This is a repost of an article that original appeared on the MKCREATIVE Nonprofit Marketing Blog in December, 2010.
Shortly after Miriam Avins and her family moved to Baltimore in 2003, she and her neighbors started a community garden after a dilapidated house next door to them was taken down. A few years later when someone wanted to put up seven condos with underground parking, she became concerned about the fate of many community gardens in the city.
“What struck me was the way people could put in this type of work for many years – much more time than we had done – and still have no more security in terms of the land remaining available for the community. Gardens bring beauty, food, and often even lower crime. Yet a garden can disappear in an instant.”
“I was amazed how much interest there was in the neighborhood [to start the Homestead Harvest], and the support that we got from the Parks and People Foundation,” says Miriam. “It was a lot of work, but the resources that came together to make it happen were beyond what I could have imagined.”, of the University of Maryland Extension program, and the
Soon, she found herself devoted to the idea of founding a non-profit land trust to preserve Baltimore’s community-managed open spaces. She applied for an Open Society Institute Community Fellowship in 2007, and by the time she received it she and a small core board had founded , registered with the state, and, with help from the Community Law Center, applied for 501(c)3 status.
Many of Baltimore’s neighborhoods were built without important amenities. In the past, community gardens and green spaces were often viewed as an interim use – something nice to do until the land could generate some cash. So for Baltimore Green Space, the first order of business was to learn how to transfer land (with the Upper Fell’s Point community garden as a guinea pig) and to work with City government to establish a clear, affordable way for land trusts to preserve established gardens and green spaces. This was accomplished by December 2009, along with a pilot transfer of two wonderful community spaces: The Pigtown Horseshoe Pit and the Duncan Street Miracle Garden, a half-acre organic fruit and vegetable garden.
Miriam credits the current interest in sustainability for the City’s growing support of community gardens and green space. This makes it much easier to talk to with policymakers about how neighborhoods need lots of different resources. Miriam believes that in a city like Baltimore, where there is so much vacant land, it makes sense to say, “Wow. People in their spare time, often using their own resources, are making their neighborhoods more functional. It was helpful to talk about research showing that the value of the houses throughout the neighborhood is going to be higher when gardens are part of the plan.”
“The Sustainability Commission and the have made an enormous difference. really put his energy into creating the Office of Sustainability. By the time I sat down to talk with the city, they were already ‘there.’”
Baltimore Green Space had a grassroots foundation, with an initial board of 4 gardeners, two from the Upper Fells Point neighborhood and two from Miriam’s own neighborhood. They found support from , and Miriam’s OSI fellowship, which allowed her to put more time into the organization and expand its Board. Their offices are hosted by Parks & People, which puts them in the middle of the best green networking in the city. Little by little, outreach meetings extended their circle. Through a lot of networking and sitting down with people, the group built a base. Now that they’ve put the basic preservation process in place, they are beginning systematic outreach and communication with a goal of increasing applications to the land trust and preserving more open spaces.
Little by little, outreach meetings extended their circle. Through a lot of networking and sitting down with people, the group built a base. Now, having a relationship with the city and its policies, they’re moved toward a systematic outreach and communication – processing applications and working on preservation.
With, neighborhoods apply to BGS to preserve a specific site, which must have a ‘Site Manager’ – the person in the neighborhood who, as a volunteer, makes sure the site is well run. They also require a neighborhood ‘partner,’ some organization active in the neighborhood. After BGS reads the application and decides to move forward with due diligence, they assess whether the site meets the criteria for preservation. Assuming all goes well, BGS then works to acquire the property, which can sometimes take a while. Then they enter into a long-term agreement with the community partner and site manager that spells out everyone’s responsibilities.
“Our responsibility is to own the site and to provide liability insurance and technical support. The site manager’s job is to make sure the site is well cared for. The community partner’s job is to provide support in whatever way makes sense for that relationship and all the partners.”
BGS is also working to let City government know of the city gardens and green spaces that it not know of . “There are about 17,000 vacant lots in the city, and the city owns about 5,000 of them. This creates an information problem for the City:s they simply cannot know which “vacant lots” are actually in community use.”
BGS has been working on a this survey for some time, but now new technology has given them a boost: smart phones, such as iPhones and Droids. “We send people out to specific addresses and have them take a photo. The photo has two pieces of data put together – a picture of what’s there, and exact geographic information. Used together, we can confirm which projects are active and where they are. Thehelped us develop all this.”
In terms of social media, the group has its own web site, but has also developed a Facebook presence. BGS’s Outreach Committee had recently suggested putting out a newsletter, but their younger members were openly resistant to the work and likely dryness. “That’s fine,” Miriam thought,” but we don’t have any communications, and we need to communicate what we are doing.” So the Outreach Committee responded with the suggestion of setting up.
Miriam says she resisted this at first. “I wasn’t on Facebook myself, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take the time to keep up with it. But then we came up with the plan to have a Facebook page that would have a number of relatively short and interesting pieces about our sites. Once we started the page I quickly saw the value. The Facebook page is a great way to link to articles that are of interest but that don’t belong on our website because they aren’t about Baltimore Green Space specifically. They also do periodic blasts of material first published via Facebook for those who don’t use the site.
For those communities interested in starting gardens of their own, Miriam offers two pieces of advice. “First, get to know resources already out there. Tap into them before you stretch out on your own. I strongly recommend that everyone get in touch with the(MD), a program run by the Parks and People Foundation and the University of Maryland Extension. They have a number of levels of membership and all are inexpensive. Community gardens get resources such as seeds and plants at give-away days and access to tool sheds. Members receive a calendar that shows all the workshops and classes available throughout the city, so instead of looking at five or six different groups’ calendars, you can find it all in one place. That’s new in the last couple of years, and you can thus learn a lot before you even start working.”
Secondly, Miriam recommends talking with people in the community, people who pass by the space. “Find out if others share your vision, then open channels of communication to share that vision.”
As we move into the season of dreary days and barren landscapes, it’s especially wonderful to know that thanks to Miriam and the BGS, spring will be bringing a plethora of food, flowers, and never-ending green space and the hope for even brighter days ahead.
Written by Cate Richard. Interview and additional research by Christopher Gardner.