Formerly a city garbage dump in the middle of a low-income San Francisco neighborhood, the site that St. Mary’s Urban Youth Farm now occupies and beautifies, was once a blight on the community. In the mid 1990’s neighbors along with local gardening activists organized to turn this wasted land into a community asset.
Cheerful and informative, Naomi Goodwin, director of St. Mary’s Urban Youth Farm was kind enough to talk with me about the goings on at the farm, and the story she told was one of transition.
Since 1995 when ground was broken on this garden, the space has served to improve the health and lives of the community. Despite recent funding shifts away from community gardening projects, area residents have continued to recognize and benefit from the farm’s bounty. Youth volunteers work alongside trained gardeners to produce food that is sold at discounted rates in local farmers markets. The young volunteers are trained in skills that they can utilize and market the rest of their lives, while the community receives the benefits of affordable locally grown organic produce.
Birds, butterflies, bees, and other local fauna find a home
in the native plants that hold the hillside in place, all the while compost bins overflow and the blades of the windmill turn lazily in the soft breeze. Walking into this garden was like seeing a dream come true.
Several local organizations work with the land at St. Mary’s. While various groups of volunteers tend to the crops, others work to keep the beehives buzzing.
Naomi impressed me with her sense for the overall health of the space. “We have so many volunteer’s here that sometimes things get out of balance.” Naomi explained, “We used to get a lot more migratory birds stopping by the pond, but since more of our land has gone to food production, and less to native plants, the system is out of balance and we aren’t providing enough habitat to entice them here as much.”
The full vision for the space has not yet been realized. Physical changes such as adding a water pump to the windmill. Once the windmill is pumping, then water from Isle creek pond, which sits in the middle of the farm, can be used on the crops. Organizational shifts away from agency to agency competition for land use and towards a more collaborative approach are also needed before the farm functions to it’s highest potential.
Despite this room for improvement, St. Mary’s Urban Youth Farm is an example of excellence in landscaping. Transitioning this space from a dump to an urban farm has proven to be an enormous benefit to the community. Gardeners everywhere can learn from these neighbors good work, and those of us lucky enough to have our own little corner of the earth to shape, should heed the good example of the folks at St. Mary’s. Wherever we can we need to turn open urban space into an educational growing space, and a habitat for earthlings of all stripes.
In Minneapolis and St. Paul our yards and parks give us green space on nearly every block. I hope for all our sake that many more of us here at home begin to recognize our unique responsibility as citizens of these gorgeously green cities to preserve, and maintain the lush vibrancy of our home towns.