By Steve Dwyer
We recently shone a light on a greenhouse in Springfield, Massachusetts. Built on a former brownfield, it’s proving to have multiple advantages -- from reducing the carbon footprint to sourcing fresh produce locally to providing an economic boost to the local community.
Not far from this site in Providence, Rhode Island, there’s an urban flower farm -- What Cheer Flower Farm, incorporated last October -- that has similar characteristics and is making equal progress as a difference-maker in the local community.
Besides brightening people’s lives with free flowers, the non-profit’s mission of the farm includes reversing urban blight, creating a job training center for Rhode Island residents to help them enter the state’s $2.5 billion green economy and making Providence famous for urban flower farming.
This site has come a long way, and it’s a testament to hard work and proactive diligence -- thinking outside the box. The 2.7-acre property, a former brownfield with industrial activity, had been neglected and was rife with wind-blown trash until three local Providence businesswomen bought the derelict property for $525,000. After the sale became final, the first two essential items that the owners brought to the site were a port-a-potty and a truckload of compost.
The owners and a team of volunteers ripped up poison ivy by gloved hand and brought in a tractor to help tear down the overgrowth. The empty factory with a brick facade, largely vacant since the 1990s, had no running water or electricity and had been covered in graffiti. It was a victim of arson and has been gutted of all scrap metal.
In addition to the central headline of this project—that being “owner/developers help restore an abandoned eyesore and put into productive reuse”—there’s a sidebar: The way that local community volunteers joined together to take ownership of this blighted, abandoned and dilapidated (BAD) property during the crucial formative period was commendable.
Think about how many former brownfields sit in disarray, ignored by a local community, including the local government, because there are other more pressing matters to attend to.
This was pointed out as I recall during an informative educational session delivered by Patrick Kirby, director of the Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center, at the 2015 EPA Brownfield Conference in Chicago. Patrick discussed the “BAD” concept and how volunteerism around a former brownfield in several WV communities during the so-called limbo period made a significant difference in restoring civic pride and curtailing potential vandalism. Volunteers who put sweat equity into these types of efforts even help facilitate, and expedite, a buyer-developer to step forward.
Kirby discussed how in several communities in WV that had BAD properties, volunteers worked in shifts to regularly mow grass, pick up trash and keep an eye out for vagrants that might populate the property.
The same approach was taken in Providence at the urban flower farm, and the result is a very productive business that’s making a world of difference in the local community. What Cheer Flower Farm commenced its growing season in June. The seeds had to be planted late in the season because there was significant work to oversee as the property was covered in pavement. Some 4,000 square feet of parking lot had to be torn up and transformed into an organic raised-bed field of flowers, both perennial and annual.
The results are a budding success: The nonprofit flower farm has two full-time farmers supported by an army of volunteers to grow organic flowers on this former brownfield site. The proprietors give their product away to people who deserve flowers but don’t have access. To supply those people who deserve flowers, What Cheer Flower Farm has partnered with Amos House, the Ronald McDonald House of Providence, and Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island. The owners deliver bouquets and buckets of cut flowers to these institutions and other partners.
About 90% of the flowers currently being grown at the farm were started from seed by one of the owners in her kitchen and in a friend’s basement. The rest of the plants were donated by Green Animals Topiary Garden in a nearby community. The farm doesn’t plan on growing vegetables as it doesn’t want to compete with Southside Community Land Trust and other urban farmers.
Where a dilapidated building now stands, the co-founders envision a barn, classroom space, an office and space for lease.
What Cheer Flower Farm has applied for a brownfield remediation grant with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. An ongoing inventory assessment didn’t find elevated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The owners have worked with the National Resources Conservation Service and David Foss of Wilcox & Barton Inc., a Vermont-based environmental consulting firm.
Indeed, the new urban flower farm is making huge inroads in the Providence community and doing so on many levels. There are testimonials that bear this out. On What Cheer Flower Farm’s Facebook page, a happy visitor to the site not only assigned it a “like” but gave the urban flower garden some love. “I had to see it to believe it! It’s true, it’s true... Flowers growing and giving life to a place that hasn’t seen the blessing of the sunshine in a long time,” the post stated.