In Louisville, the movement to grow more of the city’s food in urban areas is small, but growing. Creating pockets of agriculture in areas that are often contaminated is a new puzzle for policymakers to solve. But putting this puzzle together will do more than just feed the community…it’ll have environmental benefits, too.
The People’s Garden is five acres of green in the Shawnee neighborhood, run by non-profit Louisville Grows. It’s early morning and the grass is covered with dew. Louisville Grows director Valerie Magnuson is walking around in rubber boots, pointing out the produce.
“So you can see some green beans coming up,” she says. “We have strawberries, collards that need to be taken out. The basil’s ready to harvest. We’re going to harvest the tomatoes today.”
The garden is impressive. There are 22 spaces for area gardeners to reserve and cultivate. There are two small orchards, and two greenhouses. A half-acre is set aside as a market garden. The produce from it is sold to grocery stores and markets.
Louisville Grows is in the process of starting another community garden—this one on an acre in the Portland neighborhood. And proponents of urban agriculture say there should be even more…growing food inside the city’s urban core is a good way to address issues of food inequality and encourage health eating.
Gardens have other benefits, too. Environmental benefits, with real implications for two Louisville problems in particular: the urban heat island effect and storm water runoff.
In the People’s Garden, Magnuson and her volunteers are nurturing two small orchards that will eventually do double duty: provide food and help cool the city.
The “urban heat island” effect is caused when cities warm up faster than the areas around them, due to large areas of blacktop surfaces that absorb sunlight. The effect in Louisville is one of the worst in the nation.
“The way we’re really trying to address the heat island is through the tree planting program and Love Louisville Trees and trying to encourage fruit trees and canopy trees in people’s yards and in the medians in front of their houses,” she says.
Another of Louisville’s perennial challenges is storm water runoff. Because the city’s inner core is on a combined sewer system, rain running off paved surfaces can overflow the sewer. This means a disgusting mix of city muck and untreated sewage routinely spills into Louisville waterways. Each garden bed that’s built in urban areas helps absorb a little more water and reduces the risk of overflows.
But for all of the numerous benefits of urban agriculture for the environment and public health, there’s a big hurdle:
“My battle cry has been that we need to test soil,” Wayne Long says. He’s the director of Jefferson County’s Extension program. In rural areas, farmers test their soil for acidity and nutrients. But in urban settings, they’re also testing for pollution like heavy metals.
Long says the main contaminant in Louisville’s soil is lead, from decades of urban activity—like burning leaded gas and using lead paint. The federal government classifies levels of less than 400 parts per million as ‘safe.’ Extension offers soil testing for local gardeners…and on one occasion found seven thousand parts per million in one yard.
“It gets to the point that it’s a hazardous waste site.”
There are steps urban gardeners can take to protect themselves from high lead levels. They can build raised beds and plant grass to cover exposed dirt. And even though lead is definitely a concern, Lauren Heberle of the University of Louisville’s Center for Environmental Policy and Management says it shouldn’t dissuade would-be urban farmers.
“In general, the benefits of gardening and growing your own food and eating fresh vegetables and supporting that kind of work and those kinds of efforts far outweigh the risks of not eating fresh foods and vegetables,” she says.
Before starting a garden of any kind in the city, Heberle says it’s important to get soil tested for lead. Jefferson County Extension offers soil testing for about $12 for any interested, or aspiring, gardeners.
WFPL intern Fiona Grant contributed to this story.