Free Markets

Public food forests grow as cities look for new ways to feed their people.

By Timothy A. Schuler 

The social dimensions of a food forest are as complex as the ecology. At the Browns Mill Food Forest in Atlanta, local residents and organizations were brought into the visioning process early on. Photo courtesy Office of Resilience, City of Atlanta.

It was the stand of pecan trees that first drew Mario Cambardella to the seven-acre property along Browns Mill Road in Atlanta. Looking up at the four giant pecan trees, Atlanta’s urban agriculture director decided that this was the place to test out the concept of a municipal food forest. “Then,” he says, “I dug deeper into the site and found another pecan orchard. There were tons of black walnut. There was mulberry.” Cambardella realized that the site already was a food forest. Instead of having to plant one, a team could sculpt what was already there.

A food forest is a vertically layered, publicly accessible edible garden. Based on permaculture principles, it is designed to mimic a true forest ecosystem, with layers of plantings that work in concert with one another, from the rhizosphere to ground covers to large canopy trees. A staple of food production in various parts of the world, especially tropical climates, it is relatively new to the United States; one of the first modern food forests was developed in Asheville, North Carolina, in the late 1990s.

Improvements at the Atlanta food forest have included picnic tables, raised beds, and vine trellises. Photo courtesy Office of Resilience, City of Atlanta.

Cambardella envisioned the Browns Mill Food Forest, situated in a quiet, quasi-rural neighborhood in southeast Atlanta, as a way to increase access to fruits, vegetables, nuts, and herbs in a neighborhood that, despite its agrarian roots, now qualified as a low-income, low-access community. Given how long it can take for large canopy trees to mature, a built-in layer of nut-bearing trees, Cambardella thought, made the property ideal. The Browns Mill site also met the requirements of a U.S. Forest Service Community Forest Program, a grant Cambardella planned to use to acquire the property.

That was in 2016. Now Cambardella’s vision, augmented by input from community residents and honed by designers, is on its way to being realized. This past fall, the pecan groves were joined by 100 fruit trees, including apples, pears, plums, and figs, as well as raised garden beds and compost bins, reachable via a series of mulched paths. The orchard is just the beginning. A vision plan for the Browns Mill Food Forest suggests places for a mushroom walk, an apiary, a vegetable and flower garden, and multiple gathering spaces, including a pavilion for community events and an outdoor classroom.

The vision plan for the Browns Mill Food Forest provides more programmed space toward its two entrances and a wilder area toward the rear. Image by Sustenance Design/Stand Landscape Architecture.

The 7.1-acre site, which is long and narrow and jogs south to connect with East Rhinehill Road, was designed by Lindsey Mann of Sustenance Design; Clara Kwon, ASLA, of Stand Landscape Architecture (now with the Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation); and Tradd Cotter of Mushroom Mountain. The project is being funded in part by a Community Forest Program grant and spearheaded by the city’s Office of Resilience. (Atlanta is part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative.) The land itself was acquired by the Conservation Fund and will transition to city ownership in the future.

Improvements at the Atlanta food forest have included picnic tables, raised beds, and vine trellises. Photo courtesy Office of Resilience, City of Atlanta.

For Atlanta, and for many cities around the country, a food forest is a new kind of public park, a place where residents can do all of the usual park things—walk, play, sit, read—but can also gather food. Edible mushrooms, medicinal herbs, elderberries, Jerusalem artichoke—all of this and more will be available, for free, to any Atlanta resident who wanders in.

Partners have included Cornelia Cho, the president of the Mushroom Club of Georgia. Photo courtesy Office of Resilience, City of Atlanta.

All of which makes food forests a rather revolutionary concept in contemporary American culture. Residents in Seattle, Chicago, and San Francisco may “graze” in the aisles of their neighborhood Amazon Go store (which does away with the checkout line by tracking what you grab), but they still pay for the produce. The fruit in a community food forest, of which there are now more than 70 in the United States, is free, produced by and for the people on public land.

“I think that’s where they are very radical,” says Catherine Bukowski, a PhD candidate in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech and a coauthor of The Community Food Forest Handbook (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018). The notion of creating an agricultural commons where all are free to gather—and gather—runs counter to the dominant narrative of the past 250 years of American history, which centers on private land ownership and free-market capitalism.

And yet community food forests—meaning those that are city-sanctioned and supported—have been growing in popularity in recent decades because of increased awareness of ecological connections between forest species and continued interest in diversifying America’s agricultural landscape. As Bukowski and coauthor John Munsell, an associate professor of agroforestry at Virginia Tech, write in their book, large-scale monocrop production “requires immense inputs primarily derived from fossil energy…and there are grave concerns about the long-term environmental impact and sustainability of such production.” Hence the rise of alternative models such as community gardens and urban farms.

Katherine Kennedy, the director of Concrete Jungle. Photo courtesy Office of Resilience, City of Atlanta.

However, many of these alternatives still require significant inputs (time, fertilizer, labor). A food forest, on the other hand, uses natural by-products such as shade, leaf litter, and nutrient pathways to sustain itself. “Once you learn about it, it makes so much sense,” says Mann, the founder of Sustenance Design, which led the design of the Browns Mill project in Atlanta. Consider an orchard, Mann says. Some sort of ground cover is needed, so why not use a plant species that is rich in essential oils and thus can help dissuade pests? And why not also make that plant an herb that can be harvested and used for medicine, or can mine nutrients that will be used by the fruit trees? Multiply that sort of thinking over several acres and you have the basic building blocks of a food forest.

If the science is sound, however, the social dimensions of a food forest can be far more difficult to understand and accommodate. Bukowski spent two years visiting more than 20 community food forests around the country, and what she found was that food forests are not well understood from a placemaking perspective. “These are socio-ecological places,” says Bukowski, who consults as a cofounder of Kindred Roots Design. “You have the food forest itself, but very similar to thinking about a food forest, which has all these different plants that have dual purposes, where if one plant fails there’s going to be another one that takes its place, you have to do the same thing with the social system. You have to have that core group of people that are going to be at the heart of making it happen.”

The most successful food forest, Bukowski says, will respond not only to a community’s needs, but to its history and culture. Too often that’s not the case, she says. “There’s a difference between that community of place, and understanding their values and the cultural significance that they may have in a site like this, and the community of interest, which could be from anywhere.” Planners need to include the community from the beginning, she says, “to make sure the species being offered are plants that that community would want to harvest, or that a food forest is even what that community needs.”

Robby Astrove, a fruit tree arborist. Photo courtesy Office of Resilience, City of Atlanta.

Bukowski points to Ocean View Growing Grounds in San Diego as an exemplar. It was initiated by a University of California, San Diego, professor of urban studies. Project leaders recognized that the university had a somewhat tenuous relationship with surrounding communities, especially those of lesser economic power. To restore trust and empower neighborhood residents, an unaffiliated nonprofit called the Global Research Action Center was set up, to serve as a liaison between the community and the university. “They understood that there was a history of a view of the university coming into neighborhoods and doing projects that didn’t necessarily include the people,” Bukowski says.

Ensuring that a food forest is well-used is key to its long-term maintenance. At least one reason fruit-bearing trees are often prohibited by municipalities is because of the mess they can make: sidewalks slickened by trampled berries, or windshields cracked by falling pomelos. Intelligent siting can eliminate a lot of these hazards, but a food forest will always require some upkeep. The more buy-in a food forest has from its community, the more time the community will spend there.

At Browns Mill, Mann says, “it wasn’t a ground-up thing, which was uncomfortable at first for me.” But Cambardella and his team spent six months going to door to door, canvassing the community, hosting roundtable discussions on site or at the local rec center to find out what residents would want to harvest in the food forest. Cambardella says the city made every effort to ensure that Browns Mill residents—and not just urban agriculture advocates—were invited into the process, and his team heard stories about the Morgan family farm, which as recently as the 1980s had occupied the property, and how the Morgans would share their produce with their neighbors. Cambardella also says that public engagement is an ongoing effort. “I don’t think the community process will ever be finished, just as I don’t think the food forest will ever be finished,” he says.

Mann says she feels confident that her team delivered a vision plan that reflects the community’s interests and provides a window into ecological processes. Bukowski urges patience; a forest doesn’t grow in a day. It will take time for the public to embrace the idea of a food forest, she says, just as it did with community gardens. Successfully making these spaces feel welcoming to everyone, not just the “core group,” will be the perennial challenge, Bukowski says. Doing so will require “effort and creative thinking in the type of programs and projects and community events you put on,” she says. “But it also takes time. In most parts of the country, this is not part of our society anymore, to feel open to harvesting off public land. It’s going to take time to change people’s minds.”

Timothy A. Schuler writes about design, ecology, and the natural environment. He lives in Honolulu.

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