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Akst: Planting the seeds for new development

Published: Friday, May 31, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

I write a lot about how we could improve our DeKalb and Sycamore communities. It’s part of my job as your friendly, local columnist. (Taxes, fees and restrictions may apply. Your mileage may differ.)

This is a good place to live, but like many places, we’re plagued with an anemic economy. Stagnant or falling Northern Illinois University enrollments, Johnny’s Charhouse abruptly closing, other stores going out of business, commercial/industrial properties sitting vacant (sometimes for years), and the world’s most profitable restaurant chain bailing even after a huge loan offer doesn’t scream boomtown.

Perhaps, until the economy really rebounds, we should consider development of a different sort.

This isn’t my idea, but we should develop a large community garden, where people could lease very small pieces of land to grow their own food, and where the city and/or a consortium of interests could plant food that’s free for whoever needs it (Seattle is doing that right now with a “food forest”).

Where? Several places around DeKalb or Sycamore could work, but the ideal location is that long, narrow strip of downtown DeKalb bordered by Lincoln Highway, the railroad tracks, the new National Bank & Trust Co. branch and, basically, the new DeKalb police station. Currently there’s a lot of nothing there.

Why would we put a community garden in what many consider prime real estate?

Several reasons, but before I get to them, you probably noticed a flaw in my plan.

The flaw is that “we” don’t own the area described above. Geneva-based developer ShoDeen owns the property. The original plan was for a larger, mixed-use building next to the NB&T location, with retail on the ground and high-end apartments or condos on top. But ShoDeen’s plan seems to be in limbo.

Anyway, back to why that location would be good for a community garden.

It’s close to those who would be most interested in its development and upkeep: NIU students, faculty and staff, and residents of nearby lower-income neighborhoods. I could see a variety of situations in which NIU students, for instance, could help develop and sustain the garden. The area is already along bus routes, so people could easily get there.

Restaurants could benefit, too. One of my favorite restaurants in Austin, Texas, grew most of its own vegetables in an outdoor garden.

Community gardens have a significant, positive effect on surrounding property values. One study in New York City found that is particularly true in the poorest host neighborhoods, where property values increased over 9 percent within five years.

Keeping urban land vacant is one of the worst things to do. “Neglected vacant lots in the modern urban setting pose great hazards to community life. These lots, which host criminal behavior, accumulate trash, and create various health risks, epitomize the frustration and despair nearby residents often feel,” according to “Community Development Through Gardening: State And Local Policies Transforming Urban Open Space.”

In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says, Americans generated about 250 million tons of trash and recycled and composted more than 85 million tons of this material (about 34 percent). However, more than half of municipal solid waste could be composted. Composting helps break down urban soil pollutants, so while we’re arguing about the landfill in DeKalb County, why don’t we work harder to reduce its burden?

Gardening helps people. Therapists consistently find that gardening reduces stress, blood pressure and tension.

People need food. The U.S. Agriculture Department’s of Economic Research Service estimates that about one in five U.S. households with children were food insecure in 2011.

According to a 2010 study of community gardens in Cleveland, gardens perform many of the same functions as parks because as community spaces, people feel comfortable meeting and interacting in gardens.

Tomato plants don’t mind the sound of freight trains.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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