Week of 3/27/2005

Dear EarthTalk: How can I start a community garden in my hometown?

—Carol Sue Buckley, Louisville, KY

Now that the cherry blossoms are in bloom and the daffodils are beginning to flower, people from coast to coast are starting to think about getting outdoors again. Participating in the creation of a community garden is a great way to build a neighborhood resource while getting some fresh air and growing some tasty vegetables and beautiful flowers in the process.

The first "urban gardens" were started by small, independent activist groups like New York City"s Green Guerillas who in 1973 were "seed bombing" vacant lots to try to turn these rubble-strewn eyesores into productive pieces of land. The plot that would become New York City"s first community garden was a parcel of land that the Green Guerillas rented from the city"s Office of Housing Preservation and Development in 1974 for one dollar a month and on which they raised 60 beds of vegetables. Still thriving, the Liz Christy Bowery Houston Community Garden, named after both its founder and its locale in the city, is an Eden-like oasis in downtown Manhattan, one of some 700 gardens the city now hosts.

Through these urban oases, community gardeners collectively assume the responsibility of improving their neighborhoods while growing flowers and fresh, organic food close to home. While the joy of tending a garden may be the initial impetus, neighborhood self-sufficiency and pride are often the true goals.

And fortunately, contemporary urban agriculturalists don"t have to "grow it alone." The movement is so popular now that there"s a good chance your neighborhood already has a green space thriving, and most large cities have garden associations that can work with you to plant a new one.

In Denver, Colorado, for instance, the non-profit Denver Urban Gardeners have made 70 urban gardens into public centers, where people of all ages and backgrounds learn about horticulture together and juvenile offenders can work off community service. Also, as the group"s director David Rieseck, says, "We frequently place gardens on school sites. A school values the resource for student programs."

Many urban gardens receive aid from local parks and recreation departments. Cory Calandra, executive director of the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, says, "Our civic leaders have been very supportive of San Francisco"s need for public space."

Chicago"s Openlands Project, a non-profit group dedicated to preserving and enhancing public open space in northeastern Illinois, offers a useful set of steps on its website to facilitate the creation of urban gardens. Openlands recommends first holding a meeting of community members interested in helping with or just learning about the creation of an urban garden. From there, the group can set its goals, locate a plot, make a design, and then
dig right in.

CONTACTS: Green Guerillas, www.greenguerillas.org; Liz Christy Garden, www.lizchristygarden.org ; Denver Urban Gardeners, www.dug.org ; San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, (415) 285-7584; Openlands Project, www.openlands.org .

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that some credit unions now focus on environmentally responsible lending. Is this a trend?

—Davis Priest, Davenport, IA

Credit unions have existed in the United States now for more than a century. Unlike banks, they are non-profit institutions and were originally formed to serve groups that share a common bond—such as a place of employment, residence, or membership in a labor union—by providing loans and other financial services from the combined savings of members (who are also shareholders) at reasonable rates.

In recent years many existing credit unions have begun to shift some of their investment focus toward socially- and environmentally-responsible and sustainable development projects. Still others have sprung up new with specifically that mission in mind.

North Carolina"s Self-Help Credit Union, founded in 1980, is a good example. It factors environmental considerations into its loan approval process and seeks to create ownership and other economic opportunities for minorities, women, rural residents and low-income families. And its Sustainable Development Lending Initiative lends to businesses and organizations that focus on conservation, recycling and "smart growth" (land development projects that preserve open space and farmland and that minimize dependence on auto transportation).

So far, Self-Help"s program has provided nearly 200 loans totaling $25 million to a wide range of environmentally driven enterprises including organic farms, recycling businesses and "eco-tourism" operators. "We are undoubtedly the biggest lender to environmentally oriented companies in North Carolina," says Malcolm White, Self-Help"s communications director.

Elsewhere, New Mexico"s Permaculture Credit Union has a Sustainability Discount Program that provides low interest rate loans for home energy efficiency upgrades, renewable energy retrofits and green-friendly landscaping projects. The program also discounts its loans for the purchase of fuel-efficient automobiles that achieve 35 miles per gallon average or better.

And down under in Australia, the Maleny Credit Union has a Micro-Savings Fund that provides no-interest loans for projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and retrofit energy systems with specific pollution-reduction technologies. It also gives up to 10 percent of its pre-tax earnings back to the local community in the form of grants.

Finding socially responsible credit unions in your own state or region is as easy as steering a web browser to the CU Match-up website, a project of the California League of Credit Unions. By entering your state and a few other bits of information into a simple web-based form, the database returns a list with contact information for nearby credit unions or credit union associations in that state.

CONTACTS: Self-Help Credit Union, (800) 966-7353, www.self-help.org ; Permaculture Credit Union, (866) 954-3479, www.pcuonline.org ; CU Match-up, www.howtojoinacu.org .