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.
Crosscut archive image.

Friends of the Food Forest gather on the future site.

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


Editors' note: Each day during the holidays, Crosscut will revisit top stories from the last year in a specific category. Today's focus is Food. This article was originally published October 24, 2012.

Sandwiched between 15th Ave. S. and the play fields at the SW 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 Ave S. and S. 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.

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.

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.

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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