For two weeks in 2015, residents in the Russell neighborhood were invited to dream. On chalkboards that hung on vacant lots, they could answer the question, “This vacant lot could be…”
With near unlimited possibilities, dream was what they did, providing more than 300 ideas ranging from a park to a public swimming pool to a community garden to Develop Louisville’s Office of Vacant & Public Property Administration.
The realization of those dreams is Produce Park, a 5,000 square foot urban orchard, which was unveiled this past summer.
Turns out, it is only the most recent in a trend that is literally taking root in the city.
Portland Orchard Project: The Theory in Practice
Five years ago, when community residents planted sapling apple trees in their new Portland Orchard Project in the Portland neighborhood, the idea of urban orchards in Louisville was as young as the trees themselves.
Since then, the acre lot has become the living embodiment of the difference between theory and practice. In a state of disrepair and overgrowth after maintenance efforts waned, non-profit Louisville Grows took over the space in 2015 and quickly got to work restoring it to its original state, a task that is ongoing.
“When we got back to that property, I was told that it was so grown up that you couldn’t tell where the apple trees were,” recalls Natalie Reteneller, program coordinator for Louisville Grows’ forestry division Love Louisville Trees.
Reteneller’s focus at the Portland Orchard Project is to return the property to its base state, which she hopes will help incentivize volunteer support. For now, they utilize the help of volunteer groups and other non-profit organizations to fill in when the community falls short.
“Whenever we get a larger group of volunteers, we try to pull them over there and do some larger maintenance items on it,” she says, which includes weeding of the nearly 150-feet of blackberry planted fence lines.
The group has supplemented the original apple trees with nine pear trees and five persimmon trees, which has helped cover the losses of some apple trees due to wind damage and disease.
Though they are doing their best, Reteneller knows that it is simply not enough for the property right now.
“Some of it is heartbrokenness because we want to do so much more, and that property needs so much more but then not having the capacity yet on our end to give it what it needs,” she says.
Produce Park: The Government Catalyst
For Develop Louisville’s Office of Vacant & Public Property Administration, their goal is simple.
“Our chief responsibility is to decrease vacant and abandoned properties throughout our city,” says Real Estate Coordinator Joshua Watkins.
It’s the implementation of that goal where the team likes to get creative. For Produce Park, their latest successful reclamation of vacant property in the Russell neighborhood, the first step was to listen.
“The project is the end result of about a year and a half of community engagement work under the umbrella of our RSquared – 40212 initiative,” says Watkins. “RSquared stands for ‘Reuse and Revitalize’ and it’s an umbrella initiative used to decrease vacant and abandoned properties in Louisville neighborhoods using the four elements of educate, engage, empower and implement.
“Ultimately Produce Park was the result of going into the community, canvassing the area, studying what the vacant properties were, relaying that information publicly, engaging people and then empowering that community with $30,000 from the Bloomberg Fund that was administered to Mayor’s Fischer’s Innovation & Delivery Team,” he continues. “After that, it was about providing technical assistance to build that site using a local nonprofit in Louisville Grows, who manages the field onsite.”
For Develop Louisville, Produce Park was not only what the community wanted, it was a way for them to marry two issues that the community struggles with—an abundance of vacant property and a shortage of healthy food options for residents.
“If we can mirror our goals with other initiatives like decreasing food deficits and increasing local food options, then we are going to do just that,” Watkins says.
“We want conscientious development around what our citizens need, and I think we get to do that with projects like Produce Park.”
Estimating that the park is about 95 percent complete now, Watkins says it offers residents the opportunity to harvest their own peaches, cherries, apples, plums and flowers, as well as green space to enjoy. In the future, the group hopes to attract programming for the area that further addresses the needs of the community.
“We are looking into farmers markets, tying in the health and wellness community, so that now not only do the residents have access to produce, but they understand other ways to stay fit and healthy with food choices and exercise options,” Watkins says.
Even in its infancy, Produce Park has seen enough success that Watkins hints it could be the first of many projects of its kind.
“I can definitely say that our RSquared initiative is something that we plan on recreating in the future,” he says.
Orchards of Beechmont: The Nuisance Solution
Betsy Ruhe was fed up with the vacant lot in her Beechmont neighborhood.
“I would look at it everyday as I was sitting in traffic waiting to get on the interstate and think, ‘That needs to be pretty. That needs to have something done with it.’”
The lot, which was used by the State Highway Department to store equipment used to widen the Watterson Expressway nearly three decades ago, has sat vacant and undeveloped since, slowly generating the ire of Ruhe and other community residents.
To address the issue, she began by enrolling herself into the Center for Neighborhoods programs The Neighborhood Institute and The Green Institute where she hoped to gain the knowledge and support she would need to turn her annoyance into a solution.
Since then, Ruhe has been a one-woman battering ram, clicking off steps through sheer will and determination. She’s developed a registered non-profit organization to manage the property, which she has dubbed Orchards of Beechmont, set up an online fundraising site, rallied the support of neighbors and waded through layers of state-level bureaucracy needed to purchase the property.
While the Center for Neighborhoods is serving as a financial sponsor until she can pass a threshold in her fledgling organization to take over the duties herself, Ruhe is closer to reaching her goal than ever with the announcement that Louisville Grows will soon be planting some fruit-bearing trees on the property courtesy of a grant from the Metro Sewer Department.
Once the lot is “made pretty” through the Orchards of Beechmont project, Ruhe doesn’t think her work is finished. In fact, she has hopes to turn it into a living classroom.
“The orchard will work to educate both children and adults on the skills and benefits of local food production,” Ruhe wrote in her application to the Center for Neighborhoods.
“It’s there to teach,” she says.
Louisville Grows and Love Louisville Trees: Seeds of Change
The common element for many of the successful orchards and community gardens in Louisville is a non-profit called Louisville Grows. Their division, Love Louisville Trees, headed up by Reteneller, is responsible for nearly 200 trees and countless other fruit producing bushes in the city. Believe it or not, that is only half of their daily task at hand.
In addition to near-constant maintenance needed on six properties, including The People’s Garden in the Shawnee neighborhood, the Shippingport Memorial Gardenin Portland and the Community Food Forest, also near Portland and Shawnee, Reteneller’s primary job is that of cultivating the communities that her orchards serve.
“I think, looking across communities and other cities, oftentimes one of the biggest challenges that you’ve got is this great idea of ‘Oh, we’ll plant some fruit trees and people will come and they will eat it and love it,’” she says.
“It’s so much more than that, it really involves a lot of planning and communication and nurturing and cultivation just in those relationships to then help out the trees.”
It’s the part of her job description that she’s most passionate about.
“I really believe in community organizing and bringing people together and empowering folks with the information and knowledge to not only grow fruits and vegetables but to strengthen their community around that growing and the hard work that goes into maintaining these properties,” she says.
Reteneller’s goals in this respect are modest.
“Even if, in a four block radius from each one of these orchards, we had ten people who were committed and interested in making sure that that orchard was maintained, it could reap exponential benefits for that community in nutrients and relationships that are built from the benefits of having done that,” she says.
For now, Reteneller and her team will continue their goals of growing both trees and hope for their city. As for their success, Reteneller speaks unironically.
“I’m pretty hopeful.”