Seattle to Create Nation's Largest Public Food Forest

MrTavis/CC BY 2.0

Strange as it may seem, for most of human history the food that fueled our existence was not packaged, preserved, or purchased from the grocery store, it was provided by nature. But perhaps even today we are still skilled foragers at heart, if not just a bit unpracticed. Soon, however, residents of Seattle, Washington will get the chance to grab a bite the old-fashioned way -- thanks to a brand new food forest being planted in the heart of their city.

Earlier this month, planners broke ground in Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood for what will be the nation's largest free and open edible landscape, the Beacon Food Forest, a project three years in the making. Established on the notion that permaculture infrastructure brings about more sustainable communities and ways of thinking, local agriculturist formed the group Friends of the Food Forest to help realize the dream of creating a public space where food could be grown and shared.

Sitting on seven sloping acres of hillside in Jefferson Park, the urban forest will feature a variety of food-bearing trees, shrubs, vines, and other plants. Robert Mellinger of Crosscut describes the design of the nation's soon-to-be largest publicly available food forest:

The end goal is an urban oasis of public food: Visitors to the corner of 15th Ave S. and S. Dakota Street will be greeted by a literal forest — an entire acre will feature large chestnuts and walnuts in the overstory, full-sized fruit trees like big apples and mulberries in the understory, and berry shrubs, climbing vines, herbaceous plants, and vegetables closer to the ground.

Further down the path an edible arboretum full of exotic looking persimmons, mulberries, Asian pears, and Chinese haws will surround a sheltered classroom for community workshops. Looking over the whole seven acres, you'll see playgrounds and kid space full of thornless mini edibles adjacent to community gardening plots, native plant areas, a big timber-frame gazebo and gathering space with people barbecuing, a recreational field, and food as far as you can see.

Crafting such an idyllic public space, of course, didn't come without some hard work and dedication of the surrounding Beacon Hill community -- though its certainly not beyond the reach of others. For nearly a century, the land the forest will sit on was left unused in the hands of the Seattle Public Utilities department. With the idea that more could be done with that space, Friend of the Food Forest set about rally public support and raising funds for the revolutionary park. Finally, after garnering an incredible amount of public interest, city officials ultimately decided to grant the group the unprecedented liberty of spearheading such a community project on public land.

"If this is successful," Beacon Food Forest's lead landscape architect Margarett Harrison tells Crosscut. "It is going to set such a precedent for the city of Seattle, and for the whole Northwest."

For agriculturalist Jenny Pell, one of the project's earliest supporters, the thought of food forests sprouting up throughout Seattle could not just transform the otherwise cold city landscape, it might even change its residents urban lifestyles for the better.

"If people had access to larger pieces of land to do projects like this you would see really different cultures emerging around these things," she says. "If Seattle could provide 5 percent of its food from within the city, that would be more than almost any other city in the world. Even places that are really committed get less than 1 percent. Can you imagine what the city would be like if 10 percent of the food came from the city?"

Such urban food forests may be worlds away from those wild ones which nourished our primitive ancestors for millennia, but the sustaining power of communities working together towards a shared goal knows no limitation of time or space. In truth, it was once our instinct to draw our sustenance from nature which allowed for our survival as a species -- perhaps our future success hinges on the same.

Tags: Cities | Permaculture

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