One of the most ambitious urban orchard projects underway in the US is the new Beacon Food Forest, in Seattle. Here, in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, a 7 acre parcel of land, owned by the Seattle Public Utility (SPU) will eventually be transformed into a multi-layered, public orchard and edible park. With seed money from the City of Seattle’s Office of Neighborhoods, a neighborhood steering committee was formed and a landscape architect hired to develop a master plan for the site. Community meetings were organized to see what the neighborhood, in fact wanted, and the masterplan reflects these desires. The city has recently allocated $100,000 for the first phase of the project (to cover 2 acres), and it is expected that this initial part of the orchard and park will be open by the end of the year.

The size of the orchard, and the extent of the edible trees and bushes, is impressive.  Landscape architect Margarett Harrison (of Harrison Design), who prepared the project’s masterplan tells me the planting list include some 100 different varieties of berry bushes, and fruit and nut-bearing trees. The orchard will be organic, and planted according to the principles of permaculture (trees and bushes planted in associated “guilds”).  There will be no straight lines she tells me. Once open, the orchard will provide edibles free for the picking. The public nature of the urban orchard is an important and unique aspect of the project.

The masterplan includes covered space for workshops and educational events, walkways, an area of p-patch allotment gardens (some designed to be wheelchair accessible), and Edible Arboretum to educate about and showcase unusual varieties of fruit and nut bearing trees and bushes (see the masterplan map below).  Emphasis has been given in the choosing of the varieties of trees and bushes to plant to being socially inclusive and listening to what the neighborhood residents, many of them relocated to Seattle from other parts of the world, want to grow and eat. Harrison tells me about one community meeting where translators helped Chinese residents explain several varieties of berries important to them and that would do well in the Seattle climate. “The most fascinating thing to me has been the inclusion of so many different cultures and what they like to grow at home and the researching and showing that we could grow that here.”

Harrison expects the orchard to be an important neighborhood gathering space and the steering committee has already been planning many community events and activities for the site. There are three schools in the vicinity and a nearby VA hospital that has already expressed interest in reserving two P-Patch gardens for use in horticultural therapy.

There have been obstacles to overcome along the way. Notably among them was the initial resistance of the landowner, Seattle Public Utility, who was fearful that the orchard would be messy and might eventually damage the lidded water reservoir on the site. This was, Harrison notes, a “major obstacle” but one that has been overcome, largely a result of arranging for management of the orchard to be assumed by the City’s P-Patch community garden program.

The future looks bright for the food forest. If all goes well, phase I will be completed (and open) by the end of the summer (of 2012). There is much interest in the project, with the likelihood that other similar orchards will be established in other neighborhoods in the City. And in the mean time, the Beacon Food Forest is basking in the press and international attention its being given, hosting visits from groups as far away as Norway. Proclaimed to be the largest urban orchard in the world, it is raising awareness about how cities can and should grow more than parking lots and telephone poles.

Post By Tim Beatley

Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities, UVA Department of Urban & Environmental Planning