Urban Agriculture: The Promise of Plenty and the Menace of Maintenance, By Doniel Kaye

Urban agricultural spaces have the potential to greatly benefit the community in numerous ways. At the same time, facilitating the success of these endeavors is no walk in the park. I have been serving as a one of four volunteers for Earth’s Promise over the past month. As volunteers, we have been exposed to the rewards of the various endeavors of Earth’s Promise, as well as the obstacles and challenges to bringing its various goals to fruition.

It is important to understand the different avenues through which Earth’s Promise approaches urban agriculture, because these too have an impact on the benefits and difficulties of our project. Earth’s Promise facilitates gardens located at various absorption centers, which are located in urban neighborhoods. Here, in plots maintained by individuals, a variety of produce is flourishing. The produce grown in these plots supplements what families may buy in the supermarket, and provide familiar produce from their home countries. The new immigrants take pride in their individual plots, especially when so much of life in an absorption center is about being dependent upon other people. We have seen how these centers of cultivation encourage a spirit of cooperation among community members. These projects also have the potential to precipitate communal cohesiveness and local economic sustainability by giving the community unique assets and products to sell. This encompasses one of the missions of Earth’s Promise, to empower communities. The end goal is for the community to establish a system in which agricultural spaces can be maintained and improved while in the hands of community members with external support mechanisms fading into the background as primarily benefactors and secondary rather than primary caretakers. This central goal gives rise to the interest of Earth’s Promise in promoting a relationship toward urban agricultural projects in which the community is enticed and has a vested interest in caring for and up-keeping these green spaces.

Over the course of our time as volunteers, we have seen and taken part in a variety of urban agricultural projects, and witnessed how they vary in the degree to which they achieve the vision of facilitating a thriving community agricultural epicenter. In order to illustrate some of the challenges to making this dream a reality, it is necessary to distinguish between a couple different agricultural spaces. Some community gardens are divided into individual plots in which the owner is responsible for cultivation and up-keep. Within these gardens, there are communal spaces not assigned to individuals. Ostensibly, the onus is on helpful individual plot holders and other overseers to keep these spaces tidy. As volunteers, we have seen how despite these tacit obligations for maintaining communal spaces, they invariably become neglected and overgrown. These untidy spaces often encroach upon individual plots. Consequently, these neglected communal spaces are more than just a nuisance – they frustrate individual gardeners and obstruct the productivity of the garden as a whole.

We have helped to clean up these areas, but our efforts often leave us disconcerted. Though Earth’s Promise is committed to funding and maintaining these communal gardens, our manual labor produces only transient relief for the individual gardeners and the community at large, temporarily solving the maintenance dilemma facing these areas without producing any structural or dynamic changes. In-between volunteer visits, these spaces become overgrown and unkempt. Without contributions from individual plot holders and other community members, the gardens collectively cannot consistently be producing at their highest capacity – nurturing and nourishing both camaraderie and plant-life.

The enigma of maintenance is even more pronounced in communal gardens. At the beginning, these projects do a wonderful job of bringing the community together. However, individuals have very little to no interest in taking care of the public space between the initial planting time and harvesting period. Even if some altruistic community members wish to work on the garden, the daunting task of cleaning up a wildly overgrown space which is not consistently up-kept, might discourage them from doing any gardening.

Self-sufficiency is on the horizon. Earth’s Promise is working on establishing an urban farm, which contrasts from the community garden model in that it is designed to be productive without external support mechanisms. The urban farm is set to be underway this October near the Kalisher absorption center. Local businesses and agricultural support projects provide the demand for produce, and buttress and perpetuate gardening procedures. Urban farms remedy issues of food security, which are pervasive in urban areas, by preventing “food deserts” in areas in which affordable and nutritious food is not usually plentiful. Based on precedent, the implementation of the urban farm concept is likely to be successful in Beer Sheva. These farms have thrived in environmentally conscious American metropolises like Seattle. In addition to filling up neglected spaces, urban agricultural projects are most successful in places most hard hit by urban decay, serving as a viable avenue for ameliorating the problem. Urban farms still facilitate all the social benefits associated with community gardens; in this place of mutual value, people are encouraged to cooperate and act cordially with their neighbors. This project works to adjust perceptions toward urban agriculture, inspiring people to contribute and cooperate, while promoting the betterment of the entire community.

Working for Earth’s Promise has been eye opening for us all. Shvuat haadama envisages Ben Gurion’s dream of making the desert bloom. Its mission epitomizes the mantra of making something from nothing, literally converting garbage dumps into miniature versions of the Garden of Eden. These little paradises serve as paradigms for the future, and provide constant hope for a bright future. The work done by Earth’s Promise encapsulates how proper motivation and careful planning is critically important in propagating positive change in a community. At a minimum, we will leave Israel with a profound sense of gratitude for the great efforts being put forth to improve the lives of needy communities and areas in Israel, and will hopefully be motivated to redouble our own effort to make a positive difference.

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