AKRON, Ohio — A food forest is taking root in one of Akron’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
What You Need To Know
- The Cascade Valley food forest in Elizabeth Park is designed using permaculture to address a food desert in one of the city’s most neglected neighborhoods. A second similar food forest is planned for Boss Park across town
- The projects are sponsored by the city of Akron, Akron's Park Collaborative, Neighborhood Networks of Habitat for Humanity, and the Living Water Association of the United Church of Christ
- The forest is being planted by a small team assisted by many Cascade Valley neighbors and a large group of volunteers
Unlike community gardens, a food forest is created through permaculture – in just a couple years, the beds are expected to burst with perennial fruits, vegetables and herbs. The plants are chosen for compatibility with one another and selected based on the site’s specific soils – and on the residents’ needs.
Situated in the Cascade Valley neighborhood, not far from the Little Cuyahoga River, the forest is under development on the southwest end of Elizabeth Park. In keeping with the tenets of permaculture, the food forest is ecologically designed to slow runoff and erosion on the banks of the river.
As a 2019 winner of the Akron Parks Challenge, the Cascade Valley neighborhood will also see its built environment - seating, picnic tables, basketball courts and a performance area - improved and or constructed. The parks challenge is a city-led initiative that each year selects neighborhood groups who apply to partner with the city on improving their parks.
The Elizabeth Park food forest is related to that work, but a separate initiative with many collaborators. It is planned to offer plants for eating and others for healing, with enough vegetation installed for both humans and wildlife to consume, said Beth Vild, an urban-designer and community organizer, who’s leading the charge in the design, site preparation and planting of both forests.
Under Vild’s direction, a second food forest is planned for Boss Park across town in University Park, near the University of Akron. Per the residents’ wishes, that forest will be built as a mental health oasis while alleviating a food desert and addressing health disparities, she said.
Once the Elizabeth Park forest matures, all that will be required of the neighborhood, which spreads out in the shadow of Akron’s Y Bridge, will be harvesting, weeding and path maintenance.
While a food forest aims to provide sustainable nourishment and improve health for residents, the Elizabeth Park forest is about more than that, Vild said.
“Sustainability is reparations,” she said. “This is a neighborhood that has faced systemic racism from the get-go. From the forming of our city from redline districting, to suburbanization that caused Route 59 to tear down the largest black business district in the city, the largest red line district area to grow housing, which became the ground zero of the crack epidemic.”
Vild’s passion is evident as she speaks of the forest’s design -- intricate layers of browns and greens form multiple “mountain” beds with swales, separated by mulched pathways, to transform a neglected urban park into a place to feast.
“Reclamation is such a spiritual process,” she said. “I feel like we are spiritually rehabbing the physical land of this neighborhood.”
Underscoring that philosophy, what supplies aren’t provided by the forest’s sponsors – the city, nonprofits and churches – are donations delivered by volunteers from local farms and companies around the region – hay, mulch, manure, burlap and cardboard.
“It's an ecosystem of help; it's an ecosystem of health,” she said, “of health for the land, health for people that we’re really building.”
It takes a city
The Cascade Valley food forest in Elizabeth Park has support from a multitude of collaborating organizations –primarily the city of Akron, Akron's Park Collaborative, Neighborhood Networks of Habitat for Humanity, and the Living Water Association of the United Church of Christ.
The Big Love Network, a nonprofit focused on building community that Vild helped launch, has worked in this neighborhood for almost a decade.
She and her hand-selected team are paid through a grant from the Living Waters Association.
“They have hired a handful of folks to do community organizing to connect the churches to doing the good work, ‘The good trouble,’” Vild said, echoing the words of the late Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia. “So this is this is one of the first projects around that in the Akron area.”
Vild hired five people to form the basis of her team, and to work directly with the neighborhoods.
“We specifically wanted to reach out to marginalized communities of color and the LGBT community for those positions,” she said. LGBT people are often the first people companies fire, and in the case of COVID-19 furloughs, not rehired, she said.
Her “right-hand helper” is Ty Vick, who has been a constant since day one of the project.
Vick is a hair and makeup artist, who doesn’t bat an eye at laying down layers of goat or horse manure, which are installed based on acidity levels in the various beds.
There is a correlation between the food forest work and her skill with beauty, Vick said, by “treating beauty as a layer to wellness.”
“When it comes to your self-care, when it comes to your image, like finding a way for some healing and some wellness to creep into some of those things,” she said. “So it's not just the physical body that's getting those benefits; it’s really a spiritual and emotional process. That kind of translates and layers on top of what I do with permaculture work and finding ways to layer the wellness into everything. “
Volunteers are also a vital component of the food forest team, Vild said.
Julie Norman, who teaches yoga at “Karma Healing,” also works at Hope Meadows Foundation, a nonprofit organization offering equine therapy for people with mental illnesses. Norman regularly delivers a wagon-full of brightly colored bins filled with goat and horse manure to help build beds at the food forest.
Herbalist Ciara Vinzant helped design and build the food forest beds and is selecting herbs that will be grown to address the specific health needs of Cascade Valley residents – predominantly inflammation, diabetes and heart disease.
Simultaneously, Vinzant is working on opening her Radical Wellness Center in Kent later this month. The center will offer naturopathic remedies and personal care products she develops. She aims to teach stressed-out students how to grow healing herbs in the dorms or on window sills. She was also a community organizer at KSU.
“It is super important that people have access to fresh food,” she said. “And that also intersects with the work that I've been doing around social justice. People need to be treated as humans, and we need to have just the simple things that we need, that should be readily available to us. And I think that food is one of those things.”
In addition to good health, there is another important aspect of the food forest, Vinzant said.
“These food forests are great opportunities not only to get your hands dirty and actually grow food and grow herbs, but to get to know the people in your neighborhood,” she said. “Even though you may think you have nothing in common with the person next door or across the street, we all have something in common and we all have our basic needs that can be met by just working together with our community.”
Residents have a voice
Cascade Valley neighbors’ input will remain important throughout the forest’s buildout, Vild said.
“It's not an afterthought. It is the focus,” she said. “As somebody that's knocked on doors here for the last six years, I can tell you that people are tired of giving their opinion to you, because they feel like they don't ever actually see anything change. So we wanted that to be very different and say, 'Look, things are changing. We're doing it. We're doing it by hand. You're more than welcome to just jump in at any point in time,’ as well as, 'Here's something for you to vote on. Your vote matters.'"
To that end, Vild’s team wants to erect a sign at the entrance to the Cascade Valley neighborhood with a QR code neighbors can photograph and scan, so they can vote on various elements of the forest, she said.
“The fun part is what the neighborhood is voting on throughout this year,” she said. “And then once they're done voting on that, then throughout the growth season this next year, they'll be able to vote on which planting guild they want in the part that they vote on.”
A planting guild is “the 12 different layers of a forest,” Vild said. Part of her role is to expose residents to the various options within those layers.
Cascade Valley resident Valarie Moss moved to Akron from Augusta, Georgia about a decade ago. She was active in formation of a previous community garden, which is gone. Now, she is the Ward 5 representative in the Akron Parks Collaborative, a nonprofit that partners with Akron residents and groups to bring vibrancy back to the city’s parks.
“Most of my introductions have been through soil,” Moss said. “I started off with just a flower garden around my house, and when they asked me if I wanted to join the community and do some gardening, I said, ‘Sure. I would love to do that.’ Everyone started doing a little gardening and it's just been a part of our community now since 2012.”
Moss says she has learned much from Vild’s instruction on the food forest.
“Beth did an awesome job of designing, and she just shows the layout and how it would go,” Moss said. “And we were tremendously excited and very accepting of how she did it, because she knows how it should go, you know, and how the water would work with [the food forest].”
The food forest designs are based on “sacred geometry,” Vild said.
“They’re are all based on trying to give that spiritual essence back to a land that has been torn apart and put back together again, so many times, in something that's going to stay here,” she said.
Vild is careful that volunteers, not the neighbors, do the “grunt work.”
“So we're trying to make sure that the folks that actually live here get to do tree plantings and the stuff with the actual plants,” she said. “You know, it shouldn't always be white people from the suburbs that come in and do the fun stuff.”
Moss said she is excited to share the outcome of the forest with her community, once it starts producing.
“You want to eat something, so you might pick a snow pea or you get a tomato and keep on going,” she said. “But you know that it is healthy, that there's healthy food out here. And you don't need to think about processed food.”
The passion that’s going into the project is as important as the health benefits will be, she said.
“You know, people can come and dig and put seeds down. But if there's no passion, there's no love for it. You know, it'll grow on its own, because that's what it does, but it won't flourish,” she said. “And I want them to see the passion that is in this. I want them to see and be a part of that beauty, so that they can grow right along with it.”
Layers of the forest
Vild has earned several certifications in permaculture and has “preached the gospel of permaculture” for years, she said.
“People can get far more produce out of every square foot with a food forest than a traditional community garden because these plants like to be together,” she said.
Much of this year has been spent building the beds.
“Our soil building that we've done is very labor intensive, but it's incredibly important,” Vild said. “So what we do, as any good permaculturist does, instead is a sense of biomimicry.”
That’s where the layering comes into play.
“What Mother Nature does in a forest is that she layers her nutrients on top of each other, you know, whether that's animals, you know, voiding and whatever, into the soil and then leaves being on top of that, and plants dying and going on top of that,” she said. “So we mimic that through doing what's called either ‘lasagna gardening’ or sheet mulching where you balance your greens and your browns, so your greens are that the hot, sticky smelly manure, compost, those type of things. And then browns are straw, leaves, wood, cardboard.”
The cardboard goes first, killing the grass, topped with manure, then straw and finally mulch, she said.
With that done, the “base map” of the forest is now being planted, which includes the tree, bush and vine layers, she said. In some places, recycled wheat grass mats surround the newly planted bushes.
In the spring, the herbaceous layer -- tubers, cover crop and fungal layers -- will go in, but the focus remains on food, Vild said.
“So everything that we're doing is not as pretty as it will be,” she said. “The plants just need to mature.”
Red clover is planned as one of the main cover crops because it adjusts the soil’s nitrogen level, and is medicinal, she said.
“Lots of thyme and strawberries, as well as onions, garlic and chives,” she counted off. “So the more species diversification you have, the less bug problems that you have, the less they compete for certain nutrients in the soil.”
For example, in addition to the strawberry, raspberry and blueberry bushes, the forest will have six different strains of blackberry, she said. Where possible, they are planting berries without thorns.
The city is providing trees - cherry, peach, apple, service berry and other types. Persimmons, currants and cranberries will be grown as well.
“Everything is food,” she said. “We'll also have some pretty bulbs and things like that. We’ll do some flowers, and some pollinator type things. But it's all based on food, and anything that will contribute to the food system.”
A “greens person,” Moss said she is looking forward to the forest’s kale, lettuce and arugula.
“Oh, yum,” she said. Those are my favorites to grow.”
The forest will also provide housing for wildlife, such as bats, which eat mosquitos, and for pollinators, she said. There’s also the beloved blue skink, a cross between a salamander and a lizard, which makes its home by the river.
“They're really cool,” Vild said. “And the neighborhood loves them. They're kind of like the makeshift neighborhood mascot in a way.”
A memorial garden, which the Big Love Network helped the neighbors build a few years ago, will also be incorporated into the forest. The garden honors people who have leapt off the Y-bridge over the years, making the bridge known as “the suicide bridge.”
Memorial space will also be dedicated to Akron’s Black jazz district, a once bustling musical enclave, which was severed from the city when Route 59 went in decades ago.
As part of the project, the Cascade valley neighbors are planning a memorial, and starting a college fund, in memory of 18-year-old Na'Kia Crawford who was shot to death in the neighborhood last spring while riding in the car with her grandmother, just weeks after her high school graduation.
For Vild, reparation is a theme that underscores the entire project.
“There should be food forests in food deserts. Lower income, inner city neighborhoods should not be paying electric bills; they should have off-grid electricity readily available to them,” she said. “Everyone should have it, but Black people should have at first. We have built this country off of their backs, and we've not given them anything for it. And they should have it first.”