2013 Projects
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Blacktop Farming
Michael Varona, James Clotfelter & Ilona de Jongh

Even in a metropolis as dense and congested as New York, empty unused property and under-utilized private and public spaces are scattered throughout Manhattan and its boroughs. In fact, empty concrete lots can be found dispersed through Wall Street and Tribeca, along the waterfront in the Bronx, and up the Hudson adjacent to large towns and villages. Most likely waiting for development, they are often a source of controversy and public discontent. As these sites sit idle, the opportunity to capitalize on their community-benefiting potential is being overlooked. One such opportunity is the ability to immediately address food awareness and basic accessibility to fresh, local produce by providing the means to grow it. Others include furthering youth education and community empowerment through land cultivation and sustained care. In many instances, however, land-use policy prevents implementation of traditional farming practices, and concrete surfaces prevent most communities from putting shovel to ground. Small-scale urban gardens on unused green lots have taken the first step but these gardens often rely on private owners turning a blind eye or the use of illegal guerrilla gardening techniques. These and many other temporary solutions risk messy legal clashes. Even when private owners agree to let the community use their lots, the pressures of permanent installations create so much tension that individuals are often forced to accept the type of liabilities that accompany corporate negotiation. Moreover, the inevitability that the lot will need to be returned to the owner threatens the destruction of all the community has worked to build there.

Blacktop Farming is an initiative that seeks to reclaim unused paved lots in and around New York City in order to provide an opportunity for communities to grow and re-engage with their food. Using co-operative food growing operations (gro-ops), Blacktop Farming will offer scalable, modular solutions to farming on lots of all shapes, sizes, and compositions, wherein the community plays a vital role in development, maintenance, and education. Each gro-op module will be built on rescued and repurposed wooden pallets, for ease of removal or relocation. Each module will consist of a raised-bed garden constructed from locally reclaimed materials from the theater industry and New York City scaffolding, and wood chips from local compost depots. Raising the garden bed over wood chips successfully addresses complications with root access and water de-nitrification, dramatically increasing the usable locations and mitigating policy concerns around land use. We have established several partners interested in collaboration on our project. Primarily, we will be working with Sprout by Design throughout the concept design and implementation of our systems. We will leverage their expertise in social advocacy and community education, as well. Shoman Fabricators will assist us in the reclaiming of theater materials and the fabrication of our systems. Working with 596 Acres, we are beginning to identify acceptable lots throughout NYC and Westchester and are starting the relevant conversations with the owners. Finally, we are in active contact with SOLEfood farm, in Vancouver, Canada, a social enterprise that has a similar farming system in place and has been extremely helpful in sharing their expertise.

  • Shana Starobin

    If you haven’t seen his work already, Will Allen has been a pioneer in reclaiming urban spaces and capacity building communities to garden around the U.S. http://www.growingpower.org/. His work might be a model that you can likewise reference in your efforts.

  • Shana Starobin

    As another successful project to reference, I recommend checking out Will Allen’s work with Growing Power, which has successfully reclaimed urban spaces and capacity built communities to farm and garden. http://www.growingpower.org/

    • Mike

      We were actually also made aware of Will Allen’s work recently! Thanks for the info! And thanks for taking the time to comment and vote!

  • Eric Hager

    To whom this may concern:
    My name is Eric Hager and I am the VP of Sales, Marketing & Technology of LifeCycle Gardens LLC. I used to attend the New School but moved to the Bay Area to become a part of this project. We have just received final designs for a mobile self-watering garden bed that is not only raised waist high but is also height adjustable. We are starting tooling for our product within the next two weeks and hope to have our first production run ready to go by early April. I believe our product would be perfect for a project like this. Please email me at ehager77@yahoo.com and I’ll show you our designs. I’d like to know a little more about your project as well and if there’s anyway I can help.

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