Topic: College of Architecture and Planning

August 21, 2015

Lauren Brown

Lauren Brown, MLA ’12, heads the Indy Urban Acres cut flowers efforts, growing mostly wild flowers that are sold for commercial use. The nearly forgotten land is an example, Brown says, of how landscape architects can help turn something that seems like nothing into a vibrant, essential piece of a community.

INDIANAPOLIS—On eight overlooked acres in the shadow of long-haul semi traffic, in a neighborhood represented on the city’s crime map with home invasion, burglary, theft and even assault icons, goodness grows.

It tastes like ripe tomatoes, sharp bell peppers and crisp cucumbers. It looks like wildflowers, waiting for a bride to carry them into happily-ever-after.

It feels like hope.

Indy Urban Acres, an organic farm carved out of throwaway land near I-70 on the Eastside, got its start in 2011 when a Ball State College of Architecture and Planning professor, a community partner and a landscape architecture department alumnus searched for a way to meet several needs.

Jody Rosenblatt, professor and director of the landscape architecture graduate program, said Stuart Lowry, then director of Indy Parks and Recreation, wanted to feed and educate at-risk children. Rosenblatt wanted to build up community—and her students—by creating innovative solutions to problems.

The idea: an urban farm field that would provide healthy food for nearby community members, while offering hands-on professional experience for college students.

Planting the seeds

When Lowry left the parks department to head Heartland Film, Don Colvin, MLA '90, deputy director of parks planning, stepped in.

Urban Acres by the Numbers

1 hoop house
8 acres of farmland
1,000 volunteers annually
2,000 visitors and guests annually
35,000 pounds of food distributed annually

Rosenblatt and Colvin, along with a team of Ball State students, brought the vision to reality, designing the program to teach the landscape architecture students about making great use of forgotten spaces.

"Technically our farm is not in a food desert, but it is in an economically depressed area," said Tyler Gough, Urban Acres farm manager.

Food deserts typically refer to urban neighborhoods where residents have no access to healthy food, including fresh produce. The neighborhood near the farm has a grocery, Gough said, but residents in challenged neighborhoods face food insecurity, so they often turn to the cheapest options which tend to be processed and unhealthy.

In 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 24.1 percent of children ages 5-17 in the Metropolitan School District of Warren Township, where the farm is located, lived in homes with family incomes below the poverty threshold ($23,624 for a family of four). That compares to 16.2 percent of children in Indianapolis as a whole.

"There are significant negative health outcomes because of a poor diet," Gough said.

Adults are more susceptible to diabetes and heart disease, and experts with the Urban Child Institute (UCI) say improper nutrition in children leads to developmental delays that can affect long-term performance in school. UCI estimates that children in food-insecure homes are about 75 percent more likely to have problems with cognitive, language and behavioral development.

Growing connections

The farm sits on a parcel that was held in a land bank and given to the city, Gough said, most likely in the late 1970s when the Indianapolis portion of I-70 was completed. A community garden initiative was added to the total Urban Acres project in 2012, expanding its reach.

"With the farm and the community garden, you’ve got people coming out, coming together. Suddenly they’re becoming friends, finding each other jobs. They know their neighbors, and they are watching out for them."

Tyler Gough,
Urban Acres Farm manager

"On the Eastside, what you saw was that people didn’t get out and meet each other like they used to," he said. "With the farm and the community garden, you've got people coming out, coming together. Suddenly they're becoming friends, finding each other jobs. They know their neighbors, and they are watching out for them.

"This garden is people growing food to eat, but it’s so much more."

Gough said the work that Rosenblatt and her students initiated is a formula that could be replicated, if local communities are willing to invest in the effort.

"If you drive up and down I-65 or I-70, there are thousands of acres like this," he said. "We’re growing 35,000 pounds of food that is being given away each year. There’s a big need for this."

Rosenblatt's team of researchers identified more than 400 acres within the Indianapolis parks system that could support urban agriculture projects.

Produce grown at Urban Acres is distributed to community members through Gleaners Food Bank and the Old Bethel United Methodist Church community outreach.

"I don’t know how you best quantify it," Gough said, "but it's a complete coming together of a community."

Feeding more than the body

The farm fulfills another goal that was present at the outset—teaching urban kids about how and where food is grown, Rosenblatt said.

Lauren Brown, MLA '12, heads the farm’s efforts to grow flowers for commercial sale, with proceeds going back into the project. She grew up with farming in her family’s history and appreciates the chance to teach farm visitors and volunteers about what it takes to keep the operation going from day to day.

"I love the groups that come out here," Brown said. "Kids come out, and they have no idea where or how a tomato grows. They’ll ask me to see a ranch plant, because they don’t know that ranch dressing is made of seasonings, not grown.

"I love watching them and seeing them begin to understand."

She said the possibilities to expand efforts like Urban Acres’ are almost limitless.

"Landscape architects can, through residential and neighborhood design, return the land for a purpose, for food and other crops," she said. "The field to table efforts have brought a lot of attention to the question of 'Where does our food come from?' I love that we can help make people even more aware."

Rosenblatt said that when she thinks about where the farm is today, she sees nothing but benefits.

"I hope that we have truly made a difference, cutting back on the obstacles for vulnerable children in our state capital to get access to good, healthy food," she said. "We were in the right place at the right time. Things work like that—I find if I accept the responsibility to stay open to opportunities, opportunities generally come."