Growing an Urban Eden

Growing an Urban Eden

Edible forests offer a new approach to food security.

Illustration Credit: Broccoli Forest, by Elaine Chen

In 2014, the World Economic Forum listed access to food—in both quantity and quality—as a top global worry over the next 10 years. Community gardeners in Seattle have translated that worry into action, launching a new kind of urban garden: a food forest.

Food forests are based on an idea from the late 1970s: permaculture, an agricultural system that mimics ecology. An edible woodland mimics a healthy forest ecosystem.

“Food forests have a certain canopy arrangement to capture sunlight and maximize energy, so plants work synergistically,” says Jacqueline Cramer, a permaculture educator and a founder of the Beacon Food Forest, which opened in Seattle last year. The volunteer-driven public garden is modeled after the ecology of Pacific Northwest forests as managed by indigenous people in the past, where perennials—berries, fruits, nuts, tubers, and other edible foods—grow in concert with minimal care. An edible forest elsewhere would mimic another kind of environment.

Food forests are not new. For centuries the Yuracaré people, for example, have collectively managed some of the last remaining forests in Bolivia for food and resources. Closer to Seattle, on Orcas Island, the 25-year-old Bullock’s Permaculture Homestead, which is privately owned but open to the public for tours and classes, includes a food forest. But what is new is consciously connecting the permaculture concept with another city movement that took off across North America in the 1970s, community gardening.

Today, New York City has more than 500 community gardens, with over 80 percent of them producing food. The most popular plants are annuals: tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. Seattle has 90 gardens in its city-run P-Patch Community Gardening Program. The two-acre Beacon Food Forest is an outgrowth of the program, though fundamentally different in plants and in practice.

Most community gardens are based on an allotment model: individuals care for a particular plot and work on shared areas together. A food forest shifts the balance of care to the group, says Laura Raymond, a coordinator with Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods. “That’s something the BFF has to figure out, how to organize a community to maintain all those collective areas,” she says. When the forest grows up, the community will harvest collectively, too.

The most challenging part of the process, Cramer says, has been working as a group. Weekend work parties number about 100 people, but a core of about 20 people dig in and get things done, with five volunteers putting in 15 to 20 hours a week.

“The ecology part is easy,” Cramer says. Community engagement might be an unexpected challenge, but Cramer calls it a gift and a reminder to practice mindfulness every step of the way. Volunteers often have disagreements. “But we come back to the table, and that’s the healing part. We can still accept our differences, and we can move on.”

A Food Forest Near You?

Food forest fans from all over the globe—Singapore, Poland, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and Brazil—have contacted the Beacon Food Forest founders asking for tips in creating an edible forest.

A group of three activists, including co-founder and permaculture educator Jacqueline Cramer, created a design for the forest and approached the community for support, eventually delivering a list of more than 400 supporters to city officials. Because they’re using public land, dealing with city bureaucracy is a necessary and time-consuming part of the process, Cramer says.

From there, it’s important to identify public areas that people already consider the commons, such as libraries, schools, and parks, and look for ways to make them more productive. For example, Beacon volunteers planted an edible landscape on Seattle Public Utilities land.

But more important is remembering the driving force behind a project like the Beacon Food Forest—the people. “It takes a core commitment, but then those people need to pass on the ownership to others,” Cramer says. “It’s about taking a step back and being mindful of language: Instead of me, it’s we.”

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