A Garden of Eating Blooms on Beacon Hill

Growing Beacon Hill’s new Food Forest will take a village—but it will also feed one.
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Those Pink Lady apples you’re eyeing at the supermarket cost $2.49 a pound. A feather-light pint of organic raspberries? Five bucks. But at the new, 7-acre Beacon Hill Food Forest, these and other garden produce will be free (with a little sweat equity encouraged).

Funded in part by the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, and planted and maintained by dozens of volunteers, this public Garden of Eden—including fruit and nut trees, mulberry bushes and snack paths of strawberries—will break ground this fall and is due to bear its first harvest starting in the summer of 2013.

Unlike the city’s many P-Patches, where the garden food belongs to whoever does the planting, anyone—even passersby—will be allowed to pick from the Food Forest. And while at P-Patches, the ever-revolving plots are planted with annuals such lettuce and tomatoes, here, the main plantings are perennial, such as fruit and nut trees and berry bushes.

The forest is the brainchild of local proponents of permaculture (a word invented to mean “permanent agriculture,” a sustainable philosophy first defined in the 1970s) and will take root on a sunny slope just below Jefferson Park. For decades, neighbors have been cooking up ideas to develop this open space on the Seattle Public Utilities‒owned property, says Jenny Pell, a Seattle permaculture designer who specializes in edible landscapes and has played a key role in the forest’s design. The dreams began to materialize at Pell’s six-month-long permaculture workshop in 2009, when participants designed a food forest as a class project. The group applied for and won a $22,500 Seattle Department of Neighborhoods grant, most of which went toward creating a more comprehensive design. With permaculture principles at the fore, the expanded design (by Pell and Margarett Harrison, principal at Harrison Design Landscape Architecture) gives consideration to how natural features—including soil, rainwater, insects, and the new plants and trees on the site—will work together.

Food Forest organizers held three public meetings (required by the Department of Neighborhoods) to gather requests from the community before starting the official design. Neighbors responded enthusiastically. Twelve Chinese grandmothers came to one meeting with an interpreter, and lit up when they learned the Food Forest could include some fruits and berries, such as the yang-mei berry, that they couldn’t get elsewhere. People asked for bees, areas for kids, classrooms, orchards, berry fields and bike racks. The Veterans’ Hospital, just steps away, is discussing the possibility of a therapeutic garden program.


The sunny slope just west of Beacon Hill’s Jefferson Park will soon boast a bountiful food forest

Alongside the Food Forest, separate areas on the acreage are being set aside for individual garden plots, as well as larger allotments of shared garden space for groups that want to grow together, using a P-Patch model.

“The community, for the most part, has been 100 percent positive,” says Laura Raymond, of the city’s Department of Neighborhoods P-Patch Community Garden Program, which is overseeing the project. “People are really willing to pitch in, and grateful.”

Food forests aren’t a new concept, but this is likely the largest example in the U.S. Seattle has a decades-long history of P-Patches, and at a couple of community gardens, such as Capitol Hill’s Howell Collective P-Patch, neighbors work together. But the forest is slightly different: “It’s a public, edible park,” says Pell. It’s not just for those who buy the seeds or work the ground. (It’s probably also one of the only public gardens where plans include planting goji berries, loquats and pawpaw trees.)

Partial funding will come from the 2008 Parks and Green Spaces levy, but additional volunteer fundraising will be required to cover much of the seed and plant costs. Volunteers will start by building up the soil and planting about 1.75 acres with trees and plants this fall. The forest will include a nearly 2-acre native edibles area with salal, salmonberries, huckleberries and thimbleberries. Snack fruits, such as raspberries, will be planted alongside a field where kids play. Everything will be organically grown, with no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Strawberries and blueberries will likely be the first to ripen, some by next summer. The fruit and nut trees will be a longer-term project, bearing after anywhere from three to seven years in the ground. But once they do, harvests could be ample—Pell says walnut trees planted on-site could produce around 30 bushels of nuts on one tree.

If all goes according to plan, the harvests could dwarf what would be possible on the same space if it were strictly planted with rows of vegetables. “Fruit is valuable because you can grow a lot of food on a really small footprint,” says Gail Savina, executive director of Seattle nonprofit City Fruit, which helps to protect, promote, educate and help with the harvest of urban fruit trees.

This vision of bounty is overwhelming, but so, too, is the image of an all-volunteer group managing a forest of fruit- and nut-shedding edible plants. What if the ground festers with rotting fruit, attracting rodents and wasps? Pell says many cities restrict and outright ban public fruit- and nut-bearing trees in parks, for precisely this reason. “P-Patches traditionally work on an all-volunteer model,” she says, but notes, “I think this project would be served better by part-time paid staff.”

At this time, no money has been allotted for that purpose, but raspberry patches will require thinning, the Chinese hawthorn trees might need pruning, and someone will likely have to go ’round the mulberry bush with a pair of clippers. Based in permaculture techniques, the plan has been carefully designed to cut down on maintenance. (For example, planting an understory of berries beneath trees will greatly reduce the need to weed and water.) Nonetheless, says Raymond, “The community is really going to have to get themselves organized to make sure there is a good harvest plan.” But, she says, community building is part of the point. Volunteers have formed a Friends of the Beacon Food Forest committee (beaconfoodforest.weebly.com) and are holding free workshops, such as fruit tree pruning, for people interested in helping to care for forest plantings.

So what about the possibility that people will grab more than their fair share? “That’s a concern,” says Margarett Harrison. “But we feel like there will be enough eyes on the site that enough people might discourage those who want to take more than what they need,” she says. In other words, the plan to fill the place with not just gleaners, but veterans, kids, P-Patch gardeners and Chinese grandmothers should keep any one person from feeling free to grab it all. The Food Forest isn’t exactly in the middle of nowhere, either. East of the sunny Beacon Hill slope with a glorious downtown view, Jefferson Park is chock-full of amenities to draw eager grazers and gazers, with a skateboard park, putting green, playground and a spraypark set to open this month. Ball fields here have hosted everything from pickup soccer games to Samoan cricket matches.

“You do have to have etiquette,” says Pell. “No, we don’t want people coming and filling boxes of food and selling it on the corner.” But she is also amused by this particular worry. “The biggest concern is that people are going to come and eat it,” Pell marvels. “People are, like, ‘What if homeless people come and eat it all?’ My biggest dream is that it all gets eaten.”

Meet the YIMBYs, Seattleites in Support of Housing Density

Meet the YIMBYs, Seattleites in Support of Housing Density

A new movement is saying yes to urban density in all its forms
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Ballard homeowner Sara Maxana (with daughter Nani) identifies as a YIMBY, and supports more housing density, including in single-family areas

Sara Maxana is exactly the sort of person you might expect to see getting involved in her neighborhood meetings. A single mom with two young kids, Maxana lives in a single-family 1931 Ballard bungalow of the type many neighborhood activists are fighting to preserve. Ballard, where the population grew 26 percent between 2010 and 2014, is ground zero in Seattle’s density wars, which pit pro-growth advocates, many of them young renters who moved to the city within the last decade, against the longtime homeowners sometimes disparagingly known as NIMBYs, for “not in my backyard.”

What you might find surprising is that Maxana isn’t a NIMBY. She’s one of a growing group of people who say “yes in my backyard,” coining a new acronym: YIMBY.

Maxana, who once worked at the sustainability nonprofit Futurewise, had more or less retired from politics. But she got re-engaged after Mayor Ed Murray proposed the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) in 2015. The plan (see sidebar, below), which proposes higher density across the city—including the addition of more backyard cottages and basement apartments in single-family areas—quickly became divisive.

Maxana started identifying as a YIMBY because she felt Seattle decision makers needed to hear a positive story about the changes that are coming to the city. She began speaking up at public meetings, studying the details of HALA and tweeting as @YIMBYmom, a quiet rebuke to those who say all urbanists—i.e., people who believe that cities should be dense, culturally vibrant, diverse places with lots of different transportation options—are single, transient renters with no ties to their community.

By embracing the YIMBY concept, Maxana joins a growing community of activists, researchers, housing experts and community-based organizations that see growth as an opportunity to create housing for all the new people who want to live in cities, rather than a hostile invading force. These groups make up a loosely organized, informal coalition of organizations and individuals across the country and, indeed, the globe (groups using the YIMBY framework have sprung up from Melbourne to Helsinki to Iowa City), who believe that the root of housing affordability is a housing shortage, and that the solution to that shortage is simple: Build more housing.  

Image By: Maria Billorou
Zachary DeWolf at the 12th Avenue Arts Building: trying to make Capitol Hill a place for mansion owners and street people alike

Although they span the political spectrum, from far left social-justice activists to hard-core libertarian free marketeers, YIMBYs generally agree that cities should be accessible and affordable for everyone, whether they own a million-dollar mansion or rent a $900-a-month studio, and whether they work as a barista or just moved to Seattle for a new job at Amazon.

Seattle might not seem the most obvious axis for this pro-density revolution. For one thing, it’s a city where the single-family home, especially the iconic Craftsman bungalow, is sacrosanct. So thoroughly did Seattle embrace the postwar ideal of the detached single-family house with a yard that it’s written into our zoning code, which preserves a remarkable 57 percent of the city’s buildable land exclusively for single-family houses. (In Portland, the number is 3 percent.)

But as more and more people move to Seattle—the city’s long-range plans anticipate 120,000 new residents by 2035—tension between longtime homeowners and renters, many of them relative newcomers to the city, has mounted. Rents in Seattle increased more last year than those in any other big city in the country, and in the past five years, the median rent has increased from just over $1,500 to more than $2,000. Meanwhile, the median income of renters, $47,847, is less than half that of homeowners, $108,768.

Instead of merely complaining about the housing crisis, Maxana says, YIMBYs “see growth as something that can catalyze change and bring about good things for cities.”

“I don’t see YIMBYs as addressing a problem so much as addressing an opportunity,” Maxana says. “We’re not trying to stop things; we’re trying to say yes to change. I think it’s much more exciting to be pushing for a vision than against what’s happening.”

For Maxana, that vision includes more new neighbors, more interesting shops and coffeehouses, more places to walk and bike and ride—in other words, more of all the things that are coming to her Ballard neighborhood already. “In Ballard, we have all these new breweries, and they’re child-friendly and they’re dog-friendly, and there are places to sit outside with your kids,” Maxana says. “I see more people in the parks, on the streets, on the bus. In my neighborhood, I can walk to five bus lines that get me across town to everywhere I could possibly need to go in the city. And all of that activity lends itself to more vibrancy, and just a more interesting place to live.”

Maxana can rattle off the statistics that describe Seattle’s housing crisis—for example, 40 new people and 35 new jobs are added every day, yet only 12 new housing units a day. But she and other YIMBYs argue that statistics don’t change minds; values do. “We cannot convince anybody with the data alone. We have to be speaking about our values and we have to be speaking from our heart—not ‘I feel this way and so should you,’ but ‘I’m a mom in Ballard and I want my kids to be able to live here when they grow up, and ultimately, this is why I support [density].’”

YIMBYs are starting to make waves at city hall. In July, under pressure from YIMBYs and other urbanists who argued that the city needed to do more to include marginalized groups such as renters, immigrants and people of color, Murray announced the city was cutting formal ties with the 13 neighborhood councils that advise the city on growth and development, eliminating their funding and creating a new advisory group to come up with a more inclusive neighborhood outreach strategy. (The neighborhood councils, Murray noted, are dominated by older, white, wealthy homeowners, and are not representative of an increasingly diverse city.)

While the YIMBYs didn’t make this change happen on their own, their support helped provide political cover for Murray and his neighborhood department director, Kathy Nyland (a former Georgetown neighborhood activist who is openly sympathetic to the YIMBY cause), for what turned out to be a controversial move. Many neighborhood activists liked the neighborhood councils as they were.

Some neighborhood groups are starting to move in a YIMBY direction. A Capitol Hill renter and self-identified YIMBY, Zachary DeWolf stepped into a leadership vacuum on the Capitol Hill Community Council in 2014. He was first elected vice president in 2014, and then president in 2015. As president, he restructured a traditional neighborhood group dominated by older homeowners into an organization run almost entirely by young renters.

His goal: to make the group that represents Capitol Hill more welcoming and inclusive. He has encouraged young renters to run for leadership positions; changed the style of the meetings from a traditional format with leaders sitting at a table facing the audience, to a circular roundtable where everyone can participate; and instituted more after-work hours/evening “community conversations” and “socials” to give a wider range of people a chance to get to know each other and discuss neighborhood issues.

The group’s policy emphasis has been different, too. Instead of advocating for anti-urbanist causes, such as banning corner stores in residential areas and placing a moratorium on new micro apartments as it did in the past, the council is discussing how to accommodate a supervised drug-consumption site in the neighborhood. As DeWolf puts it, “Instead of pushing [drug users] out to neighborhoods that are farther out, where there’s less resources and community, why not just keep them here and take care of them ourselves?” He adds, “At the end of the day, every person that’s in our neighborhood—whether it’s someone living in North Capitol Hill in a gajillion-dollar mansion or someone sleeping in the doorway on 15th in front of someone’s business, every type of person is our neighbor. To me, that is very YIMBY.”

Dennis Saxman, a longtime Capitol Hill activist and renter who opposes what he sees as out-of-control development and gentrification in his neighborhood, believes YIMBYs are well-meaning, but that they misunderstand the root causes of Seattle’s affordability crisis. “I don’t think they understand that Seattle was once notable for the strength of its neighborhoods and their differing characters, and that at one time, that was seen as something important to preserve and desirable,” Saxman says. “Now it’s seen as a way to market neighborhoods while at the same time destroying what makes a neighborhood a neighborhood.”

Saxman says he admires a lot of what DeWolf has done to bring new people into the council, but argues that “they’re falling short” when it comes to including more racial minorities, longtime residents and low-income people. “I don’t think they’re authentically community-based,” he says.

Will Seattle’s future look more like DeWolf and Maxana’s vision—an ever denser city, where newcomers and their ideas are welcome—or more like the city of the past, where conversations were dominated by residents resistant to change? That may depend on whether YIMBYs can make the leap from a vocal group of contrarians who provide a counterpoint to conventional wisdom at city hall to a force that helps guide city policy while bringing new allies, including more single-family homeowners, on board.

One sign that yimbys in Seattle are having an impact came last June from 1,300 miles away in Boulder, Colorado. A group of 150 YIMBYs from all over the country convened at an inaugural conference, YIMBY 2016, to talk about their challenges and successes. The Seattle contingent, which included Maxana, Sightline Institute staffer and Capitol Hill renter Serena Larkin, and University District renter and YIMBY activist Laura Bernstein (who tweets at @YIMBYSea), showed up feeling a bit discouraged by local rancor over HALA. But they left energized after delegations from other cities expressed enthusiasm for what they see as an inclusive coalition of Seattle groups that support HALA, which include urban activists, developers, environmentalists and social justice organizations.

“All these other groups and cities kept telling us, ‘We need to do that work—how did you get all of those people at the table together?’” says Larkin. “It wasn’t the policies [the details of HALA] we came up with, but the relationships that they saw had been built through HALA.”

When you’re in the thick of things in Seattle, it’s hard to see what’s being accomplished here, notes Bernstein. “But when you compare Seattle to other cities, then all of a sudden we look like the success story. I think that there are battles that we’re losing, but we’re winning the war.”

Maxana points to the success of the housing levy, which funds low-income housing and which Seattle voters approved by more than 70 percent in August, as a sign that many Seattleites support the idea of building more housing, including affordable housing. “I see that, and I just have to believe something is clicking,” says Maxana. “And even though you have such a volume of vitriol on [private social media site] Nextdoor and in some of these neighborhood meetings, I think, for the most part, when I look at the city, I see people who want a good place to live not just for themselves, but for their kids and their neighbors.”

Including neighbors they don’t even know yet.

What The Hala?
The proposed Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), billed as an “action plan to address Seattle’s affordability crisis,” aims to build 50,000 new housing units in the next 20 years, 20,000 of those affordable to people making less than 60 percent of Seattle’s median income ($37,680 for an individual and $53,760 for a family of four*).

To help accomplish this, HALA will: 
Increase the maximum height of new multifamily buildings in multifamily areas and commercial buildings outside downtown, South Lake Union and the University District by 10–20 feet.

Require rental housing developers to make a percentage of the new housing they build affordable to people making less than 60 percent of median income, or pay a fee that will go toward affordable housing elsewhere in Seattle. (Commercial property developers will also have to pay a similar fee.)

Ease restrictions on backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments in single-family areas, to allow as many as one of each on single-family lots.

Expand the boundaries of urban villages and rezone about 6 percent of Seattle’s single-family areas to allow low-rise multifamily housing in those areas.

Implement anti-displacement strategies in neighborhoods with low-income residents who are especially vulnerable to displacement, and promote homeownership, especially for vulnerable populations.

See a full list of HALA strategies at seattle.gov/hala.
* Source: City of Seattle