Heroic Endeavors: Groundwork Somerville (Environmentalism, Urban Community Style)

Most Thursdays, we run a Hero profile of a specific person -- this week, we are trying something new, expanding Our Heroes to include programs we admire.

This blog post was written by Margaret Riche, our Hunter College Public Service Scholar.

It’s no secret that the number of people on Earth is exponentially growing, while the size of our planet remains the same. More than half of all humans now live in urban areas and these numbers will inevitably continue to grow.  If we are to survive and thrive, it’s critical that a holistic and sustainable-minded approach be at the heart of urban development and community advocacy. Luckily, there are groups like Groundwork Somerville looking out for the welfare of the planet and city-dwellers alike. Other environmentalists, community advocates and urban planners should take note.

Groundwork Somerville is a non-profit organization located in Somerville, Massachusetts, one of the most densely populated and ethnically diverse cities in the country. What makes GS’s work unique is its multi-faceted approach to environmentalism. The organization’s programs, aimed at achieving “sustained regeneration,” range from youth education, to hands-on gardening, to land use advocacy. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of this dedicated crew, the community has undergone a great transformation; once derided as “Slumerville,” Somerville was declared the “best-run city in Massachusetts” by the Boston Globe in 2006.

“If we're going to be putting in a garden, we're not just going to show up and say ‘here’s a garden.' We want to engage people who are going to be looking at it, or potentially growing things in it.”

Groundwork Somerville’s philosophy is that community engagement is at the heart of sustained regeneration. GS (like Ecocentric!) understands that humanity exists as a part of the ecosystem, rather than outside or above it.  “Our main thrust as an organization,” says Executive Director Chris Mancini, “is that we don’t do this work just for the sake of the environment. We want to do it for the people who are engaging, interacting and living in that environment.” GS works tirelessly to engage the community in its own improvement. Mancini told us, “If we're going to be putting in a garden, we're not just going to show up and say ‘here’s a garden.' We want to engage people who are going to be looking at it, or potentially growing things in it.”

A quick look at GS’s gardening program illustrates how multiple community issues can be engaged simultaneously through this kind of environmental work.  This extensive five-year program has ensured that every elementary and middle school has a garden planted by the tiny hands of its students. The children are taught about how ecosystems work. Middle schoolers are taught about the critical connection between agricultural practices and the food supply, as well as the importance of buying local. These programs are often are carried out by the Groundwork Somerville Green Team, a youth-oriented jobs program designed to provide meaningful employment opportunities to students. Mancini recounted the experience of one Garden Youth Crew member whose family was  food-insecure and lacked access to fresh, healthful foods. Through her work as part of the Green Team, she was not only able to earn the money for healthier purchases, she also had access to the fresh produce that she helped grow in the garden. Through her dedicated work and the efforts of GS, the young woman was able to transition from unemployed and eating food she knew was unhealthy, to employed and eating fresh, self-grown produce.

Community-driven, efficient use of land is also at the heart of GS’s mission. Land preservation is not only critical for environmental reasons; green and open spaces  play a large role in the quality of life of urban dwellers. GS advocates for local parks, trails and farmers' markets, as well as offering free consultations to locals on how to grow their own community gardens. GS has also engaged the community in the campaign to extend the Green Line railway, a move that will take a projected 25,000 cars off the road. The fight for this extension dates back to the 1920s, and it is a transportation equity issue which has left the city of Somerville with all the particulate emissions of the Massachusetts railway, and none of the transportation benefits. Now the state is legally obligated to extend the Green Line through Somerville and GS has galvanized residents to take part in the land use planning process.  Their community-created design for a new station was recently accepted by the state.  In regards to their organizing around the Green Line issue, the stated goal of GS has been to “engage the community with a focus on youth, immigrants and low-income residents in making recommendations.”

Groundwork Somerville’s work is uniquely broad-minded. Their advocacy demonstrates an important understanding of the relationship between quality of life, community issues and the efficient and sustainable use of our planet’s resources. Somerville now has a youth population equipped with  the knowledge of how to grow its own food and a community engaged politically in land use issues. The city’s efforts demonstrate that local sustainable food systems, efficient and community-minded urban development and environmental education can transform cities to ensure a thriving future.