Richmond’s built environment bears the scars of racial inequality inherent in slavery, Jim Crow discrimination and economic marginalization. We see the ripple effects in who has access to healthy food. We see the ripple effects in who lives in urban heat islands, where summer heat is magnified by impervious surfaces and minimal tree canopy. We see the ripple effects in who has resources to beautify residential areas. We see the ripple effects in the disparity that exists for black and brown people because of industrial pollution. There is an opportunity to mitigate these harsh realities through collaboration, specifically through place-making and its emphasis on equitable processes that regenerate public greenspaces by working with the community instead of doing for them.
Place-making is a process-oriented approach to planning, design, and management of public spaces. Place-making capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and wellbeing. Regenerative place-making – the transformation of blighted city space into thriving, safe, multi-dimensional public greenspace – can address a multitude of health equity issues at once. Such transformation requires working with community residents as well as municipal, nonprofit partners and philanthropic investment in the planning, designing and implementation of community places.
Historically, community development decisions have been made in a top-down fashion in Richmond: local government and its partners have developed policies and programs and made land use decisions with limited insight from affected community members. Community members have seldom been offered opportunities to shape policies and implementation plans that influence transformation of the built environment within their own neighborhoods.
A contemporary movement toward social justice must advance health equity through regenerative place-making. Tangible changes in the built environment of marginalized communities will require collaboration and relationship-building across the lines of race and class. Place-making as a process; when implemented equitably, is inherently a working with process instead of a doing for that emphasizes community assets, visions and indigenous narratives as the foundational ingredients for success. Our communities need leaders that are effective in facilitating place-making projects that result in more equitable community outcomes: increased social cohesion and social capital; improved physical and psychological well-being; improved sense of place; increased community satisfaction and civic engagement; and increased access to healthy food and progress toward community revitalization.
For the past 16 years, I have stewarded Happily Natural Day, an African centered festival dedicated to cultural identity, holistic health and social change. Its inception was disruptive. Even before the explosion of the natural hair industry, Happily Natural Day was engaging audiences regarding inferiority complexes within the black community. By blending informative lectures and workshops with musicians and performers from across the country and globe, Happily Natural Day has become as staple event for the black cultural communities throughout the Mid-Atlantic Region. The festival ‘s focus on culinary arts has inspired health changes within communities of color by promoting culturally relevant plant-based food-ways while simultaneously providing small businesses with an opportunity to launch and test products in the festival’s African marketplace.
My grassroots, ground up involvement developing the festival inspired my work in urban agriculture. Working with black farmers who served as presenters and vendors in the festival market, we developed a pop-up market in communities of color geographically designated as food deserts. Those relationships evolved into the development of community gardens; school gardens, urban farms, orchards and indoor farms. One area that has eluded me is how to successfully access the levels of philanthropic investment necessary to cultivate sustainable collaborations for sustainable urban agriculture and green infrastructure. The goal is and has always been finding multi-dimensional uses for vacant lots within communities of color, to address the root causes of concentrated poverty. Community ownership and “working with” are embedded within the practice of community greening to achieve sustainable impact. However, those with wealth have either been elusive, outside of our circles of influence or intimidated by our intentional focus on race, cultural identity and social justice – up until recently.
As an activist I spent the first 10 years of my career developing programs targeting qualitative metrics such as raising awareness. My life changed when I decided to start working quantitatively as I focused on urban agriculture as a tool to building community’s capacity to solve their own problems specifically related to health and now more intentionally in the built landscape environment. Since building that first garden in 2012, my journey has evolved towards building deeper collaborations consistent with my prior work dedicated to affirming African Descendant cultural identity; urban greening and agriculture; and collaboration for collective impact that advances racial equity.
As a result of this work, two years ago I took on a new role as Community Engagement Coordinator for Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, where I was charged with the development of programs to extend the garden “beyond its walls”. The Ginter Urban Gardener Program is informed and inspired by years of working in urban communities developing green infrastructure. The Ginter Urban Gardeners are a corps of community volunteers recruited and trained by Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden to lead urban greening initiatives in the marginalized neighborhoods where they live.
Through a philosophy of working with instead of doing for, the program is sowing seeds of change in Jackson Ward, Church Hill, the East End and Fulton by cultivating community engagement to create urban greenspace. The program teaches best practices in sustainable agriculture, urban landscape design, project management and volunteer coordination, empowering Richmond’s most vulnerable populations to affect positive and sustainable change in their own communities. It is an exercise in community building, communication, and collaboration across often insular and isolated public and private entities, and an effort to increase local capacity to accomplish urban greening projects that are often beyond the reach and resources of residents or local government.
The Ginter Urban Gardener Program empowers citizens to leverage their own resources to build better neighborhoods by working with local organizations and passionate people who share a common vision for vibrant urban ecology. Using a grassroots, asset-based approach to community development, and, working in collaboration with community stakeholders and volunteers for collective regional impact, Ginter Urban Gardeners focus on neighborhood-by-neighborhood results. The program develops stakeholder engagement by investing in residents who serve as community liaisons, project managers and volunteer coordinators. Dedicated to building trust and inspiring others, they help cultivate knowledge, pride, self-sufficiency, confidence, a spirit of engagement and a sense of belonging in Richmond’s most marginalized neighborhoods.
By integrating trust building principles with community development initiatives, Ginter Urban Gardeners also aim to engage residents in building the authentic relationships which will foster cultural change. As trainees learn to facilitate difficult conversations, understand the impact that community history has on contemporary issues, honor inclusivity and diversity and embrace personal development as keys to community change, they help cultivate the interpersonal values that are necessary for sustainable community empowerment.