At this very moment Austin is filling up with the thousands of tech geeks who make a pilgrimage there every spring to attend the South by Southwest Interactive Festival. Even when the famed festival isn't going on, the Texas capital is a city that exists on the cutting edge of technology and the arts—but the little blue dot in a big red state has long been a hotbed of political and social activism as well, and it has more recently developed a vibrant local-food scene. At this intersection—activism and local food—a plan was hatched to make Austin the latest American city in which residents can legally forage food in a public park.
That’s right, a food forest—or maybe a few of them—may be on its way to downtown Austin. What’s a food forest? According to the folks who run Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest, it is “a gardening technique or land management system, which mimics a woodland ecosystem by substituting edible trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals.”
The Festival Beach Food Forest would comprise two acres of a 90-acre park that sits in the shadows of Austin’s skyline and borders the beautiful Lady Bird Lake. Until recently, nine acres of this land was the home of the Holly Street Power Plant, which was built in 1960 in a working-class Hispanic neighborhood. Spurred by the recent removal of the power plant, the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department has led a master planning process to enhance the 90-acre neighborhood park. When community activist Elizabeth Walsh and other Austinites in the group East Feast heard about the developing plans, they immediately saw the potential and began to bring neighbors together to dream.
“Out of those conversations people prioritized the natural tranquillity of this area and wanted to build on the strength that was already there and not have a super developed park," she says. "It is a citywide priority to have sustainable community agriculture. Food forests and edible landscaping came out of community process. While some edible landscaping—pecan trees, for instance—is already part of this and other parks, the food forest concept represents a new approach for park landscaping and maintenance.”
How so? For one, it employs permaculture principles, which include planting vegetation that can thrive with little water. This is crucial in Austin, where rain is scarce. The food forest will be designed so that whatever rain does fall will be captured, filtered, and applied to the plants and trees that need it most. At full growth, neighbors will be able to visit the forest and pick from its bounty, which may include nuts, tree fruits, currants and berries, herbs, and even strawberries and root vegetables.
“As a pilot, it’s really intended as a conversation starter and educational catalyst,” says Walsh, a Ph.D. candidate in urban planning at the University of Texas. “Long-term, the maintenance and costs of taking care of it should be very low; at the same time the yields are increasing.”
And below ground, this new ecosystem will treat the stormwater runoff from a nearby parking lot and, over time, even begin to restore the health of soil in what was historically some of Austin's most fertile farmland, in the floodplain of the Colorado River. The forest also will form its own relationship with the adjacent Festival Beach Community Garden, where more than 80 gardeners have been growing food since 2010.
Proponents of Austin’s food forest need only look to Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest—the country’s first on public land—for a preview of what they can expect. At a workday last fall, more than 130 Seattle residents spent hours building rock walls, planting trees and blueberry bushes, and preparing soil beds for winter. Perhaps as early as this summer, passersby will be able to pick herbs and vegetables from areas of the parts that have been planted.
Austin’s food forest plan has a broad range of support from community groups and neighbors, but it must clear a hurdle or two more before planting can begin. On Thursday, the City Council approved Austin’s Urban Forest Plan, which includes language for the implementation of edible landscapes and food forests, but a vote on the master plan for the 90-acre Holly Shores park (which will include the Festival Beach Food Forest) was rescheduled for late May. Following permitting, Walsh says the team will need to raise enough money to turn the master plans into living, breathing plants, by then. (Festival Beach Food Forest is accepting donations.) If the project gets permitted and funded on time, Walsh says she’d be thrilled to start planting by year’s end.
Central to the process every step of the way, she emphasizes, are Walsh’s East Austin neighbors. For Walsh, community is everything to the food forest plan.
“This is about bringing people together and to grow food in community, about healing relationships we have with each other and the earth,” she says. “There’s a power plant here that’s leaving, one that neighbors have fought for decades. How can we use this opportunity to advance environmental justice? There is no caring for the land without caring for each other.”