Urban Oasis: The Fifth Avenue Garden

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yale mar20 cabbage.jpg

Photo by Anastasia Curley

For two short months, New Yorkers will find a lush, albeit miniature, garden growing on Fifth Avenue and Thirteenth Street, in the gallery space of Parson's the New School for Design. The petite garden -- three long window boxes -- was planted and transplanted by Yale undergraduates, and inspired by the work of the Chez Panisse Foundation in Berkeley, California. The 45 feet of garden beds make a simple claim: that gardens are a place for learning, and that every school should have a well-cultivated plot of land. New York City pedestrians, still hungry for spring, are halting on the sidewalk to stare at this miniature garden. The garden is lush with textures and colors: frilly golden mustard; broad, purple cabbage leaves; silvery artichokes; and lily-pad-like nasturtiums with bright orange flowers. While it's lovely, this garden isn't merely decorative: these plants are for eating, and the real potential is in the teaching.

The garden is part of a larger show, first presented at the Venice Biennale, about the ways architecture engages with contemporary social conditions. Aaron Levy, William Menking, and Andrew Strum, the show's farsighted curators, saw the link between built spaces and garden spaces, and saw how school gardens have the potential to feed and educate our children today.

People don't fall in love with abstractions but with particulars, and caring for "the environment" starts with loving a particular place. Ask the people you know who are nature lovers or staunch environmentalists where this stance began. It's likely there's a garden, a piece of woods, or a grassy patch of lawn (yes, even lawn!) in their childhood. In a garden, students learn to care for a piece of land, and they learn a new brand of environmentalism.

School gardens teach students of all ages the skills of critical thinking, problem solving, and the relationship between cause and effect. They also teach responsibility and care.

We're not alone in believing in the power of gardens: even as the economy tips downward, we are seeing that the demand for school gardens is going up.

Tenured faculty are coming out to the Yale Farm. Sometimes they roll up their sleeves and grab a wheelbarrow. At other times, they have a class in tow, and they use this one-acre market garden as a lab, or classroom. Spinach becomes integral to the chemistry lab's experiments to improve photovoltaic cells, Women's Studies is recreating the first scribed recipes known to man in the wood burning oven, and the Environmental Studies classes are poking around in the compost to learn about soil fertility. New Haven Public School students learn about biology and bugs, or how good a slice of tomato, or a snip of broccoli can be.

We're not alone in believing in the power of gardens: even as the economy tips downward, we are seeing that the demand for school gardens is going up.

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Photo by Melina Shannon-DiPietro

Today, Michelle Obama is digging up a patch of the South Lawn of the White House to plant a vegetable garden.This is welcome, heartening news. People who care about the environment, food, and our children's health should applaud the First Lady. This garden will feed the first family and their guests, but Michelle Obama noted that its most important role will be to educate children about healthy, locally grown food at a time when obesity and diabetes have become a national health crisis.

Alice Waters, a friend, mentor, and the inspiration behind our work here at Yale, has been talking about a White House Garden since I was in middle school. More recently, advocates from Roger Doiran to the movers and shakers at the White House Organic Farm Project, have given the idea steam. I've loved this idea from the beginning: it's a reminder that the health of our nation is built on good soil and hard work.

In 2005, we helped build a model garden on the National Mall as part of the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival. That garden was, as the White House Kitchen garden now will be, a powerful gesture for every principal, parent, teacher, student, groundskeeper, or school lunch lady who has been eyeing a plot of lawn for a school garden.

School gardens need not be fancy affairs, but these advocates need help to make their work easy and effective, particularly when it comes to integrating school gardens with curriculum, and Michelle Obama's vision for the White House Kitchen Garden just might be the push we all need.

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Melina Shannon-DiPietro is the director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, which oversees sustainable dining at Yale, manages an organic farm on campus, and runs programs that support academic inquiry related to food and agriculture. More

Melina Shannon-DiPietro is an organic farmer turned executive director. In 2003 she traded in her stirrup hoe for a laptop and joined Yale to help found the Sustainable Food Project. For the past seven years, she has worked with colleagues, faculty, and students to create meaningful opportunities for college students in food, agriculture, and sustainability. Her biggest compliment came last year, when a student called her Yale's Dean of Food.
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