The Gardens of Millvale: A Story of Growth

September 26, 2016


The Millvale Community Library, true to its mission of being “more than a library – an agent of positive change,” supports forwarding sustainability through the framework of Millvale’s EcoDistrict Plan, and sharing success stories for all to enjoy. Cultivating partnerships between residents and community based organizations like the Library, Millvale Community Development Corporation, the Borough of Millvale, and New Sun Rising, Millvale is working to develop programming to address sustainability through the lens of food, water, energy, air, mobility, and equity. The Gardens of Millvale is an initiative of the Millvale Community Development Corporation in support of the community’s goals around reversing food insecurity and promoting proper nutrition for all residents.

This guest blog is written by Alyse Horn of Pittsburgh Tall – Telling Stories of Neighborhoods on the Rise.

Green space is essential for a healthy community, and until the Gardens of Millvale initiative in 2010, the neighborhood lacked that quite a bit.

After Hurricane Ivan brought flooding in 2004, and another storm in 2007, there were two empty lots where houses once stood but had been torn down because of damage. The Federal Emergency Management Agency purchased the land and gave it to the Borough of Millvale, which then had to decide if they wanted to use the space for a basketball court, a parking lot, or a green space.

“A lot of people at the time wanted a garden,” Denise Rudar, current co-chair of the gardens, said. “Amy Rappa was the first garden coordinator and built the first set of beds, and after that it took off from there.”

Located on Butler Street, the gardens started with 10 beds and now encompass 41 beds within 11 lots that are separated into three different sections: the orchard, the hoop house, and the individual plots.

Stephanie Davis, also co-chair of the gardens, said Grow Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Grows Program, and GTECH Strategies were organizations that played a key role during the early developmental stages of the garden, and provided resources to solidify the space through its early days.

This year through involvement with New Sun Rising’s Launch Millvale program, the gardens and Millvale Community Development Corporation secured a $75,000 grant from Neighborhood Allies that will allow the organization to buy and protect the larger parcel, where the hoop house is located, from future development as there was pressure from businesses that wanted to buy the lots and transform them into something else.

Zaheen Hussain, Millvale’s sustainability coordinator, said obtaining and protecting that piece of land was a crucial step for the garden’s future and helping reverse Millvale’s status as a food insecure community.

“The gardens bring people back to nature so they realize why we have to treat the earth better than we do or we won’t be able to survive,” Rudar said. “To make us sustainable we have to raise our own food.”

Rudar said everyone should know where their food comes from, and even though the gardens are a primary focus in the Food portion of Millvale’s EcoDistrict Pivot Plan 2.0, teaching people about the gardens touches on every aspect of the EcoDistrict plan. One of the largest being that the gardens is really the only open green space currently in Millvale.

“I think [the gardens] increase the sense of community,” Rudar said. “So many people have started gardening there, all of them from Millvale, and we never would have known each other without the garden.”

Natalie Stewart, a Millvale resident and gardener, said the gardens “are the lifeline to the heart of what is going on in Millvale.

“It has it’s own way of connecting people to each other and connecting them physically and tangibly to the community and its assets,” Stewart said.

Since joining the gardens, Stewart said she hasn’t bought produce in weeks.

Davis said the goal is to produce 90 percent of the Millvale restaurant cluster’s annual produce needs by 2030, but she and Rudar both have expectations of giving back more than fresh fruits and vegetables. Davis said she wants to implement programs and classes that can teach residents how to cook and preserve the food as well.

“We really want to be an educational center and show people what it is like to grow your own food and learn about the EcoDistrict plan,” Rudar said.

Residents working in the garden also have the benefit of learning how the gardens help with storm water runoff that is used to grow produce through a newly installed solar-powered aquaponics system by DECO Resources. Davis said the aquaponics system also “tracks the levels of different metals in the water, cleans it, and puts it back in the system.”

Hussain said that the Gardens of Millvale and the Millvale Community Library are the “two biggest examples of what regular people can do if we have a little bit of tact and time behind improving [the] community.”

“It’s a beautiful place that breathes community and individual actions, and shows that people who are about their community are not powerless and can do something when they really want to,” Hussain said.

Want to learn more and get involved?  E-mail Stephanie and Denise at gardensofmillvale@gmail.com!

Many thanks to the many volunteers, partner organizations and funders who make the Gardens of Millvale possible, including Grow Pittsburgh, GTECH Strategies, The Heinz Endowments, Neighborhood Allies, and the Borough of Millvale.

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