Finding a sustainable future for Anchorage's community gardens

by Kathleen McCoy  |   

Root vegetables

Root vegetables from Shannon Donovan's garden. (Photo courtesy of Shannon Donovan)

Shannon Donovan is no master gardener, but she sure recognizes a good planning problem when she sees it.

What this UAA professor of environmental studies observes is a waiting list for community gardens in a city with 11,000 acres of public land. A twist on that observation is the state's current economic downturn and a city with few resources to apply toward developing more community gardens. What to do?

Late last year, Donovan applied for a UAA Innovate grant of $10,000 to develop a strategic plan to sustain and potentially grow Anchorage's community gardens. A faculty grant from UAA's Center for Community Engagement and Learning helped her add on student participation.

Environmental studies professor Shannon Donovan won an Innovate grant to develop a strategic plan with the city of Anchorage for its community gardens. (Photo by Phil Hall/UAA)

Environmental studies professor Shannon Donovan won an Innovate grant to develop a strategic plan with the city of Anchorage for its community gardens. (Photo by Phil Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Now, she and three UAA students are partnering with Municipality of Anchorage park planner Steve Rafuse in an information gathering, stakeholder-brainstorming, resource-assessing effort this summer.

Along the way, they'll be taking input from gardening groups, community councils and just about anyone else interested. They plan to deliver a draft plan by September and incorporate feedback into a final version by December.

Donovan is not without some gardening exposure. For the past two summers, this New York City native has joined the Yardacopia program offered through Alaska Community Action on Toxics. This program brought an experienced gardener to her yard, and she and her partnering gardeners learned a lot about composting, soil amendments, watering, weeding, harvesting.

Meanwhile, Rafuse, a neighbor and family friend, was talking to Donovan about the demand for community gardens in a climate of few resources. This is just the kind of community planning puzzle Donovan loves.

"I started to have this vision," she said. "OK, I've done Yardacopia... but what if they did that at the community garden and you would have a bigger audience and this ripple effect of working smarter, not harder. What if we could leverage what we've already got going?"

Donovan also noted how many small groups were working independently on garden-related issues. "None of them are set up to be a clearinghouse to funnel information and help figure this all out," she said. "We can do this. This is the perfect partnership for UAA."

The first piece of the study is finding out what Anchorage gardeners want. To that end, UAA and the MOA have launched a survey to assess need, use of current locations, potential new locations, program satisfaction and cost. Anyone is welcome to take the survey, found at

Says Donovan: "We want to know-what are people looking for? How long have they been on a waiting list? What are their concerns related to a gardening program? How would they get to a garden-by bike, or bus, by car? "

Planting and thinning in the garden

Planting and thinning in the UAA student garden. (Photo courtesy of Shannon Donovan)

Donovan had to laugh. The survey had been up only about a week when friends who didn't know she'd instigated it were emailing it to her with a note, "You'd be interested in this!" In fact, early response is much stronger than Donovan expected. Before they'd even alerted their target audience to the survey, 200 Anchoragites had found the link on the MOA website and taken the survey.

"We certainly know there's interest!" she said.

The next step is a daylong workshop with key stakeholders. Donovan, Rafuse and the three UAA students will host 40 gardening-savvy participants at an early May think tank. They'll work to list existing resources, consider the possibility of leveraged or shared resources and start to create a vision for Anchorage's community gardens two years out, five years out, a decade out.

Some of what Donovan envisions is already happening. In addition to the city's three community gardens-C Street, Fairview Lions Park and McPhee Community Gardens, the MOA has partnered successfully with other agencies to foster additional gardens.

UAA student garden

Shannon Donovan, in purple at left, works with students in the UAA student garden. (Photo courtesy of Shannon Donovan)

A great example, says the MOA's Rafuse, is the Anchorage Community Land Trust's stewardship of Gardens on Bragaw. The land trust is dedicated to revitalizing Mountain View and entered into an agreement with the municipality to open, maintain and operate the garden for the local neighborhood.

"Basically, we turn the water on," says Rafuse, "and they give us a report at the end of the season."

Other successful partnerships have included Catholic Social Services and the Fresh International Garden near the McPhee garden in Mountain View, and the Loussac Place garden fostered by Cook Inlet Housing Authority. These are exactly what Rafuse and Donovan mean when they talk about leveraging resources to meet need.

A final piece of the summer effort will be case studies of community gardens that have worked elsewhere. Donovan expects she and her students will research and prepare about eight of them as idea resources for the Anchorage strategic plan.

Although economic stress and fresh food are high on her list of reasons to support community gardens, Donovan sees more. "There's also the camaraderie and the social capital that is built through working on a garden.," she says.

Then, there's extending the food supply. "I am personally really interested in what people want to see education-wise and demonstration-wise. But how do you expand the growing season? How do you store food? What about root cellars? Or shared space in freezers?"

Her mind is spinning. What excites her the most is filling a need. "I'm an applied person. I get really excited about doing things that solve problems."

A version of this story by Kathleen McCoy appeared Sunday, April 19, 2015 in the Alaska Dispatch News.

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