What’s Doing at DoTank: Brooklyn Urban Agriculture Skillshare

Posted: June 20th, 2010 | Author: Amy Newton

Crafting seedbombs for community beautification

On June 5th, I attended a workshop in Williamsburg at The Change You Want To See Gallery, hosted by a local organization called DoTank:Brooklyn. As part of their mission to promote “interdisciplinary exploration, engagement, and enhancement of the formal urban planning process”, the Urban Agriculture Skillshare presented three distinct ways that individuals can effect change in their own communities using minimal resources, a little creativity, and the help of Mother Nature.

The gallery was packed, standing-room only, but that was fine because this workshop was a series of hands-on, how-to demonstrations where, divided into three groups, the participants rotated to three different stations, spending thirty minutes at each, learning and creating a small project in urban agriculture that included Vermiculture: Indoor food waste composting, WindowFarms: To grow food indoors year-round, and Seedbombing: To beautify abandoned lots.

My first turn was at the seedbombing station where we literally got our hands dirty crafting seedbombs intended to green empty and abandoned lots in the neighborhood. Proponents of FoodNotBombs should rest assured that these bombs do no harm. In fact, they are a combination of a mix of wildflower and herb seeds, moistened in compost with a little water, and then rolled in clay to dry over night. Once hardened, these seedbombs can be tossed into abandoned lots in neighborhoods around the city where eventually, with the help of a little rain and sunshine, they will produce pretty wildflowers and fresh herbs, transforming what was once an eyesore into a more attractive space. What’s not to like about these bombs?

Today's seedbombs, tomorrow's upgrades

Aurash Khawarzad, a founder of DoTank:Brooklyn and our seedbomb instructor, calls it “upgrading community”. He spends his time teaching skillshares like these in the hopes that it will become normal for people to do these sorts of things in their own communities. Seedbombing as the norm, rather than the exception.

DoTank:Brooklyn is all about doing rather than waiting for the slow process of urban planning and implementation to kick into gear. Interested in transforming an empty and abandoned space in your neighborhood? Check out the Do:Tank website for detailed seedbomb instructions.

After washing our hands, we moved on to the white plastic bottles at skillshare number two, building an indoor hydroponic system for growing food. Britta Riley, artist and creator of WindowFarms, gave us a brief overview of her project before handing us the tools to get started. The project has two goals: to empower urbanites to grow their own food year-round indoors and to give ordinary people a way to contribute innovations toward more sustainable cities. WindowFarms are a unique design partially made from recyclable materials using a vertical, hydroponic, modular, low-energy, system to produce high-yield, edible plants in limited space indoors.

Assembling a Window Farm

As an indoor gardener myself, I was intrigued by the prospect of growing my own fresh produce even in the midst of winter in the middle of the city, so I paid close attention. Using one-liter plastic water bottles connected through a series of cut-outs and modified bottle caps, a WindowFarms design allows for as many as five plants to grow without soil in a vertical assembly that hangs neatly in any sunny window.

The plants are fed water and nutrients through a plastic tube connected on the outside of the system and run by a small air pump, such as those used for fish tanks and aquariums. The water is recycled, conserving a precious resource, while the plants, rooted in specially-designed hydroponic clay, grow through cut-outs in the sides of the bottles. The theory is that because the roots do not spread out in soil and lose water to run-off, the plants are able to utilize the nutrients faster, promoting higher yields.

One could build their own WindowFarm with a little resourcefulness and some scrap materials. Or you can explore WindowFarms’ website for instructions and printable patterns for transforming plastic water bottles into your own window farm.

As part of attaining their second goal, WindowFarms maintains an online community of over 12,000 members worldwide. The Window Farms Network has been sharing ideas and input from their own experiences with Riley to help guide the design through twelve innovations, or subversions, making the WindowFarms system more nutritionally productive, easier to maintain, and better-looking, among other things.

A WindowFarm system……just add plants!

Currently, WindowFarms is in the process of creating WindowFarms kits for purchase through its website which will help fund their non-profit organization. As I look at the plants in pots on my window sill and think about the one I accidentally knocked off last night, snapping its stem and dumping dirt everywhere on the floor, I feel quite inclined to test out a tidy, efficient WindowFarm system myself this winter.

As a former volunteer on sustainable farms, I am familiar with a variety of composting systems, but I had never been introduced to the small-scale, in-home version of vermicomposting until this workshop. At our third skillshare for the day, we took on the task of how to reduce the two and a half pounds per day of waste that the average American produces. NYC processes 12,000 tons per day of trash at a whopping cost of two million dollars each day, sending trash to six different states as well as upstate.

Dumping our waste in landfills is not only dangerous to the land below these dumps, but the process of anaerobic decomposition creates methane which can stay in the atmosphere for nine to fifteen years. Methane traps twenty times more heat than carbon dioxide, contributing extensively to our issues of climate change through greenhouse gas emissions. So what to do with all this waste?

The North Brooklyn Compost Project offers one solution to reducing waste in the home: vermicomposting or composting with worms. Considering that 40% of the waste we generate in our homes is organic compostable material, vermicomposting can be an easy way to keep that organic material from entering the waste stream by recycling our food scraps into rich, dark compost for use in our gardens and on our indoor plants. Scientifically proven, compost is powerful enough to remediate contaminated soil, transforming it once again into productive, healthy earth, and is therefore referred to as “black gold”. Anyone can make their own black gold with a few starter materials, some worms, and your food scraps.

Here’s how it works:  You need a compost bin to get started. At the skillshare, we modified a plastic tub with a tight-fitting lid by drilling some air holes in the sides. Proper ventilation will aid in the process of decomposition (and let the worms breathe!).

Modifying for a vermiculture compost bin

A successful compost ratio is 2:1 — two parts “browns” and one part “greens.” Browns contain carbon, such as leaves and yard waste, or, as we used, shredded newspaper.  Greens contain nitrogen — your food scraps. Coffee grounds, egg shells, and tea bags are all acceptable for composting, but citrus peels, which take much longer to break down and can turn your compost acidic, should be left out. Use vegetable not animal waste in your compost bin.  Meat scraps, animal bones, dairy, and fats should not be included in your compost bin as they will not degrade quickly and will add unpleasant odors. Woody seeds and pits should not be included as they may germinate.  If the newspaper or yard waste is dry, it’s important to mist a little water in there and turn it to moisten the mix. Then, add the worms and let them do the rest.

Red wrigglers, often used for fishing bait, make great compost worms. The Lower Eastside Ecology Center sells compost worms for about $22/lb. For a bin the size we used, a pound of worms is plenty. One pound of worms will process two to three pounds of food per week.  Worms multiply rapidly so you may be able to give a pound away to a friend in about six to twelve months, keeping the amount of worms to waste balanced in your bin and doing your part to help more people compost their food waste in the city.

It will take about six weeks to reach the first harvest of compost. Keep adding food scraps, stirring the contents once in awhile and monitoring the moisture and ratio of brown to green. When it’s ready, you will see dirt accumulating underneath — a rich compost layer at the bottom of the bin separate from the remaining food scraps above.

The worms will work their way upwards in the bin over time, leaving the compost below and feasting on newer scraps and papers above. You can transfer the food scraps and worms from the top to another bin, harvest the compost beneath and then start over with a new bin. Fresh, wet compost is very high in nitrogen and needs to be cured — aired out for two weeks before applying it to your plants.

Red wrigglers, newspaper, and food scraps

Carina Molnar, our vermicomposter extraordinaire (and blogger for CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities, offered these tips for maintaining a healthy compost system — very important as this is an indoor system. She keeps her bin of worms and food scraps under the kitchen sink.

If the worms are escaping, it’s because the bin is too hot or cold. Adjust the location or situation to amend this. If it begins to smell like sulfur (like eggs), add more brown, such as shredded newspaper, to absorb the odor. And if it’s too dry, spritz it with water to help maintain the moisture.

As food scraps break down, they release liquid. Balancing the scraps and newspaper will help keep an inviting environment in which the worms will continue to do their work. And the results will be your very own pot of black gold.

A pile o' black gold!

For further reading, Carina recommends the book, “Worms Eat My Garbage” by Mary Appelhof. Or check out the Brooklyn Botanic Garden website for resources on composting. The North Brooklyn Compost Project accepts kitchen compostable scraps from the public as do many community gardens in neighborhoods around Brooklyn.

If you missed out on the DoTank:Brooklyn Urban Agriculture Skillshare, visit their website and tell them you are interested in more Skillshares. They are always working to create opportunities for locals to join in the efforts to enhance urban communities all over the city, so roll up your sleeves and get “doing”!

Filed under: Composting, Events, Urban Agriculture, Urban Farming, Urban Planning, Water Conservation | 1 Comment »

Future Urban Farms Map – A New Vision for the New World

Posted: January 29th, 2010 | Author:

40-46 Nevins St aka 311-315 Schermerhorn St, Bklyn

Look closely at the picture above.  Do you see a farm there?

No, you’re not crazy.  It’s not there yet.

In the last year, as the real estate market crashed around our ankles, we’ve all walked past by scores of empty, fenced lots with no discernible activity.

I am left to wonder: Future Urban Farm?

Why not transform the housing bust into an urban farming boom?

Looking at this silver lining, please nominate your favorite forgotten chunk of real estate for the Future Urban Farms Map.

[Once you land on this google map, click “Save to My Maps” to add photos and addresses of these sadly abandoned locations where one day our food might grow.  Alternatively, please send me the site addresses and any comments or photos and I will include them on the map.]

Who knows? Maybe we could submit the finished map to the City Council with a nicely polished legislative proposal that would change the cityscape and radically alter our local food system. After all, NY City Council re-zoned Williamsburg-Greenpoint to address imagined “blight.” So why not  re-zone today’s vacant lots for farming responding to these pockets of real blight?

Stalled construction sites can be found all over New York City. Brooklyn has the dubious honor of hosting the most.  Greenpoint and Williamsburg alone have 80 inactive construction projects — the same number of stalled sites in the entire borough of Manhattan! In a recent “Statement of Community District Needs,” Brooklyn Community Board 1 (Greenpoint and Williamsburg) made the following recommendation:

The Department of Buildings must take immediate steps to inventory stalled construction sites and monitor them for any issues that would negatively impact the community (homeless encampments, standing water – mosquito infestation/West Nile Virus prevention, illegal dumping, trespassing, arson).

Community Board 1 was not looking for alternative uses but trying to prevent nuisances. In the 1970s, however, many community gardens sprung up to thwart the nuisances caused by hundreds of vacant lots left by buildings torched for insurance claims.  So it’s only one more step to imagine 21st Century community gardens as community farms.

According to Ted Caplow of BrightFarm Systems “Growing all the fresh vegetables that New York consumes would require only 1.4% of the city’s surface area.” Maybe city residents need to eat more veggies because that is an amazing statistic.

I am not alone in promoting a future vision where farms are born from the hardscaping that dominates New York. In “Mannahhatta: A Natural History of New York,” (Abrams, 2009), Eric Sanderson contrasts images of Manhattan today with vivid 3D computer-generated maps depicting what Manhattan looked like in 1609 when discovered by Henry Hudson. Sanderson’s final chapter “Mannahattan 2409″ imagines the city with fewer buildings concentrated along the shoreline and a emerald patchwork of farmland restored in much of Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx and Staten Island.  The author continues this conversation about the place of nature in our City with The Mannahatta Project (a wink at the succinctly unnatural Manhattan Project that produced the Atom Bomb).

Please help me make this Future Urban Farms Map useful to you and your community.  Please comment on this post to indicate how you would use the map to promote urban agriculture too.  I will update readers about the utility of the map as it grows.

14 2d Ave @ Houston St, NYC

Filed under: Urban Agriculture, Urban Farming, Urban Planning | Tags: , Real Estate, Urban Farms | No Comments »

Urban Farming in the Public Interest

Posted: October 25th, 2009 | Author:

Source: RUAF – Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture & Food Security

THINK GLOBALLY!  Mega cities need mega tons of food to survive.  Urban farming responds to a growing need as mega cities — like New York City — continue to expand around the world.  Urban farming can help increase the availability, access and quality of food for city dwellers.  

ACT LOCALLY?   Why promote the growth of urban agriculture in New York City?

A recent NYC report, Food in the Public Interest, issued by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, suggests that “urban food production” in NYC is one crucial strategy to address a broad spectrum of related local food issues.  The report outlines three major reasons why urban agriculture may be seen as increasingly important in improving the quality and quantity of good, fresh food to urbanites:

(1) “The Environment: Common commercial farm practices such as using chemicals and aggregating livestock in small spaces can contribute to air pollution.  Further, food that travels extraordinarily long distances from farm to plate requires more food, [packaging], storage and refrigeration all of which consume energy [and other resources].”     [Text in brackets added by The Greenest].

(2) “Public Health: Locally grown and distributed food is likely to be fresher, more nutritious, less subject to intensive pesticide use and less processed.”  

Note: The report emphasizes that NYC has a looming and serious health threat of epidemic proportions represented by the steady rise in the incidence of both diabetes and obesity in populations that generally lack access to affordable fresh food close to home. 

(3) The Economy: Enhancing the local food system would create more opportunities for local employment at all levels.  Urban agriculture could also contribute to food security for the City’s neediest.

In addition to these excellent points, The Greenest would add some of its own in support of promoting urban agriculture:

(4) Heat Island Effect – Cities are sometimes called “heat islands” because they are hotter than surrounding areas.    Greenery –like urban agriculture– helps reduce the “heat island effect” by cooling cities down, thereby reducing electricity used by air conditioning and refrigeration equipment.  

(5) Waste Water –   Green spaces absorb more rainfall reducing the amount of stormwater in the city sewage system.  Green spaces can also be irrigated by so-called “grey water” filtered from water produced by stormwater runoff, showers, sinks, diswashers and clothes washers, reducing loads on city sewage systems and doubling the benefits received from fresh water.

(6) Solid Waste  –  Gardens can create and use compost derived from solid waste to fertilize — diminishing the costs, energy and environmental impacts of a portion of the city’s solid waste production.

(7) Psychological benefits – Plants make people happy.  It’s a fact.  It’s a well established human response called “biophilia.”  More plants will make more people happy.  

(8)  “Foodie” Culture – NYC is one of the cultural food capitals of the world, home to many a sundry “foodie.”  Food is the second most talked-about topic in NYC — after real estate.  However, NYC produces less and less of its own food outside of restaurant kitchens.  The growth of urban agriculture will form part of a growing and intensifying local food culture that emphasizes better taste and better health together.  

Through my exploration of Urban Agriculture, I aim to understand what motivates the urban farmer to till the soil — the challenges and opportunities.  In the upcoming posts, I will look at other industries that are part of the “food system” that could be a source of increased productivity and market penetration for urban agriculture.

Filed under: Composting, Food Security, Green Roofs, Uncategorized, Urban Agriculture, Urban Farming, Urban Planning, Water Conservation | Tags: Air Pollution, , Biophilia, , Energy, , , , , Gardens, , , , Heat island Effect, , , , , , , , Public Health, , , , , | No Comments »

“Utopian” Urban Planning: Discussion & Exhibit

Posted: October 22nd, 2009 | Author:

“Utopian” Urban Planning 
Artists and Community Leaders Discuss Brooklyn’s Future
Sunday, October 25, 2009, 2-4pm, Brooklyn Historical Society 
128 Pierrepont Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201, First Floor Community Gallery and basement conference room.          Admission: FREE

Please join me at this round table event in which artists and curator will debate their ideas with community leaders, architects and urban planners, and the general public, with a focus on large (and small) scale planning initiatives.

What does it take to build affordable and sustainable living, working, and transportation systems in Brooklyn?  How can we develop Brooklyn responsibly to meet the needs of its diverse communities, including its artistic communities?  And finally, how do artists play a role in this urban planning process? 

Special guest speakers include Amy Sananman, Executive Director/Founder, Groundswell Community Mural Project, Shin-pei Tsay, Deputy Director of Transportation Alternatives, Derek Denckla, Founder, Propeller Group and Alexander Gorlin, FAIA, Principal/Founder of Alexander Gorlin Architects. The event will feature an exhibit walk-through with artists and curators, followed by a panel discussion moderated by urban historian and licensed architect Marta Gutman, PhD. (please see attachment for more information about participating organizations/panelists). 

“Utopian” Urban Planning is part of the Brooklyn Utopias? exhibitions and public programs series, in which artists and youth respond to differing visions of an ideal Brooklyn. The main Brooklyn Utopias? art show will be on view in the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Community Gallery through January 3, 2010. Please visit www.brooklynutopias.com for more information.


I was really impressed with presenters at this event. Each brought a vision for planning a greener city. Alexander Gorlin is incorporating vast tracts of urban agriculture in a proposed community plan for Brownsville. Amy Sananman of Groundswell Mural is inspiring youth to understand the source of our precious water resources through the creation of public art. Shin-Pei Tsay of Transportation Alternatives is sponsoring competitions to design a greener city with fewer (no) cars. The exhibition and the events were very thoughtfully put together by curator Katherine Gressel. Soon, I will be talking to Katherine about continuing the conversation because the notion of “Utopia” shifts with the necessities of each moment.

I think that there is a need to re-discover the impulse to be a “Utopian.” “Utopia” is inherently related to both time + place. “Ou + Topos” is literally “No Place.” “Utopia” is a place that is not a place because it exists only in our minds. Thus, Utopia is a place that always and only exists in the future. It is an imagined future that responds to a longing in the present grounded in some interpretation of problems past. For some, Utopia and Heaven are one. Plato may have called it “Forms.” President William Jefferson Clinton called it “Hope.” Regardless of your cosmology, I believe that it is peculiarly human impulse to work to describe and realize elements of Utopia in the present place and make way for the next, greater vision of Utopia that we will be chasing thereafter.

Filed under: Events, Urban Agriculture, Urban Planning | Tags: Alexander Gorlin, , , Brooklyn Utopias?, Future, , , , , , , | 1 Comment »
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