Food Forests: A conversation with Catherine Bukowski
Food Forests: A conversation with Catherine Bukowski
BIOS/ SHANNON BAKER, OALA, IS A LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT AT WATERFRONT TORONTO AND A MEMBER OF THE GROUND EDITORIAL BOARD.
CATHERINE BUKOWSKI IS A PHD CANDIDATE AT VIRGINIA TECH IN THE UNITED STATES. HER DISSERTATION RESEARCH IS ON THE SOCIAL ASPECTS OF COMMUNITY FOOD FORESTS, AND FROM 2014 TO 2016, SHE TRAVELED ACROSS THE U.S. VISITING MORE THAN 20 COMMUNITY FOOD FORESTS TO INTERVIEW THEIR LEADERS, HOLD FOCUS GROUPS, AND ANALYZE SITE DESIGN AND STRUCTURE. HER BOOK THE COMMUNITY FOOD FOREST HANDBOOK: HOW TO PLAN, ORGANIZE, AND NURTURE EDIBLE GATHERING PLACES WAS PUBLISHED IN 2018 BY CHELSEA GREEN PUBLISHING.
Shannon Baker (SB): What is a food forest?
Catherine Bukowski (CB): Generally speaking, a food forest is a space where you’re trying to maximize the growing area by planting multiple layers of vegetation, and arranging those plants so that they have a relationship with each other similar to what you would find in a forest—for example, maximizing the availability of resources and light, mixing nitrogen-fixing species with plants that might accumulate other nutrients, and facilitating growing conditions, competition, and all the normal ecological processes you’d find in a forest. It’s about mimicking a forest ecosystem structurally as well as with the relationships between plants and other components.
A community food forest takes that structure and uses it in a setting where you have a social component in which people are coming together and collaboratively maintaining, designing, growing, and harvesting from that space.
SB: Do the plant communities mimic what you would find in the wild, or are you using an ecological model to create a community that’s designed and not necessarily exactly reflective of what you might find in nature?
CB: It’s definitely a designed community, using the template of what works in a forest ecosystem. It involves designing with plants that might have more direct benefits to humans than would a group of plants you might find in a forest. Using the example of a nitrogen-fixing species: even if it doesn’t necessarily produce something for humans, it might reduce the need for fertilizer, which will reduce the time, energy, and inputs that people need to put into the space.
SB: In your book, you talk about systems-thinking as an approach to food forest design, and also about the role of food forests in spurring social change. How are food forests important or relevant in the context of social change?
CB: Getting people to think about how they can become involved in their urban landscape is in itself a force for change. Going through the process of designing a collaborative space together means that you’re designing a kind of commons — a public area where people can harvest food. It’s something that is not typical in our society any more. And that, right there, is a form of social change. It’s the idea for a culture of sharing that has been lost from a lot of our urban spaces.
Food forests engage the question: How can the urban landscape be used to meet people’s needs? Public Works Departments or other public entities normally take care of public space, but often public space is not being utilized to its fullest potential. To look at different spaces in our community that are underutilized, and to ask how, as a society, we can better utilize them to meet our own needs, and then collaborate to make that happen, that is a social change mindset.
SB: What are some of the differences between a more traditional community garden and a food forest?
CB: Both types of spaces bring people together around food and get people thinking about their local food system. But the traditional model of a community garden is that people have individual allotment plots. There may not be security for having the same plot the next year, in which case you’re probably going to focus on planting annual plants.
With a food forest, everybody’s sharing in designing and growing within the same space. This opens things up to a wider variety of plants: perennials along with annuals. People become a little more attuned to what happens over time when you maintain the space.
A food forest can serve a public good similar to the way a public library does, in the sense that through providing an accessible place for exchange, people’s lives can be enhanced, but instead of books it’s through plants. People are encouraged not just to harvest the food, but to collect some seeds and even make some cuttings so they can do their own vegetative propagation in order to plant species on their own property at home.
SB: It sounds as if a food forest is a more permanent use of the landscape than a community garden. Some people might see a community garden as a bit more ephemeral or more easily relocated or moved to a different site. Does that present any challenges in terms of establishing a food forest?
CB: Yes, for sure. With that permanent mindset, finding the right location is definitely key in securing public permission, if it’s on public land, or private permission. And that’s another area where people creating food forests are also fighting for social change, because, typically, people start to learn about the democratic processes within their community, and how to work with local agencies, and what are some of the roadblocks to securing space, or are there regulations against planting fruit trees in a public space, and why is that? And that tends to spur a lot of change within the community itself, along with activism and getting involved politically.
If it’s a public space in which you’re trying to recreate a forest-type ecosystem, then you’re essentially creating a small park, rather than just gardening, and so aesthetics are involved.
SB: What is the role of design in establishing a food forest? Is there a tension between the aesthetics of it as pure design versus an ecological restoration approach, which has different functional and aesthetic outcomes?
CB: Successful food forests I’ve seen do not just focus on the ecological restoration aspect of the design. It’s a huge component, of course, but they also focus on the aesthetics of design for inviting the community in to use that space—for example, making sure that there are pathways for people to walk through that are clearly visible and have borders, as a way to invite people to explore the space, or at least to stroll through it so that it’s a restorative space. Or there might be a pavilion or a place where people can gather. Successful food forests focus on more than growing food and instead include other design elements—particularly art and cultural pieces within the gardens that are somehow connected either to local activism or have an ecological message to them. It could be something like inviting a local artist in to design a gate into the food forest with different insect species to remind people of the importance of pollinators while making the gate less of a barrier and more of an aesthetic component.
SB: What do you see as opportunities for landscape architects to be involved in the establishment and design of food forests?
CB: I think landscape architects have a lot to gain from working with food forests, because it does require an ecological design, which can be a learning opportunity, not simply an aesthetic approach. And, of course, landscape architects have a lot to offer in terms of public charrettes and getting feedback from the community, and also in terms of mapping out the entire neighbourhood in order to figure out the best location for the food forest. So yes, there are a lot of things landscape architects can contribute. But when I’ve talked to some landscape architects, and they start to understand how to design a food forest by thinking through all the different ecological elements needing functional relationships in designing a plant community, more than one has said to me that they’ve learned a lot about incorporating a systems-based approach into the planting design, which may have been lacking from a traditional landscape architecture education program.
SB: What are some examples of food forests that were designed by landscape architects and that are particularly successful?
CB: One of the chapters in my book is about working with professional allies, and it focuses on the role of landscape architects. I’ve included some of the drawings that a landscape architect did for a food forest in Roanoke, Virginia. Landscape architects were also integral in the design process for the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle.
And there’s a project going on in Atlanta, Georgia, a fairly large food forest on public property that a landscape architect is involved with. The landscape architect had studied food forests as part of her graduate work, and then went on to work with the one being designed in Atlanta.
SB: Do food forests tend to be generally welcome in a community, or do they come with some challenges in terms of their establishment?
CB: People tend to be worried about liability and maintenance, because these are spaces that will require long-term maintenance. And there are occasional concerns about how homeless or transient populations may use the space, or that they’ll be attracted to it because there is free food. If the space isn’t created with public use in mind, there can be conflicts later on in terms of questions such as, was it designed with enough lighting for people to feel safe walking through it in the evening? Is there enough visual openness within it? These are the types of elements that landscape architects can help with, from the onset.
SB: Are there certain design elements that contribute to the magic of a food forest?
CB: Having a community gathering space is huge. It can be as simple as a picnic table, with protection from wind or really hot conditions. It’s good to have a place where people can sit down or rest. And it’s important to include space for community celebration, such as a seasonal festival or potluck that incorporates some of the harvest from the site, so people become connected to the space. Water is an important element, as well. Demonstrating different ways to save or minimize the amount of water, particularly in drought-prone areas, can be a really important educational component of a food forest project—and there can be financial support for that from local agencies.
SB: Are there food forests in places other than the U.S.?
CB: Yes, there are some in Canada. A lot of places in Europe are picking up on it. Australia and New Zealand are very interested in the concept. And there’s research going on, in Italy and elsewhere, on food forests in public spaces, food forests on school property and how that might foster educational experiences outside of the normal curriculum for kids. So, it’s a topic area academically that’s really picking up, and people are trying to research the benefits.
I have a website that maps out food forests I’m aware of, and there are some on there from Vancouver and Toronto. [See www.communityfoodforests.com.]
SB: I have become exposed to food forests through Indigenous knowledge keepers and an approach that connects nature with food production and harvesting. I’m also thinking of Three Sisters Gardens and the growing of squash, corn, and beans together, which is like a mini-food forest because of the symbiotic relationship between those three plants and the way they are grown.
CB: Yes, there are definitely these sorts of connections.
I’d like to emphasize that food forests are not necessarily going to fix food insecurity problems on their own, but they have huge potential for educating people in so many different ways—whether that is about food in general, eco-literacy, design, or how to become involved with your local landscape and become an active and engaged citizen. Depending on what is built into the design, food forests have a huge capacity for public education. Signage is an example. When I first started visiting food forests, signage was lacking in most spaces, but that is changing. Without signage, people walk by and don’t really understand what they’re looking at. They don’t understand that the food is free or that they can become involved. Signage can foster some of the deeper and more important conversations about how the space serves community, and get people thinking about how they can become involved in other places within the community to bring about change.
People come together around food. It’s an important way to cross boundaries.
THE FOLLOWING LIST OF FOOD FOREST PROJECTS IN ONTARIO IS MEANT TO PROVIDE LEADS FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION. SOME OF THE FOOD FORESTS MENTIONED BELOW ARE IN THE PLANNING/DISCUSSION STAGE, AND SOME HAVE CEASED OPERATIONS, BUT ALL WILL LEAD YOU TO FURTHER RESOURCES.