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Let a thousand habaneros bloom

October 02, 2005|Robert Gottlieb | Robert Gottlieb, professor of urban and environmental policy at Occidental College, is coauthor of "The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City."

LOS ANGELES needs more gardens to break up its concrete-laden, auto-dominated landscape. Not just the type of garden your grandmother tended but community gardens, school gardens, rooftop gardens, gardens at day-laborer centers. Wherever there's a patch of arable land with water nearby -- vacant lots, alleyways, backyards and frontyards -- a garden should grow.

About 70 community gardens have already sprouted in L.A. County. Gardens enrich half the schools in the L.A. Unified School District, and hundreds of smaller ones grow in public and private places. The biggest is on a 14-acre lot in South Los Angeles. More than 300 gardeners, or campesinos, as many call themselves, grow crops there. It is also a community-building enterprise -- free of drugs, gangs and graffiti. But a long-standing dispute with a developer who wants to build warehouses on the property could uproot the garden.

Such gardens are an afterthought among policymakers, developers and politicians. That's a shame. Community gardens can lower temperatures raised by large paved areas. They are a source of food, encourage physical activity and attract wildlife. About 45 years ago, urban historian Lewis Mumford said gardens can bring "life into the city, so that its poorest inhabitants will have not merely sun and air but some chance to touch and feel and cultivate the earth." During World War II, U.S. gardens produced as much as 40% of the fruits and vegetables that fed the nation. In the 1970s, community gardens reflected the rise of a new environmentalism that sought to reintroduce the notion of nature -- and growing food -- in the city. Today, gardens are especially prominent in L.A.'s immigrant communities.

One way the city can increase the number of gardens -- and ensure the future of those in cultivation -- is to buy land or convert city property to their use. There are precedents.

In the late 1990s, a city advisory group on community food, security and hunger recommended initiatives to expand and make gardens fixtures in L.A. But neither the mayor nor City Council was interested, and the group disbanded. The council later established the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust to purchase property for small-scale gardens, often in the form of pocket parks. Regrettably, the city's planning bureaucrats failed to incorporate the idea into their policies, and now they don't even discuss gardens when deciding how to use city land. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa says he wants a greener L.A. His appointments to the Planning Commission and his choices for planning director and deputy mayor for energy and the environment will tell us whether he means it.

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