Turning Blight to Beets at the Roosevelt Row Growhouse

The city of Phoenix is a planning puzzle.

The metropolis spreads across 517 square miles of the Arizona desert, posing several challenges in transportation and water management. Amidst the sandy sprawl, Roosevelt Row stands out as an example of how good planning can relieve some of the impacts of the city's chronic horizontal expansion.

One of the ways Roosevelt Row has addressed Phoenix's planning woes is through its Adaptive Re-Use of Temporary Space (A.R.T.S) Program, launched to address urban blight in the downtown area. This project puts vacant lots to productive use through crafts markets, public art, cultural festivals, outdoor films, and concerts. One of the A.R.T.S.'s most successful projects, the Roosevelt Row Growhouse, has turned a once-blighted lot into a lush and productive space, relatively uncharacteristic of the harsh desert environment.

Child volunteer at the Roosevelt Row Growhouse. Photo by Kenny Barrett.

Growhouse: Urban Oasis in Phoenix

The Growhouse is a quarter-acre property in downtown Phoenix dedicated to urban agriculture practices and local food. It started in 2008 when two local artists took it upon themselves to revitalize the vacant property with art and greenery. In February 2011, the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation adopted the garden through A.R.T.S. Today, the urban farm is not only a stunning pop of green in a dry urban space but also a place to learn about desert farming, sustainable living, healthy eating, and edible landscaping.

"Why not utilize the land for something productive and beautiful?" asks Kenny Barrett, one of the Growhouse's founders. With 75 percent of the growing vegetable beds located in typically blighted right-of-way spaces, residents are often inspired by the innovative and productive ways such spaces can be used.

Roosevelt Row garden in right-of-way spaces. Photo by Kenny Barrett.

Barrett and his team recognize that the hard-working volunteers are one of the biggest contributors to the Growhouse's success. Thousands of volunteers from the community support the project's operations since it established a volunteer work day on Sundays.

The Growhouse reaps what the community sows. The Growhouse is partnered with watershed management spaces to fill tiny plots of unused land with native shrubbery instead of the usual gravel, and the crops produced at the Growhouse are often donated to local nonprofits. The garden also prides itself on providing fresh veggies to markets and restaurants within blocks of where they were grown. "When you sell to farmers' markets, sometimes there's food left over," Barrett explains. "By selling to restaurants, we can cut back on waste."

Community volunteers at the Roosevelt Row Growhouse. Photo by Kenny Barrett.

Overcoming Phoenix's Green Skepticism: Growhouse's Success

Still, one of the biggest hurdles is the mental block of Phoenicians skeptical about the potential of green spaces in their dry city. Over time, the community has begun using the Growhouse as an example of daily living. Many residents have adopted the rainwater harvesting system as well as several other techniques for growing in the desert.

The challenge of managing an urban farm in a desert city, particularly one as expansive as Phoenix, has led to a lot of experimentation. Water costs are the most continuous challenge and expense, so the Growhouse has recently dabbled in aquaponics to use less water.

Farm truck at the Roosevelt Row Growhouse. Photo by Kenny Barrett.

Experimentation has also led to several creative projects aside from crops. In an effort called the Valley of the Sunflowers, the Growhouse partnered with the local BioScience High School to plant two acres of sunflowers on vacant city-owned land. Not only did the temporary display transform how people thought of the downtown space, but students harvested the seeds and produced biofuel for a hybrid solar/biofuel vehicle that they designed and built.

With innovation and community engagement like this, the future of the Roosevelt Row Growhouse is sure to be equally sunny.

Top image: Roosevelt Row Growhouse storefront. Photo by Kenny Barrett.

About the Author
Samantha Schipani is APA's Great Places in America communications intern.

July 20, 2016

By Samantha Schipani