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Mercer UpGarden turns parking spots into garden beds

Volunteers work on the construction of the Mercer Street UpGarden. Credit: Scott Mills

From the street below, you'd never suspect that watermelons and tomatoes might soon ripen on the vine on the roof of this five-story parking garage. This is the land of hard surfaces and high rises. But, weather permitting, a bountiful harvest is what volunteers, landscape designers, and city planners have in mind.

 

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This is the UpGarden on Mercer Street, a living and breathing rooftop garden. Planners hope it will not only grow food and contain rain runoff, but build community around the “Growing Galaxie” — an art car planned for the space. Landscape designer Nicole Kistler points to a 1963 Ford Galaxie that will boast a planter. “We hope to see watermelons and pumpkins and corn and sunflowers popping through the roof, so it will look like the car has exploded," she says. "We’re calling it the Growing Galaxie.”

Kistler and design partner, Eric Higbee, were thrilled at the opportunity to design one of the country’s first public rooftop gardens at scale. Forty thousand square feet of space will yield up to 120 plots. Dozens of undulating terraces crisscross the garage.

Kistler says she and Higbee drew on agriculture models all over the world. “Rice paddy terraces and contour plowing on slopes and we thought about a blanket kind of wrinkled up to create and hold the soil.” She points to filter fabric lining the sides of planters made from sustainably harvested cedar.

The pace at which the public roof garden is going up is unprecedented for city P-Patches. From conception to completion it’s been about 7 months, with volunteers doing most of the heavy lifting.

Money from a 2008 Parks and Green Space Levy called for an edible garden in dense, garden-hungry Queen Anne. “But there wasn’t any vacant land,” said Laura Raymond with the Department of Neighborhoods P-Patch Program. “We didn’t have the budget to purchase a lot in this area so we started looking at parking lots.”

The Mercer Street Garage caught their attention. Publicly owned, it fit with a city goal of growing food in public space. The UpGarden also fit with making the city more livable and sustainable, says Joel Banslaben, Sustainable Strategies Specialist with Seattle Public Utilities.

A central objective of green roofs is to capture rain run-off before it hits hardscapes. “Filter it, slow that flow, and treat it before it enters Elliott Bay, Lake Washington, and other bodies of water in the region,” says Banslaben. Seattle isn't the only city with this plan. Green roofs have seen triple digit growth nationwide, growing 115 percent in 2011, according to Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, a non-profit committed to the marriage of green roofs and urban agriculture.

‘What we’re seeing now is that developers are incorporating this in their business model. They’re putting garden amenities on the roof so residents or businesses can grow food and either take it right to their dinner table or right to their restaurant or grocery store,” says Banslaben.

For the hundreds of volunteers who’ve built the ‘UpGarden’ growing food and growing it now, is what it’s about. Craig Moore has put a hundred plus hours into the project. “It’s kind of funny. I like to say all I really wanted was a ten by ten patch of dirt to grow some stuff on," he says, "and when we heard a p-patch was coming to the neighborhood, [I said] 'Great, sign me up.'”

Moore lives in a Queen Anne condo. He knows the people in his building, but that’s about it. “In a dense urban environment that’s as far as your world goes. So this has been a neat experience to meet people who live throughout the neighborhood.” 

Bonnie, another volunteer, says growing food goes with growing community. She points to a P-Patch that was raised to accommodate her needs. “It’s an ADA plot so I can set in my walker.” Bonnie will be the project manager for children’s activities and growing food for food banks, which is required as part of the P-Patch charter. 

Volunteer Ryan Miller is a chef at Fare Start. He plans to secure a plot for the downtown cooking rehab program. "I think it would be really nice to get some food growing in addition to cooking," he says. "I mean if we start with some herbs or some kale then we can say that we grew it too.” 

Fifty years ago the Mercer Street Garage was built for the first world’s fair. “In 1962 it looked like space age car culture,” says Raymond. “Now here we are looking to the future and for us that looks like urban gardening. So yeah, it’s fun. There’s a new life here.”

If you go: UpGarden will host a potluck in celebration of its opening day with special guests Mayor Mike McGinn, Dept. of Neighborhoods Director Bernie Matsuno, Seattle Center Director Robert Nellams, City Council Member Sally Bagshaw, and City Council Member Jean Godden. June 2nd 12 p.m. – 3 p.m. Go to upgarden.org for more information.

Green Acre Radio is brought to you with support from the Russell Family Foundation. Engineering by CJ Lazenby. From the studios of Jack Straw Productions and KBCS.

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