Urban Farm Wins ASLA Community Stewardship Award

WINNER: ASLA Iowa 2012 Community Stewardship Award

As the City of Cedar Rapids moves towards full post-flood recovery, open plots still dot the urban landscape. In 2010 a six-block area of land on the city’s west side had been purchased by the city and the existing flood-damaged houses demolished. Matthew 25, an area non-profit dedicated to helping residents reclaim homes and neighborhoods, stepped in with an imaginative idea. With the help of community members, design professionals and Iowa State University design students, the collective transformed the scattered parcels into a working urban farm.

When Matthew 25 broached the idea of creating an urban farm in the Time Check Neighborhood, they realized that the first hurdle would be leasing the land from the city and developing new zoning to allow urban farming within city boundaries. City officials recognized the idea as a positive way to encourage civic pride while long-term flood management strategies were being developed. They quickly signaled their support and a zoning amendment, the first of its kind in the State of Iowa, was developed to allow permitted agriculture within city limits.

With the red tape out of the way, Matthew 25 and the Northwest Neighborhood Association collected input from residents about their vision for the farm. The dialogue led to a series of clear project goals: provide fresh, affordable, local produce for residents using sustainable agriculture methods; self-sustain through the sale of community supported agriculture (CSA) shares; serve as a learning center for students; and create a sense of pride and identity in the neighborhood.

These goals were given to Nadia Anderson, Assistant Professor of Architecture at Iowa State University who used them as starting points for the spring 2012 Bridge Studio. This program, connecting design students with real-world projects, involved graduate and undergraduate students in landscape architecture, architecture, and interior design. The student design team was challenged to address the project goals while creating a place that would be productive, educational and enjoyable. Professionals from OPN Architects, Fox Landscape Architecture, and Anderson Bogert provided design critique and input on technical issues. The design was developed by the students through on-going contact with the neighborhood association, city leaders, and design professionals ensuring community support for the initiative. The Urban Farm concept was presented by the students to the public in an open-house forum held at Matthew 25 Groundswell community gathering space in Cedar Rapids.

The result of this process was the Matthew 25 Urban Farm, two-acres of productive green space in the heart of the city. The design divides the space into four zones. The outer ring is a low-intensity zone featuring an agro-forestry plot, low maintenance plantings and perennials. Moving inward, a mild-intensity zone is defined by an orchard border, perennial-berry plantings and drought-tolerant plantings. A moderate-intensity zone carves out space for a community garden, mobile greenhouse, raised beds and planters and other species with regular irrigation needs and multiple harvest periods. In the center of the space are community amenities such as a central pavilion and play area, rainwater harvesting and storage, vertical agriculture, herbs, greens and other high irrigation / high maintenance plantings.

In addition to utilizing a space that would otherwise be empty and unused, the Matthew 25 Urban Farm provides an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables to an area that would otherwise be a fresh food desert. It offers residents a place to gather and enjoy the outdoors and each other’s company and it provides space for students to learn about sustainable agriculture and healthy food choices. With this project, local leaders re-imagined what an urban landscape can be and in doing so, developed a creative model for cities that both sustains and enriches their communities.