele membership club is the lifeblood of the whole setup. It enables the farmer to plan production, anticipate demand, and, of course, have a guaranteed market.

Not to mention find good homes for Jerusalem artichokes and other ostracized vegetables.

Mistinguette Smith
Mistinguette Smith.

The story of Booker T. Whatley is one of dozens that Mistinguette Smith, founder of a national organization called The Black/Land Project, has unearthed. “People are completely stunned when I tell them that the model [for CSAs and ‘U-Pick’] comes out of black history,” says Smith, a poet, playwright, and nonprofit consultant raised in the 1960s South.

The mission of The Black/Land Project is to find and share stories like Whatley’s as a way of helping black people transcend what Smith calls “historical trauma.” In this country, race has always been intrinsically tied to land. The laws surrounding black land ownership -- from the early 1600s up through the modern practice of redlining -- are part of that history, as, of course, is the experience of forced agricultural labor during slavery.

“Even though we've undone some of those historical structures,” Smith says, "the legacy of that is still very much alive today.” For example, the experience of losing a home to foreclosure during the recent mortgage crisis echoed the loss of family land to theft in the Jim Crow South, she says. The modern version of land loss feels much like the former, and the psychological results are similar. As one Black/Land workshop participant put it: “Having been stripped of the ability to relate to substantive things, such as land and place ... strips away part of our essence.”

The Black/Land Project, now in its third year, is a national survey. Smith and her team have thus far interviewed 38 people from all over the country, and from all walks of life. Interviewees include African Americans, Caribbean Americans, and African immigrants, and the “land” they talk about can be anything from a family farm to a neighborhood church. Here’s a taste of the stories they’ve unearthed:

Read more: Cities, Food, Living


Pittsburgh’s next mayor sees a green future for the “smoky city”

Barring a meteor strike, this man will be the Steel City's next mayor.
Bill Peduto
Barring a meteor strike, this man will be the Steel City's next mayor.

So you think bike lanes and mass transit are just the hobbyhorses of a handful of elites in coastal cities? Well, think again. Coming soon to an authentically middle-American city near you is an energetic “complete streets” movement with a progressive, environmentally conscious city government. Case in point: Pittsburgh, long known as the "smoky city" because of its history as the center of the American steel industry.

Like the rest of the Rust Belt, Pittsburgh went through decades of post-industrial economic decline and depopulation. But in recent years it has been clawing its way back, riding a wave of computer science and biotechnology innovation. It's even got an influx of post-irony hipsters.

Soon, Pittsburgh will have a forward-looking city government to match its momentum. On May 22, city councilman Bill Peduto won Pittsburgh's Democratic mayoral primary. Since, as Peduto notes, "There hasn’t been a Republican elected [mayor] in Pittsburgh since the days of the Great Depression," winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to winning the election.

On the city council, and in his campaign, Peduto has advocated for sustainable development, complete streets, traffic calming, and alternative transportation. Grist recently caught up with Peduto by phone to ask him about how he intends to improve Pittsburgh's transportation infrastructure, reduce its carbon footprint, and help further its revitalization.


17-year-old sets out to save the planet, makes the rest of us feel really lame

That's him, in the cape. No no, he's the one on the right -- but he should be in a cape.
Captain Planet Foundation
That's him, in the cape. No no, he's the one on the right -- but he should be in a cape.

Think of your life when you were 12. Most of us were busy with first crushes, middle school basketball tryouts, and battling the first wave of acne blossoming on our cheeks.

Not Charles Orgbon. Showing all our preteen selves up, he was busy starting a recycling program to clean up litter on his school campus in Charleston, S.C. By the time his family moved to Georgia, the summer before eighth grade, Orgbon’s recycling program had the backing of a national environmental nonprofit. In 2010, it became known as Greening Forward.

Now at the ripe old age of 17, Orgbon serves as CEO, hosting environmental summits, building educational programs, and organizing clubs for 1,500 other green-minded kids. Somewhere in there he’s also finding time to finish his junior year of high school and chat with Grist about what’s next.

Read more: Cities


Bike til it hertz: College kids spin out campus electricity

Astrid Schanz-Garbassi. Picture 10 spry undergraduates pedaling their quads into a burn on a set of stationary bikes. An 11th student leads the spin class from a bike in front, yelling that none of them need their glutes, anyway, while Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” thumps through their eardrums. Now imagine we could actually do something with all that energy they’re using to go nowhere. Like keep the lights on, for example. That’s the idea behind YouPower, a bike room that opened last April on the Vermont campus of Middlebury College. It’s the brainchild of Astrid Schanz-Garbassi, who graduated in …


“Miracle garden” brings life, and food, to the urban wasteland

mr sharpe
Anita Stewart-Hammerer

Fueled by the recent fascination with all things DIY, community gardening -- like brainstorming clever uses for Mason jars and eating like a caveman -- has been popular lately. But on a large plot in inner-city Baltimore, gardeners have been working the land for almost 25 years. The Duncan Street Miracle Garden, a lush rectangle crisscrossed by grape arbors and trellises, sits in a desolate patch of East Baltimore where 44 rowhouses once stood. On a recent spring day, the blue sky was visible through the empty shells of neighboring buildings and birdsong competed with police sirens.

"I call it 'God's little acre,'" says garden manager Lewis Sharpe, 74. The garden is in fact nearly an acre, and it owes its existence to a core group of dedicated gardeners. In 1988, with Baltimore in the throes of the crack cocaine epidemic, a local men’s group cleaned up what had become a dumping ground after the city razed a stretch of crumbling rowhouses. The gardeners then convinced the city to close the alley to traffic. Decades later, it is dotted with trees, including a mulberry that Sharpe likes to nap under, and row upon row of flower, fruit, and vegetable plants.

A few -- the "fruit cocktail tree" and the "strawberry tree" -- do sound vaguely miraculous. But the biggest miracle is that the garden is here at all.

A chain-link fence surrounds the plot, though it does nothing to thwart the rats, the garden’s worst pests. Instead, it was built some years back to deter a two-legged nuisance: drug dealers. "At one time they was running through here with police chasing 'em," Sharpe says. "Now they ain't got time to go over the fence. They go around it."

Sharpe joined the farm in 1989, and as founding members passed away or began to garden less, he became its self-appointed manager. He -- like famous Milwaukee urban farmer Will Allen -- grew up on a farm, in his case in rural Virginia. "During the summer, grandma got us up at 6 a.m. and gave us a hoe or a shovel," Sharpe says. "We'd go out there and cut the rows, put the seed, put fertilizer down."

Health problems have kept him from retiring to his ancestral home, so Sharpe has done the next best thing: create an urban facsimile. "It keeps me busy," he says simply.

Read more: Cities, Food


Street-smart seeds: How to grow a garden that feels at home in the city

Zach Pickens.
Chrissa Yee
Zach Pickens.

When Zach Pickens first started gardening on his New York rooftop six years ago, he learned the hard way that growing plants in an urban environment isn’t the same as tending them in a suburban backyard. “The first year was really terrible,” he says. But he welcomed the challenge, and his struggles prompted him to learn more about the science of gardening -- microclimates, ecosystems, seed development.

Seed saving -- the practice of collecting the seeds of naturally reproducing plants to be used again from year to year -- particularly intrigued him. “I got interested first and foremost because it was saving me money. I’d save my own seed and didn’t have to buy [more] next year,” Pickens says. As he immersed himself in New York’s urban-gardening culture, he started to see seed saving’s potential to help the movement thrive, and wanted to spread the word.

Pickens noticed that if he saved the seed of the season’s healthiest plants, next year’s crop would be even better -- he was essentially selecting for whatever traits helped his veggies grow best in containers on the roof. Before Monsanto and other corporate giants began pushing patented seeds that didn’t reproduce, forcing farmers to buy new seed every year, seed saving was a common practice that not only saved growers money but produced hardier plants, as the varieties selected year after year adapted to local conditions. By saving seed, Pickens can home in on plants that thrive in the hyper-local conditions unique to the big city.

Okra, for example, takes advantage of the urban heat island effect, in which all that concrete and asphalt absorbs the day’s heat, making New York City toastier than nearby rural communities. “In the city we can grow okra pretty well because it stays so warm through the night,” Pickens explains. “The okra loves it.”

Read more: Cities, Food


An urban farming oasis is saved from the bulldozer blade

Permaganic Eco Garden

There is one thing no gardener wants to hear: “Don’t plant this spring.” But that’s the word Angela Stanbery-Ebner received in February while plotting out the year’s crops at her garden in urban Cincinnati. No tomatoes this year, no chard, no selling at the farmers market, no community-supported agriculture operation run by neighborhood youth for low-income families.

Stanbery-Ebner’s garden, known as the Eco Garden, isn’t your standard backyard fare. It’s an agricultural oasis in a Cincinnati neighborhood better known for its crime than its heirloom carrots. Unfortunately for the Eco Garden, it doesn’t own the land on which it sits, the city does. This year, as part of its initiative to encourage urban development -- known as CitiRama -- the city started eyeing it for housing.

When the gardeners got the news, “we were basically devastated,” Stanbery-Ebner says. Out went the emails, an online petition, and calls to the city council in an effort to save one of the most vibrant corners of a rough-around-the-edges neighborhood.

The Eco Garden had been operating since 1998 in a neighborhood called Over the Rhine -- the Rhine being a nickname for the canal separating the neighborhood from downtown Cincinnati. The area is home to historic buildings, a farmers market, breweries, and in 2006 boasted the highest crime rate in the city, according to city council documents. In the garden, local kids learned to grow food, manage a community-supported agriculture operation, and handle customer accounts.

Angela Stanbery-Ebner and her husband Luke got involved the educational programs in 2004, fresh out of art school at the University of Cincinnati. Six years later, when the nonprofit managing the garden folded, the couple took over, rolling it into their own nonprofit called Permaganic in a nearly seamless transition. “We were basically able to shut down operations for the month of August, then some of the kids came right back to the program again,” Stanbery-Ebner says triumphantly.

Read more: Cities, Food