Can One Community Self-Sufficiency Initiative Really Do All This?

Can One Community Self-Sufficiency Initiative Really Do All This?

By Shel Horowitz

What if a single action could: get troubled teens off the streets and into something productive—and develop their entrepreneurship skills in the process…provide fresh local organic food to inner-city people with no other access to quality produce…clean up a blighted neighborhood vacant lot and spark a caring community spirit? What if that action could be done without any significant government or corporate resources, other than a space to have it?

Sound like a lot to do at once? Oddly enough, it’s probably easier to create a single action that accomplishes multiple goods than to create a program that requires massive intravenous injections of outside aid to address only one of those goals. (And this is a sustainability principle that’s true in many areas: energy, transportation, manufacturing, and more.)

This particular set of objectives can all be met by creating urban community gardens, and any business owner can benefit by facilitating their creation. Your own property values go up, risk of crime and vandalism goes down, and you add to your standing in your home community.

All you need to do is find some neighborhood leaders who’ll get the project going, and provide a quarter-acre or so of unused land (ideally, a parcel that can be expanded as the project succeeds)—or even an appropriately engineered rooftop.

Successes are happening all over the country.[1] A few among many:

  • 25 kids, ages 9-17, run the Brightmoor Youth Garden on Detroit’s west side, start to finish. Last year, they planted, maintained, harvested and sold 1,300 pounds—$2,700 worth of—produce. And this is only one of numerous local food  projects in Detroit.[2]
  • In Richmond, California (near San Francisco), a community group called Urban Tilth has two farms based at schools and is planning to hire 26 kids to plant and manage an orchard. One of these farms involves 30 students in a class called “Urban Ecology and Food Systems,” whose curriculum integrates lessons from the garden into the classroom.[3]
  • The city of Cleveland, hit hard by the recession, has 3,300 acres of vacant land and 15,000 vacant buildings within city limits. Rather than blast big swaths through the neighborhoods in the traditional urban renewal “solutions,” the city is reclaiming 15 parcels in a pilot project to grow its own food—adding to the 175 community gardens and 40 for-profit market gardens already in existence. Bobbi Reichtell, senior vice president for programs of Neighborhood Progress Inc. (the group coordinating the effort) has an ambitious goal: returning $800 million a year to the local economy by raising the percentage of locally grown food in Cleveland from 2 percent to 10 percent.[4]
  • Nuestra Raices, a longstanding community group in depressed Holyoke, Massachusetts, has started an urban farm and several spin-off businesses. As its farmers gain skills in the business world, the organization helps them start mini-farms of their own, and new farmers take their place on the original land.[5] Interestingly enough, Nuestras Raices itself was founded by a group of community gardeners.
  • In Portland, Oregon, 3000 residents work the city’s community gardens, and another 1000 are on a waiting list.[6]
  • On the rooftops of the neighborhood once written off as “Fort Apache,” Sustainable South Bronx is growing food, extending the lives of the buildings, and slashing energy use.[7]

If this multiplicity of benefits could make a huge difference in your community, consider helping one get started. Maybe your corporate headquarters has a sunny section of lawn that could become garden space (and perhaps reduce the health risks to your employees from pesticide use)—or your retail location has an unused roof. Do you happen to have a skilled gardener on staff who’d like to volunteer a few hours to train neighborhood kids and get the project going? Can such an initiative tie in to zero-waste, buy-local or other green projects you’re already doing?

And can you benefit by branding your firm in your community as an advocate for jobs, entrepreneurship, improving the environment, healthy fresh food, and re-skilling our youth?

Shel Horowitz, shel at, shows you how to “reach green, socially conscious consumers with marketing that has THEM calling YOU.” He writes the Green And Profitable/Green and Practical columns and is the primary author of Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green (John Wiley & Sons, 2010).


[1] The author thanks Johanna Halbeisen of Good News Radio for bringing several of these stories to his attention.