Food and Environmental Advocates Hope to Bring an Urban Agriculture Program to Jersey City

Photo: Catherine Hecht

After four hours of brainstorming this weekend, a coalition of advocates and officials hopes to put Jersey City on a greener path towards implementing an urban agriculture and food security program. The “Farms in the City” workshop, part of an innovative nationwide urban-planning program, is yet another step being taken here towards increasing the availability of affordable, fresh and healthy food.

In December 2009, GOOD magazine, along with urban design firm Sheridan/Hawkes and The Public Studio, teamed up with urban planners, writers, artists and others for LA 2.0, an “afternoon think-tank” event designed to collaboratively produce five strategies to improve the physical environment of Los Angeles, where GOOD is headquartered.

That project quickly grew into City R+D, which is described as “an open workshop platform for improving your city.” (The R and D stand for Reinvent and Develop, respectively.) In April, the magazine put out an open call for applications for people who wanted to do similar events in their cities, and Jersey City planner Tanya Marione-Stanton decided to apply.

“I was literally just thumbing through my GOOD when I saw the call for participants to take part of GOOD 2.0, as they were calling it, which was based on President Obama’s call to have folks from all around the country sit down with their local citizens and professionals and brainstorm what the future of our cities would look like, create a new built environment,” Marione-Stanton says. “I realized this could be the opportunity to get all the right people in the room and start talking about the future of urban agriculture in the city.”

The magazine chose the proposal as one of eight it would support, and this Saturday, community leaders, policy-makers, environmentalists, neighborhood activists and other interested parties will convene in Journal Square to hash out ideas on how best to bring an urban agriculture agenda to Jersey City.

The program is being organized by The Jersey City Green Team, a new coalition of groups — including the Washington Park Association, the Jersey City Food Coop Initiative, Riverview Community Gardens, Greater Good Giving and the Jersey City GreenMap — that is working hand-in-hand with city officials like Marione-Stanton on environmental initiatives.

“I guess we found each other based on our common interest and dreams for Jersey City,” says Mory Thomas, a Heights resident who is the president and founding trustee of the three-year-old Washington Park Association. He says that the coalition is hoping to bring others into the Green Team fold, as they work not only on this project, but other issues going forward.

“[We’ve] targeted several other goals,” he says, including “working on the open space plan, strengthening arts programs and historical preservation plans, green roofs, rain gardens in parks and along city streets to capture storm water runoff, composting food waste, and water conservation education, to name a few.”

The collaborative nature of Saturday’s event, and the Green Team’s overall agenda, is increasingly the way that progressive policy-making is happening at the municipal level nationwide. As Marione-Stanton says, “great visioning is great visioning,” regardless of whether it originates in the city planning department or the corner bar. The approach, while not new, seems to have proliferated in recent years, brought on by a combination of tight budgets, web-based community empowerment and a host of other factors.

“The key words here are community-supported,” Thomas says. “If we want to make this happen we have to meet the city half way and help with the planning, financial support and maintenance. The main thing we need from government is empowerment. Everyone deserves access to fresh local fruits and vegetables — not to mention, eggs, and honey.”

Marione-Stanton hopes Saturday’s event will be “a melding of great minds and great efforts,” and yet another step in the formation of a unified network that will continue to tackle urban agriculture going forward in a cohesive manner.

“Up until now it seems that small things have been happening around the city and each group has been doing and focusing on their own thing,” she says. “But hopefully after Saturday all these groups will see that there is a network of folks who are working towards the same goal.”

While it’s not always easy to bring Jersey City’s disparate communities together around a single issue, as Thomas points out, there’s no better common ground than food on a plate.

“Food is a common denominator in this narrowing global environment we live in,” he says. “So what better way to learn from your neighbor than over sowing seeds, composting food scrapes, or harvesting your summer squash?”

Thomas’ comments hint at one of the other possible outcomes of a program. Besides the obvious goal of better food for Jersey City’s residents, organizers hope the initiative fosters a better sense of community and improves residents’ mental and physical health, as well as the health of the planet.

“Socially, it will bring communities together working towards a common goal, which benefits to all, thus creating a spirit of cooperation and unity,” says Jersey City Food Coop Initiative founder Gillian Allen. “Economically, it will create a local economy and encourages entrepreneurial activities — keeping dollars circulating in our community. Environmentally, it decreases the carbon footprint by reducing the distance food travels from where it’s grown to where it’s consumed.”

In addition, organizers say they’d like to see an educational aspect incorporated, with gardens as “teaching labs” for the city’s young people, and on the other end of the life cycle, they hope to have senior citizens involved, both to provide a recreationl opportunity and to learn from their experiences.

One thing the coalition is stressing is that the plan that comes out of Saturday’s session be realistic and easy to implement. But whatever the outcome, Marione-Stanton says the event is just one more example the growing movement of people who want to work for positive change in Jersey City, both outside and inside government.

“The reason this event and movement is moving forward in Jersey City is because this is the right time and everyone is on the same page — city and community folks,” she says. “Writing amendments to the zoning ordinance is not the only solution to everything, if you don’t have the desire and demand from the public to do so.”

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THE DETAILS
Farms in the City Workshop; Saturday, August 21, from 2 to 6 pm; Hudson County Community College’s Culinary Arts Institute/Conference Center, 161 Newkirk St. To RSVP, contact Gillian Allen at 646-388-1825 or gillian (at) jcfoodcoop.com. Organizers will not turn anyone away at the door, but they are asking for RSVPs to ensure an accurate headcount. (If you can’t make the event, you can meet up with the organizers afterward at the Journal Square Pub next to the Loew’s.)

 

Jon Whiten

co-founded the Jersey City Independent. He is currently the Deputy Director of New Jersey Policy Perspective.