200 feet of grass roots

I went for a run yesterday, and as usual observed interesting things at eight miles per hour (as opposed to double that speed on a bus or bike). As I ran along Kent Street in Brookline, I saw someone ahead of me reach towards a vine-covered fence and pick something. I’ve often loved finding wild-growing berries in the urban landscape (which reminds me: black raspberries along the Minuteman Rail Trail are in season!) but this didn’t appear wild—a strip of vegetation climbing a chain link fence between the sidewalk and the parking lot.

It’s not. In fact, it’s a project called the 200 Foot Garden. A couple of local residents saw the shabby patch of land and decided that they’d like to plant it, so back in 2009 they got permission from the property owner to landscape and plant the section of dirt (and, as he points out, save them the cost of landscaping). Once the fence was replaced, he helped to create a peculiar sort of community garden: one where anyone can take the produce. That’s right, anyone. I spy tomato plants, and I’ll be stopping by. (Now, I wonder if these are heirloom varieties. We’ll soon find out.)

The sunny patch seems to grow vegetables well, and while it’s actually only 180 feet long, 360 square feet of open space is a rather large plot in this part of Brookline, which has a population density of more than 25,000 per square mile (that’s double the city of Boston, and about equal to New York City). 25,000 people per square mile is about one person per 1000 square feet, so this unused plot of land, in this neighborhood, was akin to the land used by a third of a person. Or, to put it another way, with a three bedroom apartment going for more than $2000, the rent for this land would probably be around $200 per month.

What’s particularly splendid about this little garden is that it is a completely grass-roots, under-the-radar example of urban design. Mayor Bloomberg did not block off the street (while there are surely many Bloombergs in very-Jewish Brookline, none will ever be mayor—Brookline is, officially, a town, and it doesn’t have a mayor) for pedestrian use. There’s no 200 foot garden conservancy, no gala fundraisers, no executive director. Just an idea, a letter to the owner and some discounted vegetable plants from a local farm. And with surely thousands of similar weird, underused plots of land around, it’s an idea which could grow.