In Raleigh, The Wedge, named for the shape of its plot, is technically illegal. Community gardens such as this one are a sacred pillar of progressive urban planning, but Raleigh prohibits them on vacant lots—arguably, where they make the most sense.
"They are a classy alternative to a vacant lot," said Raleigh resident Duane Beck at a Dec. 11 meeting of the Law and Public Safety Committee. Councilors approved a new provision that would allow community gardens in some parts of the city to operate without a special-use permit. The permits cost $200 and can be obtained only through a hearing process.
But so far, The Wedge, a pirate garden near N.C. State University and behind the Hillsborough Street YMCA, hasn't been included in the newly expanded areas. That's bad news, says Ana Duncan Pardo, adding The Wedge "weaves together the fabric of this neighborhood."
"There's a real divide between renters and owners here," says Duncan Pardo, as she collects seeds from dead plants in the garden.
Homeowners can view renters as "the blight of the city," she says. "They don't have spaces to interact, really. Part of the goal was to create a space where different segments of the community would meet each other."
Many of the large, older houses in the neighborhood have been split into apartments and several are in disrepair. But many people in the community are also homeowners. The Wedge provides the first space where people have been able to congregate.
The irony is that despite being illegal, The Wedge has been featured in a short news story on the City of Raleigh website. The garden's outlaw status wasn't mentioned.
"We haven't pissed them off yet," says Duncan Pardo. "We're only here by the good graces of the city, which is why it's necessary to change the city statutes."
Community interaction has been the biggest victory for The Wedge. But in very low-income parts of the city, gardens have the potential to bring nutritional returns as well.
The provision that just passed in committee would allow community gardens in areas zoned R-10—lots must be at least 10,000 square feet. This zoning district cuts a semi-circle around the southeastern and southwestern rim of Raleigh's core, but The Wedge lies just outside the boundary.
"We have the potential to create a hunger-free city," said Gerardo Serrano at the committee meeting. Serrano is the co-founder of Sixth Sun, a nonprofit that helps neighborhoods establish community gardens in low-income areas.
Sixth Sun recently started a garden at Powell Elementary School near the Lion's Park neighborhood, which, even in its unfinished state, provided food for 18 families at Thanksgiving, Serrano says.
Urban agriculture advocates started a petition to expand community gardening opportunities, which led the committee to hold the special session.
Serrano explained how Sixth Sun enters an area and helps neighbors establish a garden, with the goal of having it become self-sufficient. For instance, the organization allows neighbors to decide whether the garden should be communal or if each family gets its own plot.
If the current provision passes, the effect will be immediate for Sixth Sun. Organizers already have chosen two vacant lots in southeast Raleigh; on one, the owner plans to let the organization use it for free.
This article appeared in print with the headline "When gardens are outlaws."