Urban ecologists hit paydirt in Covington's evolving, partnership-driven economy


In 2014, the Center for Great Neighborhoods completed an award-winning renovation of six historic shotgun homes on Orchard Street in Covington's Westside neighborhood. While the homes sold quickly and were hailed as a success, a vacant lot across the street continued to plague residents.

Now, that vacant lot is a lively community gathering space and urban farm project dubbed Orchard Park and beloved by Covington residents. Grow the Cov, a resident-led group, began growing vegetables and tending chickens on the space a few years ago. The goal was to create an urban farm on a city-owned lot, where produce is grown for sale. Residents invested their own time and money to build chicken coops, erect fences, amend the soil and grow vegetables. Neighborhood orgs like The Center and the Westside Action Coalition also host community gatherings in Orchard Park.

Avid gardener Janet Tobler moved to Covington’s Westside and soon inherited the job of tending beds and raising chickens as Grow the Cov’s de facto farmer. She says Covington in general, and Westside specifically, is a place where you can enjoy the best of two worlds — city life with a chance to get your hands dirty.

Tobler’s goal is to better organize the farm and continue providing produce and eggs to the neighborhood. She enjoys how it brings people together and wants to keep it that way. But ultimately, Tobler says it’s for the community to decide what the garden should be.

“Maybe I’m biased, but I think it has done a lot for the community,” she says. “People will come down here and talk — really talk to each other.”

Before Orchard Park became an urban farm project and gathering space, there was talk of developing it for infill housing, but residents weren’t interested in giving up their hard-earned green space. They are committed to protecting the space for everyone’s use.

“It was just empty for so long,” longtime resident Faye Massey remembers. “But eventually people started using it as a park. And we love it and we want to keep it as a park, and we’ll fight to do so. It’s full of life again.”

Adjacent to Orchard Park is the Riddle-Yates Community Garden, started by The Center in 1982 and thought to be the oldest community garden in Northern Kentucky. At Riddle-Yates, neighbors rent a plot for $10 per year and grow their own vegetables and flowers. The garden recently expanded into another vacant parcel.

Massey has lived in the Westside neighborhood for most of her life and has watched it go through many changes. Through it all, the Riddle-Yates garden has been a cornerstone where people from across the diverse neighborhood rub shoulders working side by side.

Harvesting a different kind of green

Community gardening and urban farming are great for more than bringing neighbors together; they also have educational and economic benefits.

Covington CSA owner Alexa Abner calls her urban farm a “market garden.” She wants people to see it as a workplace where an employed farmer can make a living.

“It’s been important for me to approach farming as a business so that people take it seriously as a useful part of our economy on top of all its other benefits,” says Abner.

She notes that many community gardens are vulnerable to losing their land because gardening is seen as a recreational endeavor rather than an economic one. She’d like to see urban farming carve out a place in Covington’s economic development initiatives.

Abner is “a farmer with no land” and operates her CSA on leased vacant lots owned by the city. If she can prove her work’s viability, she may be allowed to purchase two of the parcels after her lease is up.

While her business grows, Abner supplements her income by helping manage the Covington Farmer’s Market and working in other gardens across the city. Along with fellow resident Gus Wolf — the same person who brought chickens to Orchard Park — Abner leads garden clubs at Glenn O. Swing, Sixth District, and John G. Carlisle Elementary as part of a Covington-based afterschool program known as Skool Aid.

Funding for the program comes from Covington Partners and Keep Covington Beautiful, a nonprofit started by The Center and the Covington Neighborhood Collaborative —  which also sponsors the Great American Cleanup, Ohio RiverSweep and local recycling and beautification efforts.

Abner hopes to recruit more urban farmers so she can expand the school gardening program into higher grades and add an agricultural workforce development component.

Further from the urban center of Covington, at Latonia Elementary School, fifth-grade social studies teacher Bob Runyan has a similar goal with a program that’s more holistic than traditional garden clubs. Runyan uses the school garden to teach everything from business and entrepreneurship to economics and marketing. He calls it Latonia Elementary Herbmania and Urban Garden.

The program is now five years old and is supported by Covington Partners’ Community Learning Center initiative. Runyan loves the program’s potential for engaging students on a deeper level and providing skills they’ll need later to enter the workforce.

When a park is more than just a park

In terms of quality of life, green space is a major priority for many residents. While the City of Covington is tasked with maintaining many of the city’s public parks and gardens, it is also proactively investing for the future.

“Green infrastructure” is an approach to urban development that sees the natural environment as integral to clean, sustainable, healthy communities. Many green infrastructure projects are essentially land-use plans that enhance cooperation between natural and man-made structures — sidewalks and trees, buildings and yards, parking lots and planting beds — while managing storm water and waste, reducing energy use and improving air quality and overall community health.

In recent years, Covington has engaged in significant green infrastructure projects, including a city-wide tree canopy assessment and tree inventory, award-winning trail expansions at Devou Park and continued development of the Licking Greenway Trail and Riverfront Commons. Mayor Joe Meyer recently pledged to expand the city’s native monarch butterfly habitats, as well.

“This is proactive management versus reactive management,” says Crystal Courtney, who heads up Covington's Urban Forestry Division. “I now have the ability to step back from individual tree maintenance and focus on the system as a whole.”

One of Courtney’s major projects involved replacing nonnative pear trees along Holman Avenue with new native species to create a model urban-tree canopy that extends more than a mile between Peaselburg and Mainstrasse. The canopy links several smaller pockets to one of Covington’s premier gathering spaces, Goebel Park. The Urban Forestry Board partnered with Keep Covington Beautiful and the Westside Action Coalition on this urban trail project.

“As these trees grow up, it will be an educational walkway from one park all the way down to the other,” says Courtney.

Goebel Park clock towerCovington also has big plans for Goebel Park. The first phase of a large-scale renovation came together through a resident-led effort called Make Goebel Great, which laid much of the groundwork and assisted with implementation. Future plans include adding native plants and solutions for stormwater retention and filtration.

In another attention-getting park feature, the regionally famous Goebel Goats help reduce invasive plants by doing what goats do best — eating.

Leaders + residents = perfect partnership

Because city funding and resources are often limited, many of the city’s green space initiatives rely on partnerships between the city, neighborhood associations, volunteers and community agencies.

Rosie Santos is the city’s parks and recreation manager. She says that when residents feel motivated and invested in community improvement projects, support from the city can help them cut through red tape to make it happen.

One example of this synergy is Make It Happen, a neighborhood committee that’s leading the renovation of the Basil Lewis and Annie Hargraves parks in Old Seminary Square. As the group continues raising funds, the city has approved first steps toward increased safety and beautification.

Elsewhere, the city piloted a community engagement process in the Lewisburg neighborhood, collecting residential input for planned improvements at Father Hanses Park, one of the area’s few green spaces.

Few residents complain about park improvement projects like these, but Courtney and Santos say some are skeptical of the larger infrastructure changes they see happening.

“These projects are all in such an early phase,” says Santos. “The trees aren’t fully grown; the flowers haven’t bloomed; the monarchs aren’t here. Not everyone sees the bigger picture yet.”

But through improved community engagement and public education, Santos has seen formerly skeptical residents become excited for a greener Covington, even if they won’t see the fruits — both literal and proverbial — right away.

Santos believes Covington has an opportunity that many cities lack: the potential to connect a diverse urban community through a vibrant network of green spaces.

“We have all these natural assets that lend themselves to the experience of being in the rugged outdoors while still being close to the city,” she says. “As we move forward, that’s something we want to emphasize — accessibility for all people. Covington can be a model for how to create a connection to nature, and not just for the privileged few.”

The Northern Kentucky Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation is proud to underwrite Soapbox’s On the Ground: Covington series. The Northern Kentucky Fund believes that highlighting the successes and challenges in our community fosters effective dialog and action, creating communities where everyone can thrive. Other On the Ground partners include The Center for Great Neighborhoods, which is working collaboratively toward community transformation with series sponsor Place Matters partners LISC and United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Data and analysis is provided by The Economics Center.

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Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.