From 100 feet in th­­e air, the parcel at 500 N. Waller Ave. in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago looks like the center of a donut. Surrounded by two churches, a fire station, a senior home, a town hall, a library, and a high school is a rectangular green space the size of five city lots. The land once stood empty and desolate, like many vacant lots in Chicago, but today, it houses beds of vegetables and fruits soaking in the sun and goats from a nearby farm resting under the shade of a tree. In the middle of the green space sits a gazebo with a hand-painted sign that reads, “Harambee! Gardens.”

“From the start, it was something big enough that people would know about [it], partially because of the sheer size of it,” says Seamus Ford, co-founder of the garden, as he gives a tour on a cool October day, picking raspberries and pointing out tomatoes along the way.

Ford, a Chicago-born outdoorsman, casually walks through the garden with humble familiarity. Every now and then, he pauses, looking over the expanse of green in wonder, and recounts a detail about the garden’s beginnings.

In 2008, Ford, a special project manager for an educational company and a resident of the Austin neighborhood, became concerned about fossil fuel inputs and how food is grown.

“When fuel prices were going through the roof, it started to get really clear to me that there’s a change underway, and it could be a bad one if we don’t have answers to this,” Ford recalls. And that’s when he got into gardening. “I basically got rid of any grass, almost all the grass where I live, and built raised beds.”

Around the same time, he often drove by a vacant lot and began to feel a “siren call” to build a community garden. According to the DePaul Institute for Housing Studies, there are nearly 32,000 vacant lots in Chicago. Though many contain debris and trash, they can be an ecological and social opportunity. Planting a garden amid an otherwise empty lot is an opportunity that an increasing number of communities are choosing to pursue, but it is also one that requires hard work to sustain.

Ford learned that the land belonged to a neighbor and got permission to transform the grass lot into a garden. He then co-founded Root-Riot, an organization with the goal of creating a network of urban gardens “growing local food, fostering resilience, and reweaving the fabric of our community, one planting bed at a time.”

Now, 12 years in, the Harambee Community Garden can provide lessons about how it was able to last this long and where it’s headed from here.

Read the full article about community gardens by Jordyn Harrison at YES! Magazine.