Beacon Hill’s Enchanted Food Forest

The dynamic and engaged community of Beacon Hill named a Great Neighborhood in 2012, is known for banding together to ensure a high standard of living and quality of life. Such is the way that Beacon Food Forest, the first large-scale public food forest, came to be.

Though the Beacon Food Forest is managed through the P-Patch community gardening program in Seattle, it is a true community-initiated food systems project that has inspired food systems planners around the world.

Beacon Food Forest: Community Gardening Harmony

The Beacon Food Forest combines aspects of native habitat rehabilitation with edible forest gardening. It features an edible arboretum with fruits gathered from regions around the world; a berry patch for canning, gleaning, and picking; a nut grove with trees providing shade and sustenance; garden plots for vegetable growing; and bee hives for pollination and honey.

There is also a gathering plaza for celebration and education, as well as a kids' area for education and play. Hundreds more participated in work parties to build the food forest with tasks ranging from spreading woodchips to installing a water system.

Community volunteers are responsible for ongoing stewardship and maintenance of the garden. Residents can gather food so long as they adhere to the principles of "ethical harvesting," taking only what they need without damaging the plant.

The Beacon Food Forest visionaries stress the many benefits of the project to the community beyond just the harvest. In our conversation, Sandy Pernitz, Community Garden Coordinator at Seattle Neighborhoods P-Patch Community Gardens, tells us how the Beacon Food Forest echoes the P-Patch Program's emphasis on the "community" in community gardening.

Sandy in the peas. Photo courtesy Sandy Pernitz.

What role do you play in the Beacon Food Forest project?

PERNITZ: I am the city staff person who works directly with this site, which is one of 90 within the city of Seattle's P-Patch Community Gardening Program. I am the liaison between the community and the city, help with ideas and resourcing, assign and monitor the area of the forest that has plots for renting, monitor items being proposed by the community, and solidify the ongoing partnership between the city and community.

What inspired this creative planning endeavor?

PERNITZ: The community! Our program has been around for over 40 years, we have been helping communities to bring their visions into reality around gardening as a community throughout that time. We believe that community gardens are a place where community building happens and create an incubator for creative solutions around the community and the environment. We stepped in to help this project happen and be the liaison between their efforts and the city and believed that the Food Forest/Permaculture project fit in directly with the large definition of "community gardening"

What did the process of starting and maintaining the Beacon Food Forest look like?

PERNITZ: The community started the project rolling, applied for funds to do planning for the site, and began negotiations with the city to see it move forward. Our program stepped in to help manage the building of phase I with the community and also contributed funds to make it happen. This project with be a phased project, Phase I is complete and the community has begun work on designing Phase II. All of our projects follow this process.

How is the process for the Beacon Food Forest different from planning other community gardens?

PERNITZ: To be honest, it is not. Only the outcome, design, and use are a little different. Managing it, however, is a bit different. We created a MOA [memorandum of agreement] with the volunteer steering committee that outlined expectations and statistics that we would need on an annual basis, and they supplied us with an annual report. In the other models of community gardens where folks rent plots, we are signing agreements with individuals. That is the main difference, otherwise community coming together to create open space and community is the same.

Beacon Food Forest volunteers. Photo by Sandy Pernitz.

APA named Beacon Hill a Great Neighborhood in 2012 in part for its history and unique character. How have these aspects of the neighborhood played a role in developing the project?

PERNITZ: I think there is a diversity of perspectives and a can-do spirit that has played and is playing out in the work they are doing at the Beacon Food Forest. Also, there are people they have been able to draw to work on this project from around the whole city who are interested in the permaculture work they are doing.

In your experience, what are the specific challenges posed by food systems planning?

PERNITZ: Definitions, getting everyone to understand the local and regional perspectives and how they impact each other. Urban agriculture to me is a Big Picture, of which community gardening is one component, it should include, food disposal (waste), transportation, incentives, etc. Our Office of Sustainability and Environment is the lead agency on food policy and has developed both an interdepartmental team and a Food Action Plan. Strong partnership development might be one of the barriers, devoted funding and opening up public land to produce food to make it happen. Seattle has done great with both, but legal barriers do exist around the private use of public land.

What are the biggest planning lessons you've taken away from the project?

PERNITZ: For us, making sure that there are many voices at the table shaping the project, and being culturally sensitive are the most important things to shape a healthy space for people and allow for interaction with the environment. My lesson is that even if intentions around this a there the work takes time and an open mind needs to be present.

Do you predict other projects like the Beacon Food Forest cropping up in Seattle?

PERNITZ: There are examples of folks working on orchards outside the city system, so that is similar. City Fruit is a great not-for-profit doing some work around this. At this time, our program is not expanding. We recently grew the program by about one-third and need additional funding to create more community gardens through our program. But this does not stop the community from doing it on their own or through a not-for-profit.

What is the future of the Beacon Food Forest?

PERNITZ: Expand! And grow programming, learning, sharing, community, and the forest itself.

Top image: Attendees at APA's 2015 National Planning Conference tour a Beacon Food Forest permaculture site, with the Seattle skyline in the background. Photo by Flickr user Derek Severson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

July 26, 2016