Low-income residents of Los Angeles’s Skid Row can now thank a group of dedicated Cal Poly students for an endless supply of garden-fresh vegetables available literally right outside their doors in the form of an “edible wall.”
In collaboration with the international group Urban Farming and a company called Green Living Technologies, Cal Poly students spent the last three months growing the plants that are now encased in 180 steel panels filled with soil. The panels will soon be mounted on select urban walls in Los Angeles as a vertical garden.
The tomatillos, tomatoes, onions, leeks, basil, peppers, strawberries, marigolds and cucumbers grown will be available free of cost to those in need at each of the four locations.
“Our mission is to end hunger in our generation,” Joyce Lapinsky said of Urban Farming’s goals. “We named it the Urban Farming Food Chain and we named it that specifically to have these walls linked by intention and design and we’re going to replicate these throughout the world.”
Lapinsky, who is the program development consultant for Urban Farming, said that although the group has created many gardens in metropolitan areas, this is the first time they have decided to use wall space.
“Cal Poly raised its hand and offered its services to do this and grow our first walls,” Lapinsky said. “We encourage growing food anywhere there’s a healthy environment. So this is another option for people.”
George Irwin, CEO of Green Living Technologies and creator of the edible wall idea, praised Cal Poly for its dedication.
“This is by far, the best team effort in my business yet,” Irwin said, adding that he had his young children to thank for the idea of edible walls.
“My son and my daughter came to me about three years ago and they wanted to plant lettuce in daddy’s wall and from lettuce we graduated and tried beans,” Irwin said. “Then we started doing some more complicated crops and here we are. One key component of our business model is social responsibility and that means going beyond writing a check. That means going out there and physically working, physically doing.”
Irwin, who himself installed brackets into the walls, said that the project also helps to stimulate the local economy. Instead of taking the money back to Rochester, New York where his company is located, he hires local gardeners to maintain the walls in locations all over the country.
“I like the creative part of it because. landscaping is like being an artist,” Irwin said. “Except my medium is different textures, colors, flowers and more importantly, the idea with the garden walls is that we’re doing something good for people that are less fortunate than we are.”
But of course before all of this could happen in Skid Row, the Cal Poly students were there to make sure the vegetables had a healthy start.
Landscape architecture senior Jennifer Webster spent an estimated 150 to 200 hours planting, watering, pruning and generally caring for the plants.
On a recent Sunday, Webster and several other students watched as a titanic truck came rumbling up to Cal Poly’s horticulture unit to take the walls to Los Angeles.
“It’s been really interesting. It’s been quite an experiment because this system was primarily developed for ornamental plants which are a little more wieldy,” Webster said. “They grow a certain height and to put them vertical. isn’t that big of a deal but these are very top heavy and they grow a little bigger.”
Webster and other students stayed with the project even after naysayers expressed doubt.
“This is the sort of thing that was an experiment where we didn’t know how it was going to come out in the end but I think that it’s been really successful and it’s been a very fruitful experience for me,” Webster said.
“There were people that were real skeptical of it (but) it did work. (it’s) a system that could be further developed and we could be sitting on the edge of something really great in terms of providing fresh vegetables for people to live in urban communities.”
Although one would think the wall’s main challenge would be keeping gravity from pulling the plants downward, their heterotrophic nature causes them to grow upwards to the sun. Instead, the challenges came when it was time to decide which walls they should go on.
“You need at least four hours of sunlight so that eliminated a bunch of walls,” Lapinsky said.
“The intention was to have them on street-facing walls but as we got into the project they physically take up so much space.(and) when you are in Skid Row, you don’t want to take up someone’s space. They live on the sidewalk so to have it out there on someone’s sidewalk and then to expect people to all of sudden not sit and not lean against that wall is something we wouldn’t want to put that on anybody. Why would we?”
The six-foot high walls finally ended up in courtyards at four locations: the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank; The Weingart Center and Rainbow Apartments, both residences for the formerly homeless; and the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, a high school in downtown Los Angeles.
“Where we ended up, every one of the locations was perfect as far as who were the recipients,” Lapinsky said. “How they’re embracing it (and) what they see that they can gain from it so we’re really excited about that.”
Webster said that it was the idea of helping people and helping support sustainable agriculture at the same time that really attracted her to the project.
“We have agricultural fields that are dedicated to growing crops but a lot of times those crops are meant to be shipped hundreds of thousands of miles away,” Webster said.
“(So) in this way it keeps things very local which is sustainable because people aren’t getting food from thousands of miles away, they’re getting it right from their backyards. Being a part of that is what means a lot to me.”