Good afternoon, Councilpeople, & everyone who took time out of busy schedules & regular work hours to be here this morning.
Thank you for allowing me to testify today. My name is Robyn Mello, & I am here today representing myself as a 4 year resident of District 1, representing Historic Fair Hill, Inc. in North Philly as their Garden Manager & Nature Educator, & representing Philly Food Forests, an all-volunteer group I founded which, in part, works with neighborhoods to start edible gardens & orchards on their blighted, vacant lots. As an equally avid, active, & passionate gardener & organizer, I, & these organizations, oppose Proposed Bills 120916 & 120917 due to the negative effects they will surely have on existing & future community gardens & market farms, &, therefore, community & nutrition, in this city.
I garden with community members across a wide range of ages, cultures, interests, backgrounds, priorities, & educational & economic levels. With Philly Food Forests, Historic Fair Hill, & alone, I am building edible gardens & community in 13 locations in Councilman Squilla’s First, Councilman Clarke’s Fifth, & Councilwoman Quinones-Sanchez’ Seventh Districts. My research shows that at least 10 lots within 4 of these gardens would be considered illegal to garden on should these proposals pass.
Let me paint a picture of these spaces:
Garden 1 consists of 6 vacant lots next to a transition house for women recently released from State Prison. I work with these women & neighbors on the block to produce food they want to eat, provide them with relevant community service, assist them in learning skills which teach discipline, attention to detail, & nurturing life. Many of them cherish their time outside the house, & they can’t wait to start gardens of their own when they are released from the house. One neighbor saved seeds from his peppers, tomatoes, squash, & beans received from Philadbundance so that he could try growing with us. That’s how I started growing food, &–what do you know? It works!
Gardens 2 & 3 are corner lots across the street from each other which have each been supported in past & present by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Philadelphia Orchard Project, & the local Congresswoman. They are maintained mostly by neighboring Puerto Rican families dedicated to keeping them clean & safe, & they are often now the site of community meetings & relaxation time on hot, summer days where neighbors can snack on white raspberries, peaches, & strawberries growing all around. What were they previously? They were drug-selling corners.
Space 4 is a new garden that has won a lot of hearts & stomachs. It is a garden amidst nearly 3 vacant blocks, full of dumping & surrounded by crumbling houses, across from a massive Philadelphia Housing Authority complex. We all call it The Peace Park because we designed it to be a 40-foot diameter peace symbol, easily seen from the PHA building’s highest story windows. In its first season, it has become both a symbol & creator of peace, providing a place for many young children to learn & play, for adults to participate & harvest, for the community to come together for potlucks, live music, & clothing donations, & proving once again that gardens result in less litter. If these proposals pass, rendering community gardening & market farming illegal in CMX-2 zones, communities like those we’re involved in will suffer.
I’m often confused by decisions made by lawmakers stated to be in the best interests of constituents, so I’m finally feeling that my voice needs to be heard here, in hope that my confusion may also cause Council to reexamine its thinking. My questions are these:
1. Why, after so many years & such an outpouring of labor, outreach, & money to create a new zoning code to reflect what this city’s people want, are these bills necessary to pass so quickly after the new code was put in place & so far before the one-year review process that was suggested?
2. If we state as a city that we aspire to be the greenest city in America, & at the same time we are statistically listed as the second hungriest city in the country, why would our elected government officials want to make it more difficult for its citizens to voluntarily green its land & feed is people?
3. When will our government & planners begin to consider the savings rather than revenue generated, the increased financial savings & improved health of people, the lessened pressure on overburdened welfare & medical systems, the decreased crime rates & less tax money spent on policing, & the increased property values & taxes resulting from community gardens when discussing “the highest & best use” of a space for “development”?
If every neighborhood had a lot or two in which interested residents could grow food & the city actually encouraged it, if all zonings allowed community gardens & market farms for at least interim or long-term leasing, if our utility companies provided breaks to residents for rainwater collection & our streets department incentivized residents to create neighborhood composting sites, the development we all want in this city would follow, but with a conscience & resiliency which urban areas truly need if we’re going to survive & thrive.
I don’t have much need for statistics or years of academic study to prove to me the necessity of gardens in densely-populated cities. I see their need every day. But the statistics are there, & the research has been done: gardening & growing food is nothing but positive.
I am the new face of young people moving into Philadelphia, & I intend to continue pouring my time, energy, love, & money into it. My time, energy, & love all go toward growing free food & cultivating free communities. My money comes from doing the same. There are many, many Philadelphians like me–many are here today–& judging by the flow of newcomers from various backgrounds we have show up to our garden activities, there will continue to be more every day. Growing food & cleaning our neighborhoods is not a new thing, & we are not following a fad. We are creating our futures & shaping this city’s. If you want us to stay in this city to be its leaders of tomorrow, I urge you to refrain from passing Bills 120916, 120917, & any future bills limiting urban agriculture.
Whether or not they pass, I know of at least four groups of CMX-2 lots that will continue to function as community gardens next season, & I personally welcome any Councilperson to visit, join in our community, & take home some fresh, free food anytime you’d like.