This is an excerpt of a longer piece that originally ran in full on Crosscut.
Sandwiched between 15th Avenue South and the play fields at the southwestern edge of Jefferson Park, in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle, are seven acres of lonely, sloping lawn that have sat idly in the hands of Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) for the better part of a century. At least until this spring, when the land that has only ever known the whirring steel of city mowers will begin a complete transformation into seven acres of edible landscape and community park space known as the Beacon Food Forest.
The end goal is an urban oasis of public food: Visitors to the corner of 15th Avenue and South Dakota Street will be greeted by a literal forest—an entire acre will feature large chestnuts and walnuts in the overstory, full-sized fruit trees like big apples and mulberries in the understory, and berry shrubs, climbing vines, herbaceous plants and vegetables closer to the ground.
Further down the path an edible arboretum full of exotic looking persimmons, mulberries, Asian pears and Chinese haws will surround a sheltered classroom for community workshops. Looking over the whole seven acres, you’ll see playgrounds and kid space full of thornless mini-edibles adjacent to community gardening plots, native plant areas, a big timber-frame gazebo and gathering space with people barbecuing, a recreational field and food as far as you can see.
The entire project will be built around the concept of permaculture — an ecological design system, philosophy and set of ethics and principles used to create perennial, self-sustaining landscapes and settlements that build ecological knowledge and skills in communities. The concept of a food forest is a core concept of permaculture design derived from wild food ecosystems, where land often becomes forest if left to its own devices. In a food forest, everything from the tree canopy to the roots is edible or useful in some way.
“If this is successful,” explains Margarett Harrison, the lead landscape architect for the Beacon Food Forest, “it is going to set such a precedent for the city of Seattle, and for the whole Northwest.”
She may be understating it. There is no other project of Beacon Food Forest’s scale and design on public land in the United States—a forest of food, for the people, by the people.
The idea for the Beacon Food Forest first emerged in 2009 during a group project for a permaculture design course led by Jenny Pell of Permaculture Now! From early on, the group—led by Beacon Hill gardener and sculptor Glenn Herlihy—held casual meetings with the Beacon Hill community. These led to the formation of a steering committee called Friends of the Food Forest—a team initially composed of Herlihy and two others from the permaculture class, Jacquie Cramer and Daniel Johnson. In 2010, the group secured $22,000 in Neighborhood Matching Funds from the Department of Neighborhoods.
Plans for the site. Credit: Beacon Food Forest.
Friends of the Food Forest undertook heroic outreach efforts to secure neighborhood support. The team mailed over 6,000 postcards in five different languages, tabled at events and fairs and posted fliers. And Seattle residents responded. The first meeting, especially, drew permaculturalists and other intrigued parties from all around the city.
One afternoon the design team showed up on site and discovered the play fields inundated with the tents, pageantry, barbecues and crowds of a typical afternoon of Samoan cricket playing. The design had to be revised to accommodate their short-cut up to the fields and plans were made to interview members of the Samoan community to find out what kinds of plants they would like to have along the edge BFF shares with the fields.
More than 70 people, mostly from Beacon Hill, attended the second meeting in mid-July, where proposed designs were laid out on giant sheets paper with markers strewn about so the community could scribble their ideas and feedback directly onto the plans. A dozen elderly Chinese women participated with the help of a translator hired by Friends of the Food Forest. Some neighbors praised the idea, while others shared deep concerns over vandals, theft, and management. More than anything else, the enthusiasm to get to work was palpable.
“They wanted everything from bees, to classrooms, to gardens, to kids’ playgrounds, bikes racks, fruit trees (lots of fruit trees and berries) and open space,” explains Jenny Pell, looking simultaneously overwhelmed and full of admiration.
“As much as we are promoting permaculture,” Herlihy noted, “we have to allow other gardeners to freely express their ideas in their ways.”
To make everyone happy, the space will include more familiar urban farming features alongside the food forest: Community garden plots, collectively managed plots, orchards and edible arboretums, as well as a new concept Friends of the Food Forest are calling a “Tree-Patch”—much like a standard garden plot, but with a tree.
If anything, the food forest is a testing ground to see whether the citizens of Beacon Hill—and perhaps someday other Seattle neighborhoods—can manage their own public space in a way that benefits the entire community.
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