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The list of demands that came out of these meetings is daunting and goes on for pages — no garbage cans (the closest one is at the bus stop), no toilets, no standing compost, no pest vectors (so no ponds for water catchment, which could breed mosquitos), and no permanent structures, such as poured concrete for building. That means that at least two substantial roofed structures intended for community gathering and classroom space will somehow have to be designed without foundations.
Essentially, Beacon Food Forest must be able to pack up and leave town at the drop of a hat, in case anything goes wrong. That hesitancy on the city's part contrasts with the Friends of the Food Forest's plan to create more permanent food systems that will take generations to fully mature.
In December, Department of Neighborhoods P-Patch stepped up to be the umbrella organization for BFF, bringing with it an additional set of protocols for management, organization, funding, and much more.
Now that their project has been approved, the biggest challenge for Friends of the Food Forest in the coming weeks will be educating the Beacon Hill community about the food forest and how it can serve as a resource to residents and their families. Free workshops will teach skills like fruit tree care, plant identification, crafting (basket making, dying, fiber art, etc.), and food preservation (canning, pickling, drying, etc.). Paid workshops will help fund maintenance costs and detailed, multi-lingual signage will help visitors understand the purpose of each plant and the design of the site.
The project's partnership with P-Patch also means they'll have more access to funding and be able to contract labor through more affordable organizations like the Seattle Conservation Corps, which they expect to use for infrastructure and maintenance work. P-Patch also brought with it $100,000 worth of funding for the project, as part of the $146 million Parks and Green Space Levy. The food forest has one year to utilize the funds, jolting the project into full gear.
Despite quite a few bureaucratic roadblocks, those with experience in Seattle's urban agriculture scene are optimistic about the future of the project.
“There are pieces of this happening at P-Patches all around the city — collective management, communal plots, significant perennial areas, orchard and tree fruit and berry areas," explains Laura Raymond of P-Patch. "What is unique is how this site is trying to have physically significant areas dedicated to all of those and to think about how they are all going to work together."
Carl Woestwin, a program manager and senior planner who has been with Seattle Public Utilities for more than 22 years, remembers another large scale project in Seattle spurred by a bunch of visionary gardeners. Beginning in the late 1970s, Woestwin was part of the group that established Seattle Tilth and the Good Shepard Center gardens.
He remembers the extreme skepticism of the Parks Department at the time. "They felt that it was just a group of hippies that had come along and didn't trust that after we started something we would follow through," says Woestwin. "Turns out Seattle Tilth did not disappear and has grown stronger. But you wouldn't have known that back then. That's always an issue for the city departments: Who are we dealing with? What is their follow-through ability?"
Pell sees the Beacon Food Forest as the start of a larger movement toward a more motivated, vibrant, and self-sustaining Seattle. "If people had access to larger pieces of land to do projects like this you would see really different cultures emerging around these things," she says. "If Seattle could provide 5 percent of its food from within the city, that would be more than almost any other city in the world. Even places that are really committed get less than 1 percent. Can you imagine what the city would be like if 10 percent of the food came from the city?"
But Pell's concerns are new to mainstream thinking in both city governance and communities, and though the inspiration for a stronger local food system may be there, the process is not yet. Beacon Food Forest got its start in 2010, the same year Seattle declared the Year of Urban Agriculture and two years after launching the Local Food Action Initiative (Resolution 31019). If the city is going to follow through with these initiatives and produce a meaningful amount of its own food, as Pell emphasizes, it will have to meet its inspired citizens halfway.
While piles of press and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are sucked into the inertia of industrial-scale, controversial infrastructure projects such as the viaduct, projects like BFF, which are willing to accommodate and investigate their community's needs and can raise the health, happiness, and standard of living of a whole community, are often crushed by bureaucracy before they even begin.
Working in a community as diverse as Beacon Hill, Herlihy's team has seen first-hand the costs and complexity of the interface between citizens, government, and land use; a quagmire that leaves many highly creative, but marginalized cultural communities disenfranchised and disempowered. The Friends of the Food Forest's experience shows that achieving local food access goals means simplifying the bureaucratic obstacle course to allow for flexible, productive land use and creating easier access to government for the many ethnic groups that comprise its citizenry. Count the Beacon Food Forest among the pioneers in this process.
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