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LA Waves Parkway Planting Permits to Create Opportunities in Food Deserts

In my last post, I highlighted an innovative program in Toronto which brings a mobile produce market to communities who lack access to affordable and healthy food. In an effort to address healthy food access in similarly underserved neighborhoods across the US, some community residents have literally taken action into their own hands by transforming underutilized and sometimes unlikely patches of land into “guerrilla” gardens.

Trees, wildflowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables pop up in vacant lots, alleys, tree pits and even parkways (the planted strip of land between the curb and the sidewalk), providing aesthetic value, helping to oxygenated the air and clean the soil, as well as providing families with an opportunity for healthy eating. Parkways are often owned by a city but the responsibility for maintenance falls on the adjacent homeowner. These spaces have a lot of potential for urban gardening because they are right outside of a house or apartment building and are a manageable size. Some parkways go ignored, some become planted, and others become community resources.

Ron Finely and friend tending his parkway garden. Photo via LA Green Grounds

Ron Finely and friend tending his parkway garden. Photo via LA Green Grounds

In 2010, gardener and activist Ron Finley co-founded LA Green Grounds, a group who plants and tends gardens created in parkways and other underutilized spaces with the hope of creating a food and health revolution in underserved South Los Angeles. In 2013, Mr. Finely gave a TED Talk (above) where he discussed the inspiration for the parkway garden he created in front of his home. Mr. Finley, who grew up in South Los Angeles and raised his children there, asked the audience, “…I was wondering, how would you feel if you had no access to healthy food, if every time you walk out your door you see the ill effects that the present food system has on your neighborhood? I see wheelchairs bought and sold like used cars. I see dialysis centers popping up like Starbucks. And I figured, this has to stop. So I figured that the problem is the solution. Food is the problem and food is the solution. Plus I got tired of driving 45 minutes round trip to get an apple that wasn’t impregnated with pesticides.”

The 58th Street Dig-In (2013). Photo by St. John's Community Health Center via Streetsblog LA

The 58th Street Dig-In (2013). Photo by St. John’s Community Health Center via Streetsblog LA

Prior to a 2013 amendment to the City’s “Residential Parkway Landscaping Guidelines”, it was illegal to plant fruits and vegetables in parkways, but due to the activism of Mr. Finley and many others, the LA City Council decided to make an exception for vegetable gardening. While this news was a step in the right direction for urban gardeners and community health advocates, the permit to plant anything other than grasses and certain shrubs, still carried a cost-prohibitive $400 price tag. But just this week, the LA City Council voted to waive the $400 fee for parkway gardens (excluding fruit trees). The City Council will still have to define the parameters of the law (regulating garden height and addressing concerns such as safe passage for pedestrians) and the ordinance will be subject to final Mayoral approval, but waiving the fee will be a significant win for advocates and paves the way to increase the opportunity for residents to bring fruits and vegetables in to their neighborhoods without the worry of fines hanging over their heads.

My Finley says: “I have witnessed my garden become a tool for the education, a tool for the transformation of my neighborhood. To change the community, you have to change the composition of the soil. We are the soil. You’d be surprised how kids are affected by this. Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city. Plus you get strawberries.”


Ron Finley in front of his planted parkway. Via

Toronto’s Mobile Market

Toronto's Mobile Good Food Market. Photo by Laura Berman via My Modern Met

Toronto’s Mobile Good Food Market. Photo by Laura Berman via My Modern Met

The Mobile Good Food Market is taking healthy food on the road and providing affordable and nutritious food options in communities that live in food deserts – neighborhoods with little local access to healthy food options.

The bus was the brainchild of FoodShare Toronto which is an organization who works with neighborhoods and schools to provide healthy food options and education. They operate under the notion that “everyone deserves access to affordable high-quality fresh food”.

The bus was designed by LGA Architectural Partners and commissioned by FoodShare Toronto. The wheelchair accessible bus can be boarded to check out the goods and can also protect patrons in inclement weather.

Toronto's Mobile Good Food Market. Photo by Laura Berman via My Modern Met

Toronto’s Mobile Good Food Market. Photo by Laura Berman via My Modern Met

Currently, the bus travels to neighborhoods only two days a week but FoodShare Toronto is hoping to find funding to expand service and provide more opportunities for residents to take advantage of healthy, fresh foods.

This program reminds me of Boston’s City Hall To Go truck which brings city hall services right to your front door. The mobile office travels to different neighborhoods and allows constituents to renew a residential parking permit, get something notarized, request a copy of a birth certificate and more. This service provides easy access to documents and services that may be difficult to obtain because of personal mobility, distance or other issues. It’s exciting to think about what others ways our cities, towns or even rural communities could be transformed through other kinds of mobile services.

Zumba Boom in South LA

Zumba dancers in South Los Angeles. Photo by Daina Beth Solomon via Intersections South LA

Zumba dancers in South Los Angeles. Photo by Daina Beth Solomon via Intersections South LA

South Los Angeles is a 50-square-mile area within the city of LA with a lot of strengths and a lot of challenges. Many residents of this community are underserved, which means in part that they have little access to green space, safe recreational opportunities or healthy and affordable eating options. As a result, many community members struggle with obesity, heart disease and other health-related conditions in percentages disproportionate to other areas of LA with better access to resources conducive to community health. As is the case in many underserved communities, sometimes creative solutions meet opportunity and the results can be transformative.

Zumba, the Latin dance-inspired exercise craze began in Colombia in the 1990’s by Alberto “Beto” Perez. As the popularity of these classes grew internationally, the demand for Zumba teaching certifications also grew, and in response, Perez created a one-day long workshop for aspiring teachers. In the last few years almost 40 Zumba studios have found their way in to unlikely places such as parking lots, beauty parlors, swap meets, and storefronts, allowing residents to take advantage of more conveniently located exercise opportunities creatively housed in their neighborhood.

Eduardo Torijan and his wife Santa opened a studio in South LA five years ago. “We want to see people healthy and well,” he said. “That’s our goal. It’s helping people who are overweight to survive, to combat illness and know that there’s a place here for them.”