Meeting with Neighbor Space
Ben Helphand is the executive director of Neighbor Space, a non-profit land trust that assists community groups with the acquisition and use of vacant plots for community gardens and urban agriculture projects. Neighbor Space was formed in 1996 by the City of Chicago, Chicago Park District, and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, in response to the need for a reliable, dependable mediator between community groups, landowners and the city. Helphand explained that Neighbor Space eliminates the risk of unsightly abandoned community gardens occurring throughout the city, by stepping in where community groups have collapsed or disbanded. In this way, Neighbor Space offers the City a reliability that cannot be matched by informally structured community groups with less certain funding.
Helphand expressed some reservations with the current system. He said that in an ideal world, the City could budget for some sort of centralised seasonal provision of maintenance jobs that oversee all the parks across the city - suggesting this could perhaps even be incorporated into the Chicago Parks District. Those who set up community gardens are often short-sighted, sourcing funding for the setup costs but not for maintenance into the future.
"Often there’s a lot of emphasis on ‘How do we get this built?’ not ‘How do we keep this beautiful in the long term?’"
Overall, the meeting was helpful in furthering my understanding of the current system through which Chicago's citizens can appeal to turn vacant land into community assets.
Native prairie planting outside the Neighbor Space office.
A flyer for skills training for young men, posted in a nearby bus stop.