Gardens crop up in Seattle parking strips

SEATTLE, Wash. --- We've all heard the foodie mantra: Eat Local.


It's going gangbusters in grocery stores that increasingly tout local produce. Now, area government has gotten involved, too.

No, the City Council isn't pushing expensive arugula. Instead, it's trying to increase the availability of locally grown food, especially for those least able to afford it.

"I think there's a real transformation happening," said Branden Born, assistant professor of urban design and planning at the University of Washington.

Some of this shift involves research projects and nonbinding resolutions, which are essentially invisible to ordinary citizens. But for tangible evidence — actual growing evidence — you need look no farther than the lowly curb in front of your home.

It used to be that planting anything but grass in the strip between the sidewalk and the curb required a permit, even if it was just a spray of flowers or a few carrots. For hardscaping, like steppingstones or raised beds, fees averaging $225 were attached, too. Would-be gardeners routinely called the city to complain.

This year, the Seattle Department of Transportation changed its rules. Now, no permit is required for parking strip vegetable gardens. While hardscaping still requires a permit, it's easy to get and free of charge, said Rick Sheridan, spokesman for SDOT.

Last year, the city issued 22 permits for parking strip gardens. This year, they've issued 52, and that's for hardscaping alone. There's no telling how many people have taken advantage of the new no-permit rules for simple vegetation.

"We get the sense that people are really embracing it," Sheridan said.

Gardener Jake Harris, for one, couldn't wait, and immediately planted a veritable cornucopia in front of his University District home. In addition, Harris' company, Cascadian Edible Landscapes, has installed raised beds for a half-dozen other Seattleites eager to capture the unobstructed sunlight that parking strips offer.

Harris says his mantra is "eat your yard." And the demand in Seattle, he said, is "pretty huge."

"We're looking for every way possible for people who want to plant food to be able to do so," said Rob Gala, an aide to City Council President Richard Conlin, who is leading the charge. "And the closer it is to their house, the better."

Parking strips, however visible, are just a small part of larger changes, Born said. He sees hope in the research projects, grants and policy decisions that are aimed at broadening the local food movement.

It's not just a matter of what people put in their mouths. It's about the environment and economic development, social justice and long-term health care costs, community building and livability.

Last year, when the Seattle City Council passed a nonbinding "local food initiative," some were skeptical that it would amount to any real change. But there has been progress.

Officials began studying city codes and policies through the lens of healthy eating goals. Do land use codes have an impact on people's ability to eat healthy food? Should developers get open-space credits for food gardens?

It was quickly clear that city policies created impediments for farmers' markets. Convinced that these markets offer numerous benefits, the city made permits cheaper and made it easier to site markets in the street and in city parks. Chris Curtis, director of the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, said she's now optimistic about finding permanent locations for several markets that were in danger of losing their leases on private property. She's even talking to Sound Transit about locating one along the new light rail line.

"I don't think we would have ever had some of these conversations with policymakers 10 years ago," Curtis said.

City departments are beginning to ask new questions. Are kids getting healthy food in after-school programs? At community centers? The city Parks and Recreation Department is working on that. It's also creating "learning gardens" to teach kids about growing food and eating healthy. "It's a long-term strategy to increase access to healthy food, particularly in disadvantaged communities," said Phyllis Shulman, an aide to Conlin.

In addition, city and county officials are looking at creating incentives to preserve county farmland through a new program allowing rural property owners to transfer their development rights to urban areas, which are viewed as better able to support high-density development.

In another multiagency venture, local activists feel they're finally getting traction in their efforts to create a food policy council that will bring together an array of interests that have connections — some of them less obvious than others — with healthy eating. They'll talk about everything from transportation — do public transit issues make it harder for people to get to the grocery store? — to the environment to public health.

The big news in food circles recently was that Seattle will receive a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a variety of projects aimed at increasing urban agriculture and improving access to healthy food in low-income communities. Solid Ground is the lead agency on the grant, but several city and county offices are involved and will contribute matching funds.

The grant will be used to create additional community gardens, which will produce food not only for the gardeners themselves but for local food banks. In addition, the grant will pay for gardening and nutrition education at community and senior centers and for projects aimed at getting healthy food into convenience stores, where some low-income residents are forced, by dint of proximity, to shop.

Local food also figured in last year's parks levy, which included $2 million for new community gardens and P-Patches, particularly in underserved areas. The popular P-Patch program has a waiting list of 1,900 people.

"It's almost an urban back-to-the-land-movement," Born said, adding that it's not just about growing food. "Community gardens look rather quaint on the surface. But you get into them and you see they're a powerful transformative element."

Mount Baker resident Don Comstock knows that. An avid gardener, he began planting vegetables in his sunny parking strip and found neighbors routinely stopping by to chat. He invited neighbors to plant their own vegetables in his strip, which he blocked off nicely into plots.

"I've been doing this in my backyard for years, but by moving it out front, it's become much more of a public awareness thing," he said. "It's really a great move to build neighborhood."

And besides, he said, "I'd much rather be eating food that doesn't have to be trucked 1,000 miles to me."



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