On today’s 51%, we explore the role of community gardens in urban areas. And we’ll meet some of the scientists who are purifying the soils the gardens grow in.
Melissa Bromley And The City Garden
Have you ever been walking around in a busy city, one maybe strewn with a few runaway pieces of garbage or with broken glass you have to yank your dog away from – to glance up and see a community garden? A secret haven of plants and vegetables, with little signs that say “be-LEAF in each other”?
Who owns it? Why did it sprout, literally, in the first place?
One such place is Collard City Garden in Troy, New York. Melissa Bromley is the Development Director at The Sanctuary for Independent Media – a branch of which is called Collard City Growers, where community members can get their hands dirty and take home free produce.
“It's an educational project primarily,” Bromley said. “So we have workshops there about you know, how to keep your own chickens or compost or we have done bio remediation in the past like growing sunflowers to help pull heavy metals out of the soil. And I should say it's not all food. You know, a lot of this is plants to encourage pollinators and biodiversity native plants. Some of it is herbs for medicinal use. Indigo for artistic purposes. But yes, we have a ton of food right now -- that asparagus is popping off and later on in the season we'll have grapes and hops and gooseberries and currants, and you name it, we got it. Kale, tomatoes, the whole thing – and chickens.”
I met the chickens. But unlike the fresh asparagus, I did not get to take one home.
According to the Department of Agriculture, about 54 million people, or about 17% of the U.S. population, live in areas that are low-income and more than half a mile from the nearest grocery store or at least 10 miles from the nearest supermarket: food deserts.
In addition, about 9% of all housing units in the United States do not have a vehicle, and 4.0 percent of all housing units are at least half a mile from a store and without a vehicle.
Standing on 6th Avenue in north Troy, Bromley says if it weren’t for the community garden, residents in this area might not have access to fresh produce at all.
“So just on the south end of the block is a boarded up Stewart’s that left this neighborhood a couple years ago,” Bromley said. “And just on the top end of our block is Whitney Health Clinic -- that moved up to Price Chopper Plaza north of us. And in the meantime, we just keep investing here on this block right here.”
Bromley is referring to Whitney Young Health.
Nature Lab has its own building a few houses down from the community garden, and Bromley says they’re in the process of remodeling the two-story to host more programming. Right now there is a science lab on the first floor for Nature Lab’s “Water Justice Fellows.” Bromley says three young women from Lansingburgh High School in Troy will be collaborating with a program called “River Keeper” in a three-year fellowship to test water from the Hudson River. Bromley says they plan to use the lab for community classes as well, but she felt they could do more with the upstairs.
Bromley says they asked residents what new projects the building should house.
“And one of the messages we got from the community was that environmental justice in this neighborhood isn’t environmental justice unless you’re talking about trauma and physical health disparities. Actual, on the ground, health disparities,” Bromley said. “And so out of that came what we now call the ‘People’s Health Sanctuary’ and that will be on the second floor of this building. So this building is the Nature Lab building. Science lab, classroom space, and an outdoor deck area.”
Bromley says there will be a doctor’s office too.
“The second floor is going to have room for a practitioner,” Bromley said. “We got this message from our community that this is the kind of programming that would be of value at the same moment where this doctor started hanging around. And he and a lot of other doctors feel there are a lot of gaps in what they can do through their job at the hospital or in a clinic and have been looking for ways to find new avenues to bring healing and care into communities. And so the ‘People’s Health Sanctuary’ came on board and it’s still very much in this generative stage.”
Bromley says the idea of the Health Sanctuary predates the pandemic. She says when COVID-19 hit, everything shifted and the need for a community healthcare center became dire.
“We had programming lined up like, ‘How to take your own blood pressure,’ that shifted to, ‘How to make your own mask.’ And then over the past year it changed even to grief programming. And dealing with grief. And how layers upon grief that people in this neighborhood might be experiencing,” Bromley said. “And so the second floor will have this practitioner’s room for seeing a doctor one on one or maybe an acupuncturist, an herbalist – and there’s also going to be a group meeting space for support groups to come together and talk about loss or mental health.”
And of course – a kitchen.
“Which will definitely incorporate the food we grow on the block and we’ll talk about the role that healthy eating plays in physical health disparities but also emotional and mental health,” Bromley said. “And the long term plan – we raised all the money for the first floor and we’re in the process of raising money for the second floor. And ultimately, the dream is to have a wrap-around porch here with an outdoor classroom that leads directly in, through the alley, back to the gardens.”
Bromley says “The Sanctuary for Independent Media” isn’t giving up on this area – even though some stores seem to be.
“There are not grocery stores that are close, the Price Chopper that was closest closed last year,” Bromley said. “And, wonderfully, the Troy Farmers Market moved in there for the winter season when they couldn't be outdoors. But that's still not close to here. And it's true that getting access to healthy whole food is not easy here.”
Bromley says the garden is more than food, it’s a way to bring residents together, especially when the COVID-19 pandemic has people wary of one another.
“But once you're outside, and you’ve got your hands in the dirt, it changes everything,” Bromley said. “And then once you are harvesting food and preparing it and cooking it together, that really has an element for deepening relationships.”
She says hundreds of community members are involved in the garden in some way.
“Some people may come back again and again, and many people do other people just stop by, you know, and say, ‘What is this? Are those chickens?’ Or the chickens escape, and all of a sudden, you know, the gardens are out into the neighborhood and we're meeting new people that way,” Bromley said.
Neighborhoods that need these gardens the most are often the most polluted.
Studies are now indicating that the most polluted urban areas yielded higher mortality rates from COVID-19, and other health issues.
So how can you grow food in soil that has been polluted for decades? Turns out – there’s an architect for that.
Mia Rogers And The Power Of Mushrooms
23-year-old Mia Rogers is a graduate student at nearby Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Rogers is working on her master’s in architectural science and her thesis centers around a project to purify urban soil so that more community gardens can grow.
“Cleaning up essentially, our landscapes within our urban environments,” Rogers said.
Rogers grew up on Long Island and says she sees a need for sustainability and remediation. She says urban expansion led to polluted landscapes all over the United States.
“So within our soil systems, there are a lot of heavy metals, diesel fuels, and essentially just things that are really toxic for humans to be exposed to,” Rogers said. “Where soil within our communities, especially in gardens, can be ingested through dusts, through the food that we eat. And essentially, I've been focusing on community gardens for low income communities, and how to clean the areas that they're living in due to the disproportionate exposure that most low income communities are within their neighborhoods, due to just very, very, racially, charged urban planning practices over the past half century or more.”
Rogers says community gardens are more than just nice to look at.
“They provide a lot of people with accessible means to nutrition, which, within local low income communities, it's kind of hard,” Rogers said. “So a lot of the time, these communities are neighborhoods that are very far from like, healthy and fresh produce. So essentially, community gardens are a really great form of activism in a way where, you know, people can essentially be self-sufficient in that manner, where they can essentially rely on their own gardening skills, especially when they're taught in these community programs to rely on, you know, their own two hands to have access to two really essential forms of nutrition such as vegetables and different herbs for their cooking -- it all boils down to making these environments as safe as possible for these communities.”
One of the most deadly weapons against pollutants? Mushrooms.
“There's this form of soil remediation called micro remediation,” Rogers said. “It's a form of bio remediation. You're able to use plant processes to uptake these chemicals embedded in the soil system. And mushrooms are able to actually naturally do this within forests. They essentially metabolize toxins that are threatening plants within the forest system. So there's recently been this technology developed over the past 40 years or so. Originally it was developed by this mycologist named Paul Stamets -- he discovered that he was able to take these mushroom root networks, which is the mycelium, and he's able to transfer it to a site to allow for mycelium to grow into the soil. And essentially, the mycelium is able to take the toxins that are embedded in the soil, metabolize them, and expunge them, returning the soil back to a healthy state.”
Rogers is developing a burlap mat, laced with mycelium and embedded with flowers (for a little extra detoxifying oomph), that you just roll out onto a dirt pile.
Rogers says the product is still in the research phase with no firm timeline for when it might be finished, but she’s working with a think tank in France, called “LUMA,” to get it produced.
She says the more plants grown, the more fighting power to purify the air. Two birds with one stone – or rather, two pollutants with one mycelium mat.
Mae-ling Lokko And The Purifying Moringa Plant
How did Rogers get into the bio remediation architecture game?
Meet 33-year-old Mae-ling Lokko – Rogers’ professor at RPI and director of the Building Sciences program in the School of Architecture. She has a Bachelor’s of Art in architecture, a Master’s of Science, and a PhD in architectural sciences.
She teaches environmental technology courses, including how building sciences are changing. Lokko says her students partner with the Troy Community Land Bank and Habitat for Humanity to retrofit old properties. She has dedicated a whole studio to this.
“So these are buildings that have been foreclosed, and are in, you know, sort of a state of disrepair,” Lokko said. “And that studio is very much building up our notions of care and repair, and investigating what new forms of living, you know, cohabiting, particularly in this period, where we've seen a huge migration from New York City, to a lot of upstate towns. And, you know, students also from all around the world are around the university campus. What new forms of dwelling could emerge in that studio?”
Lokko says her students were tasked with surveying some rundown buildings and coming up with a new design toward a cleaner, more sustainable community. Lokko says a pair of two female students really surprised her.
“They were amazing in their concept for what this building in the middle of this block in North Central Troy could be -- they sort of proposed a clothes upcycling commercial program on the ground floor. And it kind of stretched to the back of the building, which engaged the alley that we have in, you know, many of these blocks here in Troy,” Lokko said. “And I thought it was such a great proposal, because it dealt with the domestic, you know, you there's sort of a rethinking of rituals and the community scale. How do you dispose of things you don't want anymore? And how can a larger home-based enterprise emerge from that? And how can the building support that? The face of the building was now in the alley, it was activating the alley, there was sort of a safe haven for a lot of activities -- not just for the actual commercial business, but a social life to emerge at the back.”
Lokko says spending the past year-plus learning remotely has changed how architecture students see the spaces they’re designing.
“They’ve started to engage more intimately with these issues in surprising ways,” Lokko said. “I mean, how do you begin to socialize after you know, we come out of this period? How might we treat air in our buildings differently? How can you have privacy but also feel contact with your neighbor? How do you build a sense of community, you know, in places like North Central Troy or just around the RPI campus? So, there are a lot of social issues with this and technological as well. So for sure, I think that air security, you know, community building, health and well-being is going to be forefront.”
Not Your Grandmother’s Moringa
Lokko’s father is from Ghana and her mother is from the Philippines. She lived in both countries growing up. She has a startup company in Ghana called Willow, which takes waste from agriculture and develops new applications for it.
“Some building materials, some is water treatment technologies -- and it kind of tries to look at any output from the building, or from agriculture as a resource for another lifecycle,” Lokko said.
Lokko says one of the most common industries in Ghana is textiles. She says she’s been working on a project for eight years to help a fair trade company called “Global Mamas” find a use for its toxic textile wastewater.
“And in order to treat it, my company was hired to look at other forms of affordable and non-toxic, you know, treatment technologies,” Lokko said. “And so I'd been looking at moringa, which is sort of plant native to a lot of tropical areas -- typically used for tea and oil.”
Lokko’s doctorate centered on using agricultural waste to develop building materials. She recalls her dad telling her that he would wash his hands in moringa soaked water.
“The waste product of that is sort of like this flour substance, which is very good at basically making all the bad stuff in the textile wastewater clump together and sink, cleaning it in the process, at least below EPA level requirements,” Lokko said. “And that waste coming out of agriculture is used to treat their wastewater, and then the sludge from that we're investigating for other applications. So you know, it might be a building block, it might be a fertilizer, we're still developing that but there's sort of a couple of layers of, you know, outputs becoming resources or another commercial pipeline.”
I myself have lived in Ghana. I taught English in rural villages and helped build houses. I also taught choir and music.
I tell Lokko I remember the women carrying water from rivers, stomping mud, and cooking alongside me – with newborn babies slung on their backs. Lokko says this is common in Ghana, and part of why she is working to make the textile industry safer.
“Like the women are literally [carrying babies] on their backs when they're sitting on a low stool and dying. And cooking happens the same way,” Lokko said. “I think the project where we were developing that wastewater chemical sort of expanded actually to look at how the women were working and how to improve the ergonomic and the health of not just a mother but her child, because you can imagine fumes coming off of dyes or, you know, particulate matter from cooking, that's being inhaled right over a mother’s shoulder. And so the project kind of expanded to redesign the entire batik station layout. For that very consideration -- to reduce stress on the woman's body.
Build Me Up, Literally
Lokko says the role of the architect is expanding.
“I think there's a broader picture here, where there is everything from how our land, whatever is grown from the land gets transformed into building materials, you know, whatever comes out of the house, in terms of waste, in terms of energy, all of that stuff,” Lokko said. “And so I think I'm more interested in how an architect might be able to navigate a larger value chain, as opposed to just staying in that one, or you're sort of providing sort of services to a client. There are other non-clients, whether that's the environment, or other stakeholders in you know, the urban or rural environment that you can work with. So there's an activism which I feel has become quite loud during this COVID period causes us to reflect on what our discipline means and what its impact is on the world.”
Lokko says part of climate justice is looking at the materials we use to build our living spaces and how they got there.
“For example, where I'm from in Ghana, there's the predominance of concrete and glass,” Lokko said. “And you think about glass as being a material that conducts heat really, really well into the interior. And concrete is super good at like absorbing that heat, and then at night, radiating that heat into the interior. So you got a period at night, when temperature has dropped, humidity’s high, but your materials are the sources of heat, just making the inside incredibly uncomfortable. And I think the reason why people build with it is because it's so attached to this idea of being modern with being progressive, it also has to do with class. And so there's this huge socialization of those materials -- that is hard to overcome. And it also ties back to how comfort has been defined for us, like you put on your air conditioner, you're going to get cold, dry air, very predictively in a short period of time. And when you think of alternative materials, like you know, breathable, fibrous materials that we've used in shading devices, that's relatively slow, you know, your body has to adapt and adjust. And there are all these spaces like verandas that help you move into the interior. So I think it's complex. I think that, yeah, we're dealing with social and cultural issues, even though the technologies are there to mitigate our climatic loads, what we choose ends up being influenced very much by, you know, social class, cultural values. I think we are close to [spending] 100% of the time indoors. And the air that we breathe, the materials we surround ourselves with have a disproportionate impact on how you feel, your health, and how you socialize.”
Rogers says architects get a bad rap. She says people assume architects are unfurling gawdy blueprints of 30-floor casinos every day, making millions. But she says there are so many other fields.
“I've found a real passion towards just being able to focus upon the communities that we're designing for,” Rogers said. “And I think that it's definitely not something ignored within the field of architecture, but I think it's something that we definitely need to, you know, focus more on, moving towards the future. Just more social, and both socially sustainable and ecologically sustainable architecture. Because, you know, moving towards climate change, and along with so many of the social changes occurring right now in our society, I think it's important to kind of hop on that and be able to, as a designer, use this skill to be a form of activism and a form of community advocacy for people who have been often times, you know, ignored by society as a whole.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, air quality improves as areas become less urban, and rural counties experience fewer unhealthy air-quality days than large central metropolitan counties, likely because of fewer air pollution sources. The CDC says these findings suggest a continued need to develop more geographically targeted, evidence-based interventions to prevent morbidity and mortality associated with poor air and water quality.
Local governments are turning their attention toward building more affordable housing in less polluted areas, especially after witnessed the health disparities of the pandemic. But for those who can’t move, or don’t want to uproot their homes, these women in biodiversity and architecture will be working to clean up the ones they have.