Denver Urban Gardens: Growing a garden, growing a community

Denver Urban Gardens (DUG) has been serving the five-county area of Metro Denver for 30 years and manages about 150 community gardens.
“Our mission is to create community one garden at a time,” says Shannon Spurlock, Director of Public Affairs and Policy. “A lot of what we do speaks to that core piece of helping create community and [empower communities] to grow their own food.”
Each garden is run by a team of volunteers who are trained in the management and social component of running a garden. DUG offers a variety of additional resources and programming to further facilitate community education and food accessibility. There is Master Community Gardener and Master Composter training, youth nutrition education programs for both kids and youth educators, youth-run farmers markets, a “Free Seeds and Transplants” program that has served over 6,000 in-need residents of Metro Denver, and much more.
“There are lots of different ways we do our best to empower community members and residents,” Spurlock says.  
But the first and foremost of those things, she says, is ensuring that they are welcomed into a space before building a garden.
“If we are someplace it’s because we’ve been asked to be there,” she says, “Not because we said, ‘There should be a garden here.’ Our response has been in a very proactive/reactive way. That’s a measure of sustainability as well: if people want to be in that space and growing then they’re going to support it in an ongoing way. We want people to really own it and cultivate it from the get-go.”
One of DUG’s more recent community gardens is the Eddie Maestas Community Garden at the intersection of Lawrence, Park Ave., and Broadway. Better known as Triangle Park, it was considered by the surrounding community as a high problem area, notorious throughout the city and referred to by the press by such pejorative nicknames as “the Skid Row of Denver” and “the Bummuda Triangle.” It was an area that attracted a large homeless and transient population, since many human services organizations are located in the area, as well as the drug dealers who target such populations and the related substance abuse and criminal activities they bring.
There had been ongoing, wide-reaching conversations for several years regarding what could be done with that space. It had previously been used as a place of respite for the homeless and the surrounding community had always been tolerant. It wasn’t until people from the outside began taking advantage of that population when drug use and regular arrests became the norm.
When DUG was approached with the idea of transforming Triangle Park into a garden, their first priority was to see what the people in the surrounding community thought – neighbors, business owners, and the area’s service providers and their clients.
“‘Community’ can be a really inclusive word,” Spurlock says. “There were a lot of people who had ideas of what this should mean. We were tuned into the service providers and clients being served by those providers, asking, ‘How can this space become relevant to the surrounding community and this [homeless and in-transition] community here? How can there be a shift to something positive in people’s lives?’ The intent was really positive.”  
DUG worked with area service providers like Denver Rescue Mission, Samaritan House, St. Francis Center, and RedLine Art’s Reach Studio. They held several public meetings where they asked constantly for input, making sure a garden was something the people wanted that would actually benefit them, and then getting input on design elements, which included having bee hives and an increased number of raised beds.
One of the proposed design elements was a locked fence enclosure. DUG does not mandate for their gardens to be fenced or locked, but rather leaves that decision up to the community. (In fact, their only requirement is that gardens are organic.) Given that the park is located between two extremely busy streets, the community felt that the space lent itself to being enclosed. This ended up being a contentious issue as others, particularly people who had chosen not to be involved with planning conversations, felt that the fences were put up with the intention of keeping the homeless out.
“There were some misunderstandings that we said there had to be a fence or there had to be a lock, when we were just being responsive. It has been a very collaborative partnership-based endeavor with all different kinds of partners, from gardeners to agencies and service providers to the parks and recreation department. We operate with a very conscientious partnership focus. It was really important to us to reach out to service providers and their clients and serve their needs,” Spurlock explains.
“That was that was something people liked: the idea of having fencing around it. We typically just defer to community members on those decisions. We look for guidance from the people we’re serving. Some gardens have locks or fences and some don’t. This one has a fence and lock. It wasn’t going to, but the feeling from the service providers was that it couldn’t be a totally open space yet; there needed to be a shift in how people interacted with it.” 
The garden is split into three different areas: one for people in transitional housing, one for human services providers, and one for residents of the nearby Ballpark neighborhood, a ritzy area of pricey luxury lofts and trendy office spaces. This kind of shared space bridging socioeconomic gaps is very intentional.
“There are tensions that exist that were already there,” Spurlock says. “A lot of it is the unknown tension around gentrification and the growth of the neighborhood. It’s a sticky situation. A lot of the conversations about the garden involved, ‘Who is going to be growing there? Is this going to be an exclusive space?’ It was always supposed to be inclusive and integrated, representing all community members. There is a strong sense of community that often happens around growing food and sharing food, [which is why we] created this shared experience.”
DUG also worked with Reach Studio to commission public artworks from their artists. Four Reach artists were selected through a juried process to create permanent works to display in the garden, and two more permanent works were created by Reach in collaboration with the community members who attended their Community Art Day in June, a public event formally introducing the neighborhood to the garden. The works all reflect on the space’s past, present, and possible future.
“A garden should always be a fingerprint of those who grow it in that community,” says Spurlock. “RedLine was an important part of it and is very invested in that neighborhood. We’re constantly looking at what the local assets and skills are. It’s not our garden at the end of the day, and it should represent the community. Reach seemed like a natural fit because they already had relationships with people in the community. At least one of the artists whose work is up is also a gardener at the garden.”
Spurlock commends RedLine for how well they executed the Community Art Day. “It was a really inclusive, well-done event,” she says. “Some people had previously felt that they were targeted or stigmatized just by being a homeless person, but the more people have come to know the gardeners and the leadership, and that it’s something they have control over — that has been dissipating some of the tension.”
Spurlock says that they’re starting to see those early misconceptions go away, which is ultimately all part of DUG’s goal for community empowerment through community leadership. “We’re always doing our best to foster the buy-in and ownership of the space. That will be what changes the culture of the space and how people interact with it. Our role is to help create that opportunity through that act of growing food and coming together.”