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Olmsted Scholar Feature: An Urban Farm in Downtown Orlando

By Chris Merritt, 2011 University Olmsted Scholar

As a designer, if you look around your city at all the vacant wasted space, it is hard to resist imagining what could be. And, you may be surprised at how many people have similar ideas. With the momentum of the local food movement, an increasingly popular solution is the temporary community garden. Growing fresh locally-sourced food provides health, environmental, social and cultural benefits that are a boon to any neighbor or restaurant.

Orlando, Florida has a growing foundation of people and resources behind its local food movement. Chefs, community-supported agriculture (CSAs), food truck owners, journalists, social entrepreneurs and local “foodies” alike, have all been advocating and pursuing a sustainable local food economy. The downtown area has a high concentration of working young professionals growing more aware of slow food and the systems that empower the contrasting industrial food economy that is in place.

As I have become familiar with the area, I have noticed a huge opportunity at the core of the food system: the potential for urban farming. Using my passion and interest in urban agriculture and productive landscapes in general, I began working to fill the gap between community interest and a local food system to support it. I focused on the Lake Eola area of downtown Orlando, which has a robust Sunday farmer’s market and a high concentration of creative, intelligent, and like-minded young people who care about their community and their health.

Surveying vacant parcels for urban farming opportunities was fast-tracked once I connected with an innovative and motivated developer in the Orlando area, who understood that his monthly operations and maintenance costs could be reduced by allowing us to convert the vacant land into a productive use. After navigating the city’s red tape through a cumbersome permitting and legal process, the Eola Urban Farm was born and is ready for growing.

Despite these successes, a number of unanswered questions remain that are the source of continual debate: 

Business and Operations Plans
I work full-time as a landscape architect, and my other partners also have permanent jobs. Although we want to be involved in the farming and community outreach, who will manage and maintain the farm every day? Formulating the right business plan has been difficult. We have had an outpouring of interest from community members, however, defining exactly what the farm is and how it operates has been a difficult concept for the community to grasp. Our vision is not for a community garden, but a privately-operated urban farm that supplements the food supply of selected restaurants and businesses, with occasional community, volunteer, and education days on the farm.

Organic vs. Conventional Farming
This topic has generated the most debate amongst interested community members. The team agrees that the ideal scenario is a beautiful, thriving organic urban farm, yet some have voiced the opinion that conventional farming methods might be better to get the farm established. As Michael Pollan, eloquently discusses in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, we may buy organic produce shipped 1,500 miles from an industrial organic farm when we could have supported a local food system that uses conventional farming methods — which is more sustainable?

Although urban farming is a creative and innovative use for much of our uncertain and underutilized land, how do we design for its temporary nature? The Eola Urban Farm will make use of recycled cargo shipping containers that have been re-fabricated for the farm and can be used for equipment storage, rotating art galleries, hydroponics, and rainwater harvesting. They will incorporate green roof systems to maximize the food yield of the site.

The greatest advantage of these containers is mobility since the farm does have a timeline. When a hotel eventually decides to build on the site, the developer will move forward with those plans. The “mobile farm” design will allow the developer to establish another vacant lot as the new downtown farm, without destroying the operating and distribution systems that have been established. This model has the potential to invigorate various areas of the city over the lifespan of the farm. It will become a mobile entity that has tangible food and health benefits and delivers vital social and cultural benefits.

A major goal of the Eola Urban Farm is to raise awareness and advocate for local food and urban agriculture in our downtown. Part of this process is creating change within the city government to make it easier for these systems to be established. Throughout my research and outreach, many experienced farmers and gardeners have told me the same thing: “Growing food should be a simple process — do not make it overly complex. With proper growing conditions, you can throw seeds in the ground and your food will grow.” As we have gathered bright and motivated individuals to help run the farm, we plan to have healthy spring and summer growing and harvest seasons.

Chris Merritt is a landscape designer at AECOM in Orlando, Florida. Previously, Chris spent one year with Sasaki Associates in Boston. He graduated from the Purdue University Landscape Architecture program, where he was recognized with the ASLA Student Merit Award in addition to being an LAF University Olmsted Scholar.

LAF is grateful to the many individuals and organizations that provide financial support towards fulfilling our mission to support the preservation, improvement, and enhancement of the environment.

Much of what LAF is able to accomplish would not be possible without the thought leadership and financial investment of our major supporters, including ASLA, which provides over $125,000 of in-kind support annually.