Community members working (pre-covid-19) on atlanta’s urban food forest, a project backed by partners for places. city of Atlanta.
Community members working (pre-covid-19) on atlanta’s urban food forest, a project backed by partners for places. city of Atlanta.

The new climate projects supported by the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities do more than just protect the environment and improve communities. In a sense, they create doorways to other worlds.

Take the abandoned roadway along a river in a low-income neighborhood of New Haven. In the not-too-distant future, it will become a parklet to reduce neighborhood flooding and water pollution—and a trailhead for a new walking path that will connect to city parks at each end.

This neglected corner of the city, along with many others like it, will be completely transformed into an inviting green space, thanks to a lot of imagination, hard work and commitment—and TFN’s Partners for Places program, which pools the efforts of city government with local foundations and nonprofits.

“It’s true that where someone else might see a dead-end street, we see what it can be—a lovely place for the community,” said Gwen Macdonald, who directs ecological restoration for Save the Sound, one of the recent grantees of Partners for Places. “Where someone sees a vacant lot, we see a chance to create a pollinator garden. A space long ignored and overlooked will become something transformative for the neighborhood.”

In one underserved area of Atlanta, Partners for Places is supporting urban farmers and volunteers who transformed an abandoned pecan orchard into a “food forest,” where local residents can harvest their own nuts, fruits and vegetables. In Detroit, a nonprofit is showing homeowners how to make their homes energy efficient without expensive contractors. In Philadelphia, the initiative is supporting a movement to create city farms in low-income neighborhoods and feed thousands of people.

These are among the latest grants announced late last year by the initiative’s matching grant program, which gave $853,000 to support work to strengthen the resilience of low-income neighborhoods in six U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Boston, Bridgeport, Detroit, New Haven and Philadelphia. The individual grants are small by some foundation standards, but they require the city government partners to raise matching funds from local foundations. The goal is to create collaborative projects that boost community equity and well-being, strengthen the local economy, and help residents grapple with the impacts of climate change.

A joint initiative of TFN and the Urban Sustainability Funders Network, Partners for Places was launched eight years ago and is supported by the Kendeda Fund, the New York Community Trust, and the JPB, Kresge, Pisces, Summit and Surdna foundations. It has awarded more than $7 million across the United States and Canada through its matching grant program, with additional contributions from local matching funders of more than $8 million, totaling more than $15 million in investments.

The initiative’s projects are focused on racial equity and climate justice, said Ann Fowler Wallace, director of programs for the Funders’ Network. “With our matching grants, we can double the money from local funders with national dollars, right away.”

Supporting an Urban Food Forest with Cultural Roots

Since the awards were announced, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has only underscored the importance of sufficient, walkable green space in cities, but it’s also presented new challenges for these collaborative outdoor projects. That’s led some recipients to pivot, at least temporarily. This includes the Urban Food Forest at Brown Mills in southeast Atlanta, which is managed by Trees Atlanta with other local partners and the City of Atlanta.

The seven-acre garden used to be full of school kids, workers, and volunteers, but on a recent weekday morning in May, it was quiet, save for birdcalls and the murmurs of a handful of community gardeners in masks—all weeding at safe distances from each other. The governor of Georgia has begun lifting COVID-19 restrictions statewide, but the regular volunteer program and education initiative, including school field trips, are on hold for safety reasons during the pandemic, according to Mike McCord, a Trees Atlanta arborist and food forest ranger at the Brown Mills site.

As a new city-owned park, McCord adds, the food forest is still open to visitors who want to explore its trails or forage in the forest for mulberries or chickweed. Volunteers are still welcome and needed to maintain the community garden, and those who come to work are given safety guidelines, such as working six feet apart. McCord’s dream is that once the virus is contained or a vaccine developed, Atlanta’s first publicly owned food forest will go back to its rightful place as a thriving community hub.

Located in Browns Mill, a neighborhood classified as a food desert, the urban farm features walking trails, forest foraging and a green expanse of fruit trees, berries, nuts and herbs. Until recently, vegetables like kale and tomatoes were tended by volunteers and distributed in large part to the public for free. Partly because some unsupervised volunteers had a bad habit of harvesting vegetables by pulling them up by the roots, now the garden managers either supervise or harvest themselves and distribute food. Volunteers also used to hand-water the rows using buckets and hoses, but after the coronavirus began to spread, the farm installed an irrigation system.

The farm has deep cultural roots in the African American community’s past, and was formerly owned by Willie and Ruby Morgan, an African American couple beloved by the community for leaving bags of surplus produce in their neighbors’ mailboxes or on fence posts. Their decades-old pecan orchard is still producing some pecans, but McCord has not yet tasted one. “The squirrels always get there first,” so he’s settled for black walnuts instead.

Mario Cambardella, the former urban agriculture director for the City of Atlanta, is enthusiastic about the partnership with TFN’s initiative. His hope is that the food forest, and other initiatives that are turning vacant Atlanta lots into gardens, will ultimately strengthen local food security. He noted that Atlanta’s food sustainability programs require initiatives to be culturally relevant, intentional and approached with humility, while contributing to the local economy.

The program received a matching grant from the Turner Foundation, and pre-COVID-19, it promoted food festivals at the site that attracted hundreds of revelers and potential volunteers. Food forest employees make everyone feel welcome, drawing families and friends out for picnics, Cambardella said in an interview prior to the U.S. coronavirus outbreak. “I really enjoy seeing someone smell a fresh herb for the first time and say, ‘aaaaah!’ or watch school kids racing around to pick blueberries or make apple cider,” he said. “People love it here.”

“On the Frontlines of Climate Change”

The Funders’ Network, which is based in Miami, represents more than 170 U.S. and Canadian funders, and is approaching its 22nd birthday. The affinity group grew out of a shared excitement about supporting place-based work and climate action, which has taken on greater importance in an era of superstorms, floods, raging wildfires and rising sea levels.

“This is the critical issue of our times,” says Pat Smith, president and CEO of the Funders’ Network. “Regardless of where they are on the political spectrum, mayors are dealing first-hand with the consequences of climate change. And they are hungry for the resources the Funders’ Network has to offer.”

In its work across the U.S. and Canada, TFN has brought funders together to share knowledge and align strategies, says Smith. The cross-pollination of the Partners for Places initiative is an ideal example, she says. “There, you have funders on the leading edge of innovation, creativity and experimentation making their resources available to local communities. It’s a fascinating model and extraordinarily successful.”

“Like our funders, Partners for Places is bringing an equity lens to this work, looking at who is disproportionately impacted by climate change—poor communities and people of color,” Smith says. “They are on the frontline of climate change.”

Discussing TFN’s theory of change, Smith says the initiative aims to bring all the stakeholders together. “Remember, government is one of the largest funders around,” she says. “We need to have government at the table. The people impacted also need to have a real role and voice.”

At the same time, the grantees need to respect the contributions of locals, Smith adds. “We acknowledge the community representatives involved by paying them honorariums and stipends. If they are going to take time out of their day to meet with us, they should be compensated. They often serve as go-to people if you have an idea. And you don’t want to always go to the usual suspects.”

For example, Smith says, Miami and its surrounding areas have a sizable Latino population, but that demographic is far from representing a singular cultural identity. While the region is most closely associated with the heritage and history of Cuban-American exiles, the Latino population also includes immigrants and refugees from Spanish-speaking countries across Latin America and the Caribbean.

“The Latino culture here is not a monolith, and it takes time to unpack that,” Smith says. “Project leaders need to be open to a very diverse set of voices. Counties are ecosystems, and all the county stakeholders need to be at the table. What you need is to build a shared sense of purpose, and that work takes time and patience. It’s very labor-intensive, and it never really ends.”

A Tale of Two Cities

In New Haven, Connecticut, the nonprofit Save the Sound is leading the campaign to turn an abandoned riverside roadway full of litter into a 12,000-acre parklet and walking trails. Nonprofit employees worked with local school children to post trail markers and to paint storm drain murals until the state’s COVID-19 guidelines forced most people indoors.

The parklet construction project is expected to continue on schedule, albeit under new social distancing protocols, because such work is classified as essential by the State of Connecticut. In addition, Save the Sound still plans to involve students and parents with the final planting when and if that’s feasible.

The nonprofit Save the Sound will remove the paved road and replace it with a bioswale—a recessed garden made with specialty soils and plants chosen for their ability to handle periods of intense flooding (and also periods of dry roots) to filter out pollution that currently flows into the Mill River. The native pollinator gardens will feature New England asters, butterfly weeds and dogwood trees that are hardy enough to make it through a winter freeze and to thrive on a flood plain; the gardens will also be a boon for migratory birds. “This is right in the flying pattern of an important bird area, so these gardens will also help preserve biodiversity,” says Save the Sound’s Macdonald.

The EPA, using rules set up under the Clean Water Act, has mandated a long-term control plan, including absorbing and filtering stormwater before it pollutes the river. The nonprofit’s work on the watershed brought together old and new stakeholders, including the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, The Regional Water Authority and its watershed fund, and the City of New Haven’s Engineering, Planning, and Parks Departments.

The green infrastructure supported by Partners for Places will both reduce water pollution and improve access: The walking trails will connect the low-income, racially mixed community of Fair Haven—which contains homes, industry and very little green space—to New Haven’s parks. These will be a short walk or bike ride away when this project, and the even larger portion of the Mill River Trail under construction by the city, are complete.

Save the Sound Watershed Coordinator Nicole Davis is gratified that the nonprofit’s partners are fully on board with both goals. “The city has been an excellent partner in helping us combat the problem of water pollution,” she said. “As the sea level rises, flood and pollution control is going to be more important than ever. And the Mill River Watershed Association has gotten really involved and excited about the Mill River walking trail and wants to move the project forward. They’ve seen what a diverse and vibrant community Fair Haven is.”

These types of partnerships fit the approach that Partners for Places has long encouraged, and according to the Funders’ Network, they have yielded impressive results. “Our data shows that 60% of our Partners for Places programs continue beyond the grant period,” says CEO Smith. “As a philanthropy network, I see us as catalytic. We jumpstart these innovative programs, and grantees take it from there.”

The next round of Partners for Places grantees will be announced May 20.

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