Cedar Rapids seeking feedback on effort to expand community gardens

Pepper plants grow bright red in the late summer sun on Sept. 8 at the community garden plots in Marion. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)

Laura Mielcarek of Wheat Design Group and primary landscape architect on the Sinclair Park renovation answers questions about her designs during a community meeting held by Cedar Rapids city officials in September at Sinclair Park in Cedar Rapids. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Residents of Cedar Rapids can share their input on how the city should expand community gardens throughout municipal parks as the city looks to address food insecurity and promote climate action.

The city has opened a survey online at CityofCR.com/gardens to get feedback as staff consider how to prioritize and design another seven to 10 community gardens in city parks, where residents can rent plots and grow their own food. The survey is available through November.

Additional gardens would add to the ones currently maintained by Cedar Rapids Parks and Recreation staff at Ellis Park, Tuma Park and near Gardner Golf Course in Marion.

The planning effort is split into two phases. The second phase is now underway and slated to last until March.

Haley Sevening, a planner with Community Development, told the city council’s Development Committee this week that in this phase, city staff will dive into developing a plan for additional community gardens. The plan will evaluate other parks in the city where gardens could be located in the future.

This plan also will include a management plan, which Sevening said will address things such as ongoing maintenance and operation costs as well as recruiting gardeners, especially from the neighborhoods in which the gardens are located.

New Venture Advisers, which specializes in food systems, is the consultant helping draft the plan.

The first phase spanning August through October focused on the Sinclair Park community garden. Sevening said the consultant helped with the site plan, community outreach and neighborhood engagement.

Parks Superintendent Mitch Ahrendsen said that location is a low-use park with essentially just a playground and a restroom that’s old and no longer in use. The amount of open space at this park is one of the reasons he said it fit the bill for community garden plots.

“It checked a lot of the boxes,” Ahrendsen said. “… (It has) really great infrastructure. It’s really destined to be your first sort of new-age community garden.”

Staff are proceeding with a design offering 33 garden plots, with the option to expand with another 68.

It also will offer ADA-accessible amenities that are essential for a garden, including parking and water. Working with the consultants, Ahrendsen said staff also are considering additional amenities based on need and budget, such as a tool shed, pollinators, fruit-bearing trees and more.

The effort to expand community gardens is a component of the Community Climate Action Plan the city adopted last year.

“As part of that plan development, we really heard from the community that healthy and affordable food access was one of their top priorities,” Sevening said. “And so with that, an internal staff team came together to talk about what we can do to reach that goal — specifically the objective of ensuring all residents have affordable and accessible options for growing and consuming healthy, culturally relevant food.”

Council member Ashley Vanorny, who sits on the Development Committee, said sustainability and food security measures are needed throughout Cedar Rapids.

She suggested considering Jones Park as a location for a community garden as the city decommissions the golf course there.

“We really do continue to have a food insecurity issue here,” Vanorny said. “It’s not just unique to Cedar Rapids, but being a larger city we have it. People flock to us because we have more resources. Doing things like this helps to solve exactly that.”

Council member Ann Poe, who chairs the committee, asked if staff were looking at food desert areas as the master plan is developed so the garden locations coincide with these parts of the city.

Sevening previously said food deserts were among a number of factors considered in selecting community garden locations, including housing density, walkability and access to transit.

“I’m really happy to see this in the Sinclair area, because it is a food desert,” Poe said. “We’ve known that for quite a long time that the availability of good, healthy food in that area to residents just as been almost null. And so I love this.”

Comments: (319) 398-8494; marissa.payne@thegazette.com

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