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Best of 2012: Nation's largest public Food Forest takes root on Beacon Hill

After nearly three years of planning, Beacon Hill residents are breaking ground on what will be the nation's largest public food forest.

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"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.

But the road to Beacon Food Forest's approval was not easy. Because the proposed food forest is on Parks Department land, the City of Seattle required Friends of the Food Forest to hire both a landscape architect and a permaculture designer, something that had never before been required for a public project in the city. The Neighborhood Matching Fund grant paid the professional design team that included Jenny Pell and Margarett Harrison, and with Friends of the Food Forest, they facilitated three community design meetings and finalized a plan with city departments.

Once Pell and Harrison set to work though, they quickly discovered that the site was not Parks Department land after all, but Seattle Public Utilities land.

After 9/11, Seattle began capping and covering its public reservoirs for safety reasons. Once the reservoirs are capped and topped with a grassy garnish, the new land and the old peripheries which were once fenced off become open to the public. The proposed food forest site was one of these parcels, meaning that it was actually still owned by Seattle Public Utilities and — because any expenses SPU incurs through management and liability of its properties increase city utility rates — it came with an additional set of land-use restrictions.

To make things more interesting, the Beacon Food Forest is the first large-scale permaculture project on public land in Seattle. so SPU had no existing standards or guidelines to govern it or other forms of urban agriculture. As a 'living landscape,' the food forest is designed to change over time, defying the kind of static master planning the city and most landscape architects are familiar with. It is plain confounding to bureaucracy.

After a series of interdepartmental closed door meetings, the list of stakeholders in BFF grew to include SPU, the Parks Department, the Department of Neighborhoods, P-Patch, the design team, the Beacon Hill Community, Water Quality, the State Department of Health, the Seattle Police Department, and Friends of the Food Forest, to name a few.

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.


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