“Angels among us” was my first thought when I recently spoke to Sam Wells of Project Renewal (http://www.projectrenewal.org/) based in Lower Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. At Urban Ag News we’re all about educating our readers and sharing the good news surrounding controlled environment agriculture, so it was refreshing when I was contacted by Sam who was eager to detail how Project Renewal is incorporating agriculture into their work which seeks to end the cycle of homelessness. “Horticultural Therapy,” as he calls it, with the goal of renewing the lives of men, women and children is also known as biophilia, which suggests there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems.
Originally from Austin, Texas, Sam minored in biology at the University of Texas and later went on to obtain a law degree from Columbia School of Law. He points out that he’d always been struck by the dichotomy between nature and the cityscape and that he seeks “reconciliation between the two.” As Project Renewal’s Director of Real Estate Development he is uniquely positioned to do just that. The project he wants to bring to fruition is the Bedford Green House, developed in collaboration with ESKW Architects, Billie Cohen Ltd., Jonathan Rose Companies, and NY Sun Works, to be based in the Bronx’s Bedford Park neighborhood. He stresses that the project is contingent on obtaining the necessary tax credits and funding, primarily through sources from New York City’s HPD (Housing Preservation Development) and New York State’s HHAP (Homeless Housing and Assistance Program).
When all systems are go, construction is set to commence in 2017. Beyond providing residence, the project will also feature a community medical clinic providing medical care, counseling, psychiatry and other social services. There will also be a playground onsite, something that is woefully lacking in the neighborhood. And the greenhouse/agricultural aspect will bring a true green space to the project, as will a building which will be covered in carbon sequestering plants.
For the residents, Sam shares that the construction of a 13-story, 2-structure complex will house over 200 units of supportive and affordable housing for families and singles. He further states the building will be LEED Gold v4 certified with numerous outside soil-based planters (think perennials) and hanging wall plants. This is about carbon sequestration which will benefit the entire community, not just the residents. Sam pointed out hospitalization rates from pediatric asthma are 21 times higher in the Bronx than in wealthier parts of New York City, (http://www.icisnyu.org/south_bronx/AsthmaandAirPollution.html) and the carbon reduction will help heal the lungs of children.
As for the greenhouse, half the space will utilize aquaponics (the fish will be offered to residents and the community) while the other half will be focused on propagation. Crops will consist of micro greens, kale, spinach and arugula while the seasonal plants grown will be tomatoes, squash, peppers and flowers. This operational greenhouse will not only bring the residents and community closer to nature, it will provide a center for learning as well as put food on the table. A further goal of the Bedford Green House is to help residents combat SAD (seasonal affective disorder), a form of depression common on the east coast where lack of sun can create winter blues – more biophilia.
Sam makes the argument that the project is about social and geographic justice but ultimately he and his team are seeking measurable outcomes and a dollar-value ROI (return on investment). In a recent University of Chicago study, for example, researchers found that for every 10 trees planted per block along the street or in front yards, residents felt 1 percent healthier – the equivalent of giving “each household in that neighborhood $10,000.” (http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/what-is-a-tree-worth)