September 20, 2010
Vacant City Lots to Food On the Table
by Madeline Ostrander
The first time I went to Richmond, Calif., nine years ago,
my friend, who ran a punk music recording studio out of a converted
warehouse, told us not to park our car on the street. The day
before, vandals had walked the block and smashed several car
At least a few things have started to change in Richmond since
then: A berry garden sits beside a bike trail in the Iron Triangle,
a neighborhood at the center of the city bordered on three
sides by old rail lines. Once a month, Latino and African American
families–often people who live just a few blocks from each
other but rarely had a chance to meet in the past–gather at
the garden and have a barbecue. Tomatoes, chard, and corn grow
in raised beds across the street. Muslim families from the
local mosque just a few blocks away pluck fresh mint from the
garden for making traditional Arabic tea. The garden is the
work of Urban Tilth, one of the dozen or so groups at the center
of Richmond’s urban garden movement. It was built by community
members, often young people, and is tended in part by students
and teachers from the elementary school next door. And it has
become a community gathering space.
Richmond boomed in the mid-20th century and now is like hundreds
of other places around the country where industry walked
away. The city is isolated from much of the cultural
and economic life of the rest of the East Bay region. Young
people can’t find jobs, and they move away, or their restlessness
is channeled into all the wrong activities—vandalism, gangs,
People rarely get a say in what happens to land when their
city falls apart. But in the last five years, some Richmonders
have taken matters into their own hands. Often with official
permission but sometimes without, they have planted more than
two dozen gardens in public lots and school grounds all over
the roughest parts of town. Urban Tilth calls them “farms,”
and last year grew 6,000 pounds of food, which went to dozens
of local families.
Many Richmonders have gardening traditions that go back several
generations, brought by families from the rural South who came
for shipbuilding jobs during World War II and by more recent
immigrants from agricultural regions of Central and South America.
But many of Richmond’s young people haven’t been exposed to
Now Richmond’s urban
gardening movement is yielding a small but radical cultural
change. Urban agriculture has become a regular part of the
curriculum in two local high schools. Areas in and near the
gardens that seemed off-limits or unsafe in years past are
becoming gathering places where Richmonders throw picnics,
play outside, pick berries, and ride bicycles.
And dozens of young Richmonders have been given the chance
to grow something in a community they thought had little future.
The Comeback Kids
The train to Richmond leaves Berkeley and passes miles of
strip malls, junkyards, and abandoned warehouses before reaching
the Iron Triangle. Doria Robinson, Urban Tilth’s executive
director, meets me at the station, wearing sweat pants with
a racing stripe and talking nonstop.
The granddaughter of an avid rose gardener and a local minister,
she was one of the kids who left Richmond as soon as she could.
“I wanted to get out, like most people. I was like, oh, my
God, what a lost cause. Nobody ever said anything positive
about Richmond,” she says.
She went to college on the East Coast and lived in San Francisco
for several years. She moved back five years ago to take care
of her great aunt’s house and started working with Urban Tilth.
Now, at 36, she’s focused on bringing young people back into
the fabric of the community.
Robinson and her colleague, Adam Boisvert, drive me through
the city in a pickup truck, first to the berry garden and then
to Richmond High School, one of Urban Tilth’s two school-based
We have to clear a pair of security guards and pass through
a temporary metal fence before walking into Richmond High’s
paved schoolyard. The school is still reeling since one of
its students was gang-raped by a group of teenage boys after
a homecoming dance last fall.
Behind the rust-colored trailers that serve as extra classrooms
stand 12 vegetable beds and a shed that has been remade into
a greenhouse. Beyond them and behind a football field are six
long raised rows, nearly 800 square feet of cultivation space.
They were built on a Sunday in February by 67 Richmond High
students, teachers, administrators, and volunteers from local
A class of 30 students has planted chard, tomatoes, carrots,
peppers, and beans, with help from Urban Tilth staff and a
teacher paid by the district. The content of their “Urban Ecology
and Food Systems” class is a little subversive. It’s about
fairness, nutrition, food deserts, oil, and why some people
get left out of the economy.
Robinson enjoys a certain act-now-apologize-later approach
to getting hold of land. At Richmond High, the project started
when students wanted to fix up an old garden that had been
neglected for a decade. At other schools, Urban Tilth has gotten
keys from staff and teachers and persuaded groundskeepers to
switch on the water, then asked the administration for permission.
Only in the last six months has the school district itself
negotiated a formal land-use agreement with the organization.
I asked a facilities engineer in the school district administration
how Urban Tilth started its four school gardens. “They just
did it. Nice, huh?” he said, a bit sardonically.
Young energy drives Urban Tilth—20-something activists, recent
grads looking for work, students—and not just A-students. Tania
Pulido, age 21, joined Urban Tilth last October after years
as a self-described “troubled youth.”
“I used to cut school a lot, and I barely graduated,” she
says. She now studies new media and film, is a political activist,
and leads gardening projects on the bicycle trail and at the
Seven of Urban Tilth’s 11 staff are under 30, and several
began as high-school apprentices. Jessie Alberto was among
the Richmond High students who brought the school’s garden
back to life. Now 20 years old, he trains students to garden
at Richmond and Kennedy High Schools. He doesn’t like the words
“I want to say we have kids who are really high in energy,”
he says. He puts these kids in charge of their peers on labor-intensive
projects—weeding, pruning, and digging. “The thinking and the
vigorous work calms them down,” he says.
Rights to the Garden
There is a basic question that comes up when you sow
seeds on land you don’t own. When parking strips and
vacant lots fill with flowers and fruit trees, property values
spike, then rents and taxes.
Daryl Hannah and Julia Butterfly Hill brought national attention
to South Central Farm, the famous urban garden in Los Angeles
that was cultivated by 350 mostly Latino families. But their
efforts couldn’t stop the property’s owner from bulldozing
it to build a warehouse. What happens when land becomes more
valuable as a condominium development or a mall than a public
My last stop with Robinson and Boisvert is Adams Middle School,
which closed last fall as part of the school district’s budget
cuts. The school is up a winding street in the hills to the
east of downtown. Property values rise with elevation in Richmond,
and this school is on expensive ground.
There is a level, circular plot behind a row of trees where
Urban Tilth has planted tomatoes, an heirloom green called
purple tree collards, nopal cactus, carrots, peas, and raspberries.
Boisvert and Pulido have sketched out permaculture designs
for this land, including a rain garden and a water catchment
The school district is using this property for storage. Boisvert
and Robinson admit that the land is worth millions. The school
district has no plans to sell but concedes that Urban Tilth
would likely lose the garden if the land attracted a buyer.
Robinson is negotiating with a local land trust to see if they
might be willing to purchase the garden and keep it in cultivation.
Meanwhile, the city has hired 26 high-school kids to work
with Urban Tilth through a summer youth program. Robinson plans
to use their energy to build a new orchard.
Four years ago, Richmond became one of the only major cities
in the country to elect a Green Party mayor, Gayle McLaughlin.
Under the mayor’s progressive food policy, local gardening
groups plant flowers and food plants in city parks through
a program called “Adopt-a-Park.” The city also gives them free
logs to border raised beds, salvaged containers, wood chips,
soil, and anything else that can be scavenged and repurposed
for a garden. The city manager and mayor and local gardening
groups are discussing a possible urban food ordinance: Gardening
activists hope to make it easier to grow produce in Richmond
front yards, gain access to water, and raise animals like bees,
chickens, and goats.
I ask Robinson if she worries whether Urban Tilth’s prospects
would shift suddenly if the city administration changes hands.
“I don’t,” she says. “What’s really important is the food
we grow and the time we spend investing in people. We know
people in Richmond are smart people. We have a huge reserve
of brain energy here and historic connection to the land. And
we just need to draw on that, respect it, and have faith in
There’s more than food and land at stake here. If Urban Tilth
can make gardening traditions into longstanding cultural institutions,
and use a tomato plant or a raspberry vine to convince a teenager
that Richmond is worth saving, their efforts will outlast anything
that happens to the gardens themselves.
Madeline Ostrander wrote this article for A
Resilient Community, the Fall 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Madeline is senior
editor of YES! and grows potatoes in her backyard.