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A Terrific Short Video, a City's Vision, the Value of Recess, and How to Start a Community Garden Near You

Posted Sep 27 2009 10:06pm

I love that video, and it hits close to home for me. I've been knee-deep for months now in the Comprehensive Land Use Plan for the newest city in the United States (I serve on the steering committee) and I am pleased to report that the close-to-finished-draft includes major elements of new urbanism. Walkability. Bikability. Connectivity. Usable, public green space. Smart Growth. A "life-long community." Sustainability aspects at every turn. Here is our current Vision statement
Vision of the City of Dunwoody

The City of Dunwoody showcases its “big city appeal with small town feel” from the moment you cross its gateways. Through its unique, high-quality character as a safe, comfortable and thriving place to live, work, shop and play, the City of Dunwoody preserves the past, promotes economic vitality, protects the residential nature of its neighborhoods, presents viable options as a place to live through all stages of life and ability, and prepares for the future through
• Historical designation designed to save, restore, and promote our heritage properties

• Continued high-quality development of the Perimeter business area designed to promote the economic engine of the city while enhancing convenience to products and services for our citizens

• Conservative, conscientious growth of our other commercial nodes designed to enhance the quality of life of our residential neighborhoods

• Development of a variety of living options designed for all stages of life and ability

• Increased connectivity, enhanced transportation options, expanded green space and park ownership designed to improve the health, vitality and recreational enjoyment of our city’s businesses and residents and the long-term sustainability of our city

When our plan is adopted by our City Council, I'll be sure to post it here so you can see what a group of citizens and government leaders, working together to create something that can withstand the challenges and embrace the opportunities of the next twenty years, has created.

And so, just as the light shifts and the rains pour down (we got totally soaked this past week in Atlanta, if you haven't heard the news--although my family and home is fine, there was much destruction and some lost lives around Atlanta, so please keep us in your thoughts), I shifted gears all week as well. Two other initiatives on which I've been working (in between things like work, taking care of family, and sleep!) are
Guaranteed Daily Recess for Our School Children.

Please, folks. If your child is one of the 40% of elementary school children in the United States who does not have daily recess (or is at risk of losing it), please stand up and speak out. Here is my Sustainable Dunwoody post about this (I particularly love the photo), which includes an excellent toolkit as support for this needed break in our children's day.

FYI, I was asked to be the chair of the Environmental Committee at the supposed new "green school" in my city. Not only do I think unstructured daily play time is the building block of environmental stewardship, but I said that I could not imagine the ideas I had being embraced if the school could not even assure me that all children would get guaranteed daily recess of at least 15 minutes. And also, something in my gut tells me this particular school is not where I am called to be right now (except for the usual support of my child and her classroom).

(An aside: I did my "life pie" recently, where I divided up a literal cherry pie to represent the 168 hours in the week--you take out sleep, work, chores, meals, and getting the kids from here to there and then decide how you want to spend your time to make the vision for your life a reality. I designated 14 hours a week for pro bono/volunteer projects and I intend to maximize the impact of those hours by only volunteering where I truly believe I can make a measurable, sustainable difference.)

The good news--our county's Board of Education is probably going to mandate guaranteed daily recess for at least 15 minutes, preferably outdoors, that cannot be taken away for any reason (including punishment or to finish up work), as early as January, 2010 (stay tuned). Other good news--my daughter's teacher is really trying to maintain daily recess in her classroom and I greatly appreciate the effort she is making even though the administration does not support it. I am also willing to check my child out for 15 minutes each day (if it comes to this) and discussed with the teacher what time of the day would be the least disruptive to do this. My daughter and I have also created a "Rainy Day Recess Kit" for the teacher that includes decks of cards, dice, checkers and chess.

FYI, I gave my ideas to the teacher who is in charge of forming the Environmental Committee to use as she and the eventual committee see fit. You may find these helpful in your child's school as well
The proposed Environmental Committee would help insure that the school adheres to the newly-adopted Go Green standards of DeKalb County Schools, as set forth in its Go Green Operating Manual .

Additionally, the Environmental Committee would aspire to research, create, and help implement components of the following initiatives through, first and foremost, the unyielding and continuous support of administration and teachers in conjunction with the hands-on, active participation of students from ideas through implementation. It will be aided, secondarily, by innovative business and institutional partnerships, grants, and parent volunteerism:

• A waste reduction initiative that includes classroom and general area recycling, a vermicompost system, and awareness-raising about reduced packaging at the point-of-purchase (representatives from Atlanta’s Zero-Waste Zone would be great guest presenters regarding this topic)

• A farm-to-fork initiative that includes the necessary three components of food cycle lesson integration, experiential school garden, and hands-on food preparation exposure (I have many connections to local organic farmers and others involved in urban agriculture who could help)

• A Clean Air initiative that includes a No Idling campaign and active participation in the Dunwoody-wide Safe Routes to School initiative to increase biking/walking participation ( a member of the City of Dunwoody Sustainability Commission is extremely active in this endeavor)

• A water conservation initiative that includes the cleanup and utilization of the creek, the promotion of toxin-free lawn care and cleaning supplies, and inclusion of rain harvesting devises such as rain barrels (non-profit groups such as the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeepers are great resources for things like this)

• An energy initiative that includes the exploration, creation and implementation of energy alternatives (such as retrofitting a bicycle to run a blender, or learning how and why to use a simple solar oven as used by refugees in Africa)

How to Start a Community Garden Near You

And finally, there are many groups of citizens who are trying desperately to start community gardens and hitting roadblocks at every turn. I wrote this predominantly to help other groups in my county, and have since adapted it for the Metro Atlanta Community Gardens social networking site I started, but I believe with just a few tweeks, you may find things helpful in this article for you as well
How to Start a Community Garden on Public Land

Thinking of starting a community garden, and eyeing that public park nearby? You’re not alone. Community gardens are flourishing nationwide as a terrific way for citizens to grow healthy food as well as community bonds. Many community gardens are formed on public land such as public parks. Public parks are wonderful gathering places with some valuable features that typically include restroom facilities, security, visibility, parking, and a convenient location as well as other recreational options to enjoy before or after gardening. Community gardens are particularly good at bringing people to a part of the park that might be currently underutilized, improving the environmental attributes of the land itself and the park in general, and creating a positive energy that is known to have community-improving ripple effects throughout the park and beyond.

Our metro Atlanta counties are beginning to recognize the benefits of community gardens and encourage citizen groups to start community gardens in county parks. They are coming up with different procedures specific to their counties that will help position each community garden for optimal success.

To submit a proposal to start a community garden in a county park in your community, I’d recommend you follow the guidelines of the American Community Gardening Association, with these additional tips learned from the formation of the Dunwoody Community Garden in Brook Run (the first community garden in a public park in DeKalb County).

1. Form a planning committee. This could be a group of friends or neighbors, but we recommend throwing a wider net to bring in passionate people with specific skills that may not be present in your current social network. Skills needed include: organizing, negotiating, communicating, building, fundraising and yes, of course, gardening. If your group is already a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, or you can organize under the umbrella of an existing non-profit organization, you will be able to apply for grants and accept donations that will be tax-deductible to donors.

2. Choose a site. You may have a “perfect spot” in mind, but give it a fresh look to be sure it has 6-8 hours of direct sunlight a day (consider what the spot will look like when the trees are full of leaves if you are viewing it at another time of the year), a gentle slope for drainage, ample and convenient parking, room for the number of garden beds you propose as well as compost bins, a cistern, wood chip piles, a shady spot for picnic tables and other possible future enhancements to the garden. Check to see if there is an available water supply. If not, your county may be able to help you through Administration and Watershed Management to explore the possibility of using an existing meter or tapping a new water line. Also, if the park in which you are considering starting a community garden has a master plan, see if the site you have in mind is designated as green space or if there is already another site indicated for a community garden.

3. Prepare a Request for Approval for a Community Garden in a County Park from your county’s Parks and Recreation Department. If no form currently exists in your county, prepare your own and list the names of the planning committee, describe the site, attach a diagram of the proposed community garden, and indicate any 501(c)3 associations you have or are pursuing. This is a good time to secure and outline any social justice relationships you want to be integral parts of the garden (such as designating a certain number of plots to be used by families in need, or donating a set portion of the produce to the Atlanta Community Food Bank or other needy organization). These relationships help the garden to achieve additional objectives, and serve as a strong role model for the community.

4. Organize your garden leadership and operating methods. Establish your board of directors; write by-laws, rules and regulations; and prepare a waiver for garden members to sign. This sounds overwhelming at first. However, the American Community Garden Association has comprehensive online examples and resources for you to use to do this. You can tailor what they have for your specific location and intended membership. See for the bylaws, rules and regulations, and waiver developed by the Dunwoody Community Garden at Brook Run. The more you discuss and establish at the beginning, the simpler things will be as you move forward. However, remember that a community garden is a living, breathing science experiment, and there will no doubt be need for adjustments as your garden develops. Be thorough, but open-minded. There are many paths to the same destination.

5. Involve the public. Once you receive approval from your county as a letter on official letterhead, you’re ready to prepare a press release with details about the community garden and how the public can sign up for a plot or get involved otherwise and submit it to your local newspaper. You may also want to start a website and/or a social networking site at this time so that people have a place to go for more information and to leave comments or connect with others to help make this garden a reality. It is also helpful to put a sign at the garden site and an info box with a friendly note explaining about the garden and how to get involved.

6. Prepare and develop the site. It’s time for work days! Those who signed up for garden plots are currently enthusiastic to get going, and there’s no better way to channel that energy than to have a couple workdays and move some mulch. Have your garden design ready. Stake out the main paths beforehand. Have free mulch delivered from tree removal companies. And then get people out there, pounding stakes to mark plots and moving mulch. The Dunwoody Community Garden at Brook Run got its entire foundation established in two 4-hour workdays.

7. Have an official opening. You’ve worked hard. You’ve created community excitement. And you’ve achieved the start of something really special. Commemorate and celebrate. Keep it simple. Have a little music, say a few words, issue lots of thanks, and then have a bring-your-own picnic lunch or share a celebratory cake. Take lots of pictures and video because every single day from this moment on the garden will change and you will want to look back on when it was nothing but dirt and dreams. Follow your dedication ceremony with a garden member meeting. Consider asking the police department to give a short overview of safety suggestions for community gardening (such as “garden with a buddy” and “call 911 if you see anything suspicious”). Require payment and signed waivers before allowing anyone to start working on their plots.

8. Connect with other community gardens in metro Atlanta. Learn from each other. To fence or not to fence? Are you experiencing any vandalism? How do you handle water? Are you offering classes to plot holders? What are your fees? Do you have a source for free seeds or tools? Have you applied for any grants? Do you have a shared tool shed or a bulletin board? Are you involving area schoolchildren? The list is endless. This social networking site was set up to help facilitate the sharing of information like this among community gardens in the metro Atlanta area. Take advantage of it, contribute to it, and help metro Atlanta grow!

At any step of this journey, feel free to reach out and ask for advice or encouragement. Just about anything you are considering doing has probably been done somewhere else in the Atlanta metro area (did you know there are more than 150 community gardens in the metro area?!) or somewhere else in the United States or world.

If you are the first community garden on public land in your county, you may have a bit of a hill to climb getting approval and getting started. But stick with it. You are doing something positive, and your county will most likely applaud your vision and your perseverance and want to help you make your community garden a true success. It may be limited in resources but boundless in respect for what you are trying to achieve right here in metro Atlanta.

For more details and resources, please see the American Community Gardening Association website

As for our new community garden? Its gentle slope helped it survive the storms. Now, we're mulching and replanting some stuff. And praying for sunshine.
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