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Community Food Forests

on the Rise

Community food forests are capturing the community and this personal development and
imagination of people in neighborhoods, civic collaboration benefits society. Questions
towns, and cities across the United States. emerge on why we feel disconnected from land
Their popularity reflects a value shift in urban and how to develop the culture of sharing abun-
cultural pockets. The message is a desire for dance, human skills, and knowledge needed for
public space, where possible, to be ecologically survival in the modern world.
designed with perennial and annual plants that Many communities today embrace the belief
produce food and herbal medicine, enhance that local food should be readily available, and
nutrition, promote food literacy, and provide that much of it could come from within city or
a useful and safe place to gather, recreate, town limits using ecologically sustainable design
and work together. This is all while engaging and safe urban production methods. The rein-
people in active participation to create the vigoration of this form of community spirit has
places they want to live in and to voice their helped focus a new urban agriculture agenda.
opinion through action. By developing these Community food forests are strongly linked to
spaces, people are stating that ecologically local food, food justice, and civic agriculture
healthy green spaces and sustainable local food movements. Participation in a community food
production are valued, especially in the face forest project can lead to critical reflection on
of urban population growth. Communities our current agricultural system and urban land-
will innovate, using all the resources they can scapes. Typically it motivates people to work on
harness, to increase the presence and quality of influencing political action and policies.
such resources in urban landscapes. Community food forests raise important
Community food forests also serve a deeper questions about access to fruit trees and
purpose by helping community members form other edible perennials in public places.
bonds through collective labor and learning. They introduce people to foraging for “wild
Participants often discover shared interests plants”—edible and herbal species—in public
such as local and foraged food, social justice, parks, forests, and rights-of-way or to gleaning
environmental stewardship, resiliency, and self- unharvested produce to supplement community
sufficiency. Uniting around common causes, supply.¹ These issues are increasingly observable
people invest in and build diverse assets in their in the public agenda in terms of sustainability,

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food security, environmental justice, and urban graduates interested in permaculture and sus-
green infrastructure. tainable cities transformed an unused parks and
Community food forests can be found in a recreation property into a contemporary edible
variety of places. Churches, universities, and public park. The New Urbanism movement of
intentional communities have planted food the early 1990s, which promoted walkable cities
forests on their campuses. They are increasingly with environmentally friendly habitats, influ-
found on public property managed by public enced these young people to find the resources
works agencies or parks and recreation depart- needed to make their dream a reality. The edible
ments. Regardless of where they are located, park has undergone many changes since its
these projects are open to the public. Volunteers installation in 1998, but twenty years on, it still
and civic organizations are often involved in produces free fruit, nuts, and herbs while serving
their development and oversight. Enthusiastic as a place for learning and sharing.
faculty and students tend community food About a decade later a couple of community
forests on university property. Dedicated food forests arose in progressive cities, but it
groups of congregational volunteers encourage was not until around 2012 that the extensive
and guide member participation in projects media coverage of the Beacon Hill Food Forest
coordinated by churches. On public grounds, in Seattle catapulted community food forests
the collaboration and communication between into the public eye, and the rate of new projects
agency employees, project leaders, and volun- began to accelerate. As of 2018, we are aware of
teers is essential for effective management and more than seventy community food forests in
community support. public spaces in the United States in commu-
Community food forests are part of a cultural nities of all sizes, spanning from the Pacific
transition and represent local efforts to build Northwest to the Deep South. Figure 1.1 on
abundance and share opportunity. Even more page 19 shows what we know about commu-
important, they can contribute to meaningful nity food forest locations in the United States
personal, civic, and ecological stewardship that at the time of publication. You can see they
often is lacking in our lightning-fast, digitally have sprung up across the country, demonstrat-
driven, consumerist lifestyles. Community food ing that food forests are possible and relevant
forests offer a way of experiencing the direction in any community.
in which this shift is taking us. It is this possibil- The rise of community food forests correlates
ity of deeper meaning in our lives that makes with larger changes in social consciousness and
community food forests such a compelling and dialogue about local food production and access.
inspiring movement. Green space that provides healthy and fresh
food to people and important environmental
services to communities are some of the most
SOCIETAL SHIFTS compelling benefits of food forests. Planning for
To our knowledge the first contemporary the Beacon Hill project (see chapter 13 for the
community food forest launched in 1997 in story of this food forest) began in 2009, the same
Asheville, North Carolina. In chapter 4 we share year that First Lady Michelle Obama initiated a
the story of how the vision of two young college national conversation about food production. At

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FIGURE 1.1. There are more than seventy community food forest projects in communities throughout the United States and
several in Canada, too (not pictured here). More are announced each year, as people learn about this concept or are inspired
by reading about food forests in other places. We want to create a comprehensive list of community food forest sites. If you
know of a community food forest not shown here, visit to enter the information.

that time, dialogue about the need for new food humanity transcends ethnicity, nationality, race,
systems and community building was increas- religion, sex, socioeconomic status, and political
ing. Reclaiming sovereignty over food produc- affiliation. Many people have lost connection
tion using environmentally dynamic systems to to traditional knowledge and customs, but
do so has been central to many contemporary in recent years, wild foraging and historical
community food forest projects. food preparation have experienced a revival.
Food is embedded in culture, politics, health, Communities are re-empowering their control
and community development. Growing food over food, and formerly detached consumers
is empowering, and its fundamental place in are becoming informed local producers and

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advocates. Community food forests play a role edible vegetation is still found along walkways
in this awakening by enabling exploration of between homes and in public spaces, including
alternative food sources. orchards, an almond grove, vineyards, and com-
munity gardens. When strolling along the paths
of Village Homes, it is easy to pick grapes, figs,
plums, pomegranates, mulberries, and grapefruit
FOREST ROOTS in the span of a thirty-minute walk.
Creating public spaces that yield perennial In the 1990s, the Serenbe Community in
produce for communities is nothing new. Many Atlanta, much like Village Homes, incorpo-
neighborhoods and organizations have inten- rated edible perennial landscaping along with
tionally planted community orchards or edible naturally conserved open land, forests, and
landscaping for public use. Village Homes in zones for agricultural production. A more recent
Davis, California, developed throughout the example of this type of intentional design is the
1970s, is one example where the designer used twenty-seven-acre Community First! Village
concepts of community sustainability and per- in Austin, Texas. The development provides
maculture to incorporate edible landscaping into affordable housing and job support to the
a seventy-acre suburban neighborhood. Perennial homeless and is built around Genesis Gardens,

FIGURE 1.2. This park in the Los Angeles area features an art installation of fruit trees, a creative variation on the concept
of a community food forest. This fenced area represents the “eye” or central part of the installation; other fruit trees are
dispersed throughout the park and surrounding neighborhood.

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an organic farm with 200 fruit and nut trees

maintained by residents and volunteers. A NEW MODEL
These intentional communities and many Along with community food forests, urban
like them share characteristics with commu- orchards and civic fruit installations are part of
nity food forests. A significant difference is a larger pulse to increase perennial food pro-
that production areas were created for use by duction in community space. They represent a
members of the intentional community (in renewed public interest in resilient agriculture
some of these communities, though, people and sustainable production that emerged in the
often freely wander in to admire the landscape second half of the 1970s. Environmental policies
and harvest products). Most community food and liberal ideas in the 1960s shaped the minds
forests, on the other hand, are intentionally of many Baby Boomers, some of whom have
open to public harvest and rely on volunteer become today’s community food forest leaders.
maintenance. Many are used as an educational Their perspective and leadership toward these
tool for promoting what is horticulturally possi- ideals has profoundly influenced many Gen
ble, because most are not at a scale to provide Xers, as well as their Millennial children.
sufficient harvest to feed an entire community. Paralleling the social consciousness of earlier
Often, one goal is motivating volunteers and generations were programs and publications
others involved to transfer the knowledge and that set the stage for current awareness and
skills gained on site to their private residence interest in local food production. In 1976, the
and other neighborhoods. USDA helped coordinate the Urban Gardening
Organizations such as Fallen Fruit Program by establishing offices in cities to
(Los Angeles), Portland Fruit Tree Project promote community gardening. Three years
(Oregon), the Philadelphia Orchard Project, later, the American Community Gardening
and the Boston Tree Party are leaders in urban Association was formed. Books about sustain-
orchard establishment and promote gleaning able agriculture exploded onto the scene, most
from existing trees in their municipalities. written by men who grew up during rapid
These organizations also support participatory suburban expansion in the mid-twentieth
public art projects of “civic fruit.” The work of century. They struggled to determine what came
the organization Fallen Fruit, in particular, next in light of their experience and the stories
provides an excellent example of how policy told by their parents and grandparents about the
planning and creativity can benefit a commu- transition from a mostly agrarian society to an
nity food forest. The city of Los Angeles, where urban and mechanized nation.
Fallen Fruit works, could not support fruit tree At the same time, polyculture food production
planting in public space primarily because of systems were emerging, including agroecology,
maintenance and liability issues. Fallen Fruit agroforestry, and permaculture. Agroecology is a
proposed that their community food forest holistic land management framework that applies
project use fruit trees as an “art medium.” In ecological principles when producing food and
this way, they were able to create a community aims to improve food literacy and social justice.
food forest in a public park with funding from Agroforestry is a set of agroecological practices
the City Arts Commission. that intentionally add trees to agricultural land

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or cultivate woodland crops such as ginseng or and social goals. The USDA National Agro-
mushrooms in woodlands. Permaculture, which forestry Center, the Association for Temperate
is another agroecological system, also emerged Agroforestry, the Center for Agroforestry at
during this time through the leadership of Bill the University of Missouri, and the Alliance
Mollison and David Holmgren. Permaculture is for Community Trees were founded during this
a worldview and approach to land use planning time. These institutions focused attention on the
and management that considers nature to be the importance of trees serving multiple functions
teacher and humans the students. Agroforestry in production systems. Also during this period,
was promoted through research and extension Robert Hart wrote the influential book Forest
services, first in developing countries and later in Gardening, which describes his experience grow-
industrialized ones. Permaculture, on the other ing edible perennial plants in his backyard in
hand, entered the informal public domain and England. Hart’s property and writings inspired
won over dedicated followers with its commit- many others to establish food forests.
ment to holistic and spiritual land use. Smart Growth initiatives for planning sustain-
In the 1980s, agroecology was formally able cities and healing fragmented communi-
recognized, and the inaugural International ties became increasingly popular. The field of
Permaculture Conference and North American sustainability, especially in terms of international
Agroforestry Conference both occurred. The development, also gained prevalence. The first
Slow Food movement began in reaction to fast agroecology textbook was published in 1997,
food chain outlets appearing in Italy, among and the local food system movement picked
other reasons, and now has a presence in more up momentum in the new millennium.³ The
than 132 countries.² Food forests align well with Community Agroecology Network was formed
Slow Food’s philosophy of ethical consumption and the first World Congress of Agroforestry
and focus on decelerating our lives, being more met in Orlando, Florida. Permaculture educators
intentional, and enjoying food in all phases from Rob Hopkins and Naresh Giangrande started
growing to harvest, cooking, and eating. Slow the Transition Town movement in Totnes,
Food adherents believe in achieving desirable England in 2006. First, they asked their students
outcomes over time, through continuous adap- to create an energy plan for a community in the
tation and experimentation, and the movement’s face of peak oil. Then, Hopkins and Giangrande
principles fit well with the production cycles of refined and replicated the results to integrate
woody edible perennials that can take time to permaculture practices into community design
bear fruit. and management.
Modern sustainability movements such as
Transition have many goals. These include lower
energy consumption, improved community
NEW MILLENNIUM resilience, environmental rehabilitation, and
As the 1980s carried over into the 1990s, the designs of new ways of living that are nourish-
United States Congress passed the Urban and ing, life-affirming, and socially meaningful. The
Community Forestry Assistance Act to support food forest concept fits well with these objectives
urban forest management for environmental because food forests contribute to community

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resilience by promoting self-sufficiency, creat- For example, a group known as Occupy Vacant
ing green space, and providing a local source of Lots arose out of the Occupy Movement in
regionally acclimated food crops. Philadelphia and made turning abandoned areas
The 2000s saw the publication of multiple into food forests their mission.6 The momen-
permaculture, forest gardening, and holistic tum has only increased following the Great
farming books, including Barbara Kingsolver’s Recession. At least eight community food forests
highly popular Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which were established between 2010 and 2011. From
helped galvanize the locavore movement.4 The 2012 to 2014, at least twenty more began. By the
White House planted an organic vegetable time of this writing, there were some seventy, if
garden to highlight the link between gardening not more, new projects across the United States.
and nutritious food. However, what set things The rapid growth in community food forests
in motion among the public consciousness was suggests that a new environmental and agricul-
not simply a growing appreciation of local food, tural consciousness is taking root. A common
but the catastrophic collapse of the US economy thread running through all of them is a desire
in 2008. to share topics and knowledge that were once
central to community life but were in large
part lost during the technological and social
transitions of the last century. An ecologically
FOOD FORESTS grounded approach to agriculture includes an
During the Great Recession of 2008, the notion understanding of how to use natural principles
of raising food as a community offered a way for for holistic crop production. When combined
people to envision being both productive and with an intimate knowledge of local resources,
cooperative in the midst of a shared struggle.5 A conditions, and techniques, these topics are
broad range of people faced issues of food inse- inseparable from community food forests. We
curity and lack of access to affordable, nutritious will illustrate these concepts throughout the
food following nationwide economic upheaval. book and emphasize their role in shaping the
Social movements such as the Occupy Move- future of local food production and community
ment organized people around their distrust of cohesion through the stories of community food
Wall Street, big business, and government. forests from regions across the United States.
In the midst of their fear and disappoint-
ment, people bonded during discussions about
community issues. They also brainstormed
local solutions and actionable steps to create AND SHAPING THE FUTURE
the changes they thought would build a better Today’s excitement about local food and nutri-
future. In the process, they formed a type of tion can be a powerful motivator that spurs
social capital that would serve as a foundation people to try something new like joining a com-
for some of the earliest community food forest munity food forest project. Their positive energy
projects. Around this time, there were very few is important, but it needs to be guided. On its
active community food forests in the United own, it is not enough to sustain a community
States, but planning for many more soon began. food forest project. Project leaders looking to

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help shape their community and its collective must consider this balance in terms of system
work can use systems thinking as a framework equilibrium when everything is calm as well as
when designing and implementing a com- during times of change. Today, green space is
munity food forest. A necessary part of this is not just “a little bit of nature” in the cityscape.
defining the values associated with local food Rather, it encompasses multifunctional systems
so as to motivate community members to take that yield lasting payoffs such as leisure, health,
part in civic activities. In this way, an array of and well-being; food production; habitat conser-
stakeholders, including nonprofit organizations, vation; watershed management; urban canopy;
academic institutions, local government, and and social interaction. Community food forests
community-based organizations, can help shape encourage people to think in terms of abun-
their community. dance and inspire neighborhoods to act on their
Systems thinking has evolved over time into own behalf. They promote a culture of sharing,
a holistic and adaptive framework. It lays out a stewardship, and nature-centered health.
process for pursuing a goal while keeping the rela- Our goal in this work is to share real accounts
tionships between people and their environment of community food forests and tell stories about
at the forefront. Systems thinking helps identify why projects started, how they lined up partner-
ways to effectively work together as a group of ships and built support, and the ways in which
people who want to create change in a community planning and implementation happened. We
by developing a community food forest. Systems also discuss how maintenance was handled and
thinkers are better able to see community connec- cover the ups and downs of these initiatives.
tions that are not always clear. Thus, they can more Alongside these reports, we also present key
effectively find ways to achieve their goals and concepts that help frame and translate these
create the change they seek. anecdotes in a way that you can use in your
Working effectively with the physical own community. Our hope is that through our
attributes of a site while adequately serving a descriptions and accompanying analysis you will
community in the design and management of grasp the reasons people work on community
a community food forest is no small task. It food forests, how systematic planning and
requires trade-offs between ecological design community perspectives play a central role in
and meaningful community space. One cannot project success, and that people are as important
override the other, and because of this, systems as the plants when it comes to community food
thinking is both helpful and warranted. Food forests. We also hope you will gain, like we have,
forest leaders must balance plantings and design a better understanding of people’s experiences
at a given site with the activities and services working on food forest projects inspired by
people want in that particular place. And they making a difference in their community.

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