In South Phoenix, among suburban neighborhoods where liquor stores outnumber grocery stores, there’s a massive, untended plot of dirt as big as two and a half New York City blocks. Until recently, it was a void space between the housing tracts, collecting trash where it runs up against the streets. Residents really didn’t know what to make of it.
“Kids were mostly using it to dirt bike in,” says Quilian Riano, an architect with DSGN AGNC who’s been visiting the site on and off since August 2015. Nic de la Fuente, a Phoenix resident, says some knew it as the stomping grounds for local gangs.
But with nearly $600,000 from art project supporters the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and ArtSpace America, Riano is about to help turn the swath into a centerpiece of the neighborhood. And he’s hoping that the minority communities that make up the majority of South Phoenix will get an economic shot in the arm in the process.
He’ll work with two local nonprofits, Cultivate South Phoenix and Desert Botanical Garden, to build a massive garden out of the dirt, developing every inch of its 18 acres for an array of crops that’ll be planted and maintained by nearby residents. The project is called Spaces of Opportunity, and the end goal is to turn it into a sort of industrial co-op, where community members can sell their produce to restaurants and grocery stores throughout the city, on top of the new farmers market they’ll start up in the area, to make a profit revitalizing this land.
For those who aren’t tending the land, the site will include a series of murals, a center square for hosting assemblies and performances, and classrooms where students from the Roosevelt Elementary schools — another key partner in the project — can learn side-by-side with residents about science, technology, engineering and, of course, agriculture.
“We want to create high yield on a small piece of land,” says Riano, comparing it to major farming operations that produce on a behemoth scale. “We’re committed to making farming part of the resident’s work life — enough that it becomes something that’s sustainable for them.”
Rendering of community farm for South Phoenix (Credit: DSGN AGNC)
Phoenix as a whole has consistently struggled with severe poverty, and in 2013 ranked as the third most impoverished metro area in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau. Back then the city’s poverty rate was 17.2 percent, and its current rate of 16.2 percent still puts it near the top.
Nearly 40 percent of the population in Phoenix is Latino, and in South Phoenix an estimated 70 percent of families identified as Latino in 2010. Roosevelt Elementary reported that 36 percent of the families it served were struggling with poverty.
Gangs are also a temptation for the neighborhood’s impoverished youth. But de la Fuente, who works for Desert Botanical Garden and is the project’s director, says they’ve already managed to break through that barrier with the garden project.
“One of the kids was telling me how [the lot] used to be the spot where gangs would meet up,” he says. “Since then we’ve engaged him and gotten him involved in the mural process. It’s really cool to see that, because the gangs would be tearing all this up otherwise.”
Riano started learning about some of South Phoenix’s issues when he and his partners began to host community meetings about the project in October 2015. Leaders from Cultivate South Phoenix and Desert Botanical Garden sat down with residents at that time to survey what types of crops they’d like to produce if they could make the vacant plot their own.
“There were Mexican immigrants bringing in practices from Mexico, talking about what types of vegetables they’ve learned on different landscapes, how to grow them, how to cook them,” he remembers. “There were also South Asian groups that wanted to farm and bring some of the practices that were more traditional to their communities into this space.”
They’re still figuring out what the agricultural layout will look like; Phoenix is in the northeast end of the Sonoran Desert, so to produce some crops they’ll need to align rows of shade trees to keep the ground cool. Cactus, agave and mesquite are just some of the flora attracting excitement from the residents.
But first they’ll need to start figuring out how they’ll break the big plot into smaller plots for appropriate produce. The long-term process, says Riano, is to “start with a quarter acre, move them to a half acre, then to a full acre,” so that the residents can grow greater amounts of crops in greater spaces as they learn more about farming.
Right now, they’re developing about 3,000 square feet of the total project. That will include small community gardens for the residents, and a shaded barn area where they can store their tools, wash their harvest and participate in group lessons on farming. On a given work day, de la Fuente says you can expect anywhere from 30 to 100 residents showing up and lending a hand.
In a process that he calls “quick but slow,” Riano and the group of nonprofits will host community meetings at every point in the process. The only concrete part of the current blueprint is to constantly incorporate feedback and opinion from residents as they roll it out.
This participatory model, he says, is already laying the foundation for a deep impact in the area. And he doesn’t think that momentum will slow down. “We’re hoping for people to start coming here and learn that this is a community, where you can grow your own vegetables, and we can give them the skills to create their own agency through farming.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.