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C h a p t e r 1 0 Transforming Urban Environments Diane Cornman-Levy, Grace R. Dyrness, Jane Golden, David Gouverneur, and Jeane Ann Grisso Our personal experiences as advocates, activists, and academicians have illuminated women as the center of community change and the architects of strong social networks that can spark community transformation . In this chapter, we describe exciting models of change in poor urban communities. We begin by telling our stories—stories that represent real life experiences of urban transformation. As we reflect on these models of success, common themes emerge, both positive and negative. These themes lead us to discussions of possible barriers to sustainability as well as practical principles that we believe will improve the likelihood of success. But, first, our stories. The following pages describe some exciting examples of urban transformation , both in cities in the United States and in developing countries . The pivotal role of women in community change emerges in every setting. More Than Just a Vegetable Garden The City of Philadelphia has more than 40,000 vacant lots, many of which are magnets for trash and crime as well as symbols of hopelessness . A majority of these lots are located in poor neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia—neighborhoods where children, youth, and families struggle with hunger, violence, decent housing, lack of sustainable jobs, and poor health. The statistics are at best bleak. At 24 percent, the poverty rate in Philadelphia is the third highest rate among large U.S. cities. In 2009, community organizations in Philadelphia reported a 50 percent increase in the number of families seeking food assistance and a major gap between the Transforming Urban Environments 189 demand for food and the availability of food through food cupboards (Federation of Neighborhood Centers 2009). More families are going hungry. Mothers deal with the daily struggle of keeping their children safe and finding programs that will promote the healthy development of their children. Families feel isolated from “mainstream” society. All of these factors create an environment of high stress and hopelessness. In spite of those daunting realities, women throughout Philadelphia are organizing to create better lives for themselves and for their children . The driving force behind the work of many women is their children . Like all mothers, they want the best for their children and they will do what it takes to build a better life for them. In the winter of 2005, community leaders—all of whom were women— from a low-resource neighborhood in Central North Philadelphia organized a meeting to discuss the challenges they faced, including violence, lack of healthy food, and lack of positive programs to engage their children , especially their teenagers. They discussed the vacant lots in their community, lots that attracted violence and trash. They voiced their frustrations about the lack of investment in their communities. They talked about how wonderful it would be to have a large grocery store in their community that would provide healthy food and jobs for community members. As the discussion evolved, new ideas developed. The women started asking questions about the vacant lots: Why can’t we transform them into gardens? How about creating urban farms? As the ideas flowed, the energy and creativity in the room intensified, and soon a vision emerged of an urban farm that would not only produce affordable , healthy food for their families, but also provide learning opportunities for the children. The brainstorming session led to a written strategic plan for securing land for the urban farm. The women organized themselves and reached out to potential partners with expertise in urban farming, land acquisition , and health and nutrition. Within six months, the women had secured a parcel of land. Community members and their partners volunteered to clean up the land and prepare for the first plantings. By the spring of 2005, a dozen vegetable beds were formed. This once vacant piece of land transformed into a working urban farm producing fresh produce for the community. The community leaders continued to meet and discuss next steps. During the discussions, the women expressed their continued concern for engaging their older children in positive activities and keeping them off the streets. Soon the idea of a youth-led urban agricultural business emerged. Youth would learn how to transform vacant lots into urban farms. They would learn how to manage the farms and run socially responsible businesses. As they grew healthy food for their communi- 190 Cornman-Levy, Dyrness, Golden, Gouverneur, and Grisso ties, they would also learn how to...


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