Providence Sees Lots of Potential for Vacant Lots

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The new program’s name, “Lots of Hope,” is terrific, but its mission is much more impressive. The city, in partnership with the Southside Community Land Trust and The Rhode Island Foundation, is embarking on a new initiative to convert city-owned vacant lots into productive urban farms.

The idea originated last summer, after urban farmer Than Wood was rudely bullied off his rented Westminster Street lot by Re-Focus Inc. Local officials helped Front Step Farm relocate to a city-owned 16,000-square-foot lot on Meader Street.

Wood covered much of the heat-absorbing asphalt with a layer of woodchips, which he topped with garden soil and nutrient-rich compost. Vegetable plants grew where Styrofoam cups, plastic bottles and cigarette butts used to bake.

Wood’s lease is up at the end of this coming summer, but he is expected to meet soon with the mayor’s sustainability director, Shelia Dormody, to discuss extending his lease another year.

The city owns hundreds of vacant lots and decided to expand on the pilot program it began with Wood. “There’s a lot of potential with that land,” Dormody said. “We didn’t want what we are doing with Than to be one-off program.”

The Lots of Hope program, which has been awarded $100,000 by The Rhode Island Foundation and Florida-based Local Sustainability Matching Fund, will enable local residents to access low-cost, underutilized public land from the city, along with technical assistance and hands-on support from the Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT), which manages City Farm.

“Lots of Hope is an innovative new program that will help to build a more sustainable and healthy city for years to come,” Mayor Angel Taveras said. “Providence has a vital environmental community committed to helping make the city more sustainable.”

City officials are working with SCLT to identify lots fit for use as urban gardens. With the approval of the City Council, the city will enter into long-term, low-cost leases with the SCLT, which in turn will sublease the plots to residents and community organizations for farming.

An army of interns fanned out across the city visiting many of Providence’s vacant, derelict and forgotten lots. They found that some of the lots had been reclaimed, and one housed a functioning playground. They made note of which ones basked in sunlight and which ones had access to water.

“We hope to identify a few lots and have them ready to go by early spring,” Dormody said.

SCLT will oversee the enhancement of the lots, the property’s basic infrastructure needs and the urban farmers.

Lots of Hope is designed to improve access to locally grown produce in neighborhoods at risk of becoming “food deserts” because of insufficient access to conventional grocery stores. The program also will expand the city’s portfolio of green space, and contribute to improvements in air quality, public health and local property values, according to Taveras.

In addition, Lots of Hope will introduce a residential composting program, enabling families in low-income, environmentally at-risk neighborhoods to reduce solid waste and create a local source of high-quality compost that supports urban food production.

Information about how interested residents can get involved with Lots of Hope will be announced this spring.

“Fresh, affordable and locally grown food is good for Providence families, our communities and our economy,” said Margaret DeVos, SCLT’s executive director.

By the way, Toby Shepherd, the mayor’s deputy director of policy, was the one who came up with the program’s spot-on name.