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Going back to my old stomping grounds, today’s Featured Friday is all about NYC, and a man that is transforming the landscape. Derek Denckla is all about bringing the green to urban living. Whether it be through architecture or agriculture, he’s moving things forward in a big way. Check. It. Out.

LC: Derek, you are involved in so many projects. Did you have an ah-ha! moment when you realized that it was your mission to change the way in which we live, to make ‘sustainable’ and ‘conservation’ household terms?

DD: I did not really have an “aha moment.”  I became energized by the possibilities for small businesses — particularly non-profits involved in the arts; to walk-the-walk of environmental talk.  This idea led me to undertake projects that push the envelope on “triple bottom line” projects at a scale that can be easily understood and modestly achieved.

We can debate all day about the comparative carbon footprints of ethanol versus bio-diesel but, ultimately, both of these industrial processes are remote from our everyday understanding.  I think that some of the disturbing climate change denial backlash arises from a frustration over the diversity of the causes of environmental problems and the variety of the potential solutions thereto.

The complexity of interrelated forces acting on our planet can be overwhelming for people to grasp.  So, rather than try to absorb the complexity, many people feel compelled to simply reject it.  It’s like when several people are talking to you at the same time, you might get frustrated and say “Shut up!”  I respect the source of that frustration, as I sometimes share it, so I always approach green projects with a sense of awe, humility and discovery, trying to learn about every detail so that I can evaluate it and summarize its value to others.  I find that the traditional bottom line helps concentrate this effort — if I can tell you why a certain green project is worth money and time, then I have successfully communicated the core value of my work.

LC: As a former Williamsburg resident, I am especially intrigued by your company Propeller Group. What exactly is Greenbelt and how does it affect NYC residents? Why is this important for the world?

DD: Propeller Group is my consulting practice that focused on helping emerging and small non-profit arts groups undertake major business decisions, largely related to real estate leases, purchases and renovations.  From my experience consulting with arts groups, I began to see a pattern where artists where priced out of neighborhoods, like Williamsburg, after many years contributing to making the place desirable to outsiders.  The presence of an art community tends to drive up the property values for both artists and long-term residents, leading to displacement of both groups and a homogenization of the neighborhood by the incoming “gentry”.  In short, that process is a particularly NY variation on “gentrification” which has happened before in places like SoHo and Tribeca and DUMBO.  The most striking — and sad — aspect of the oft-repeated scenario is that the “gentry” have usually sought out the hot new area precisely because of the presence of the arts community even though, ironically, their condos and higher rents cause displacement.

Seeing a potential silver lining to this advancing cloud in 2004, I approached some like-minded partners, like architect Greg Merryweather and some other social investors, to see if we could craft a project that made living space for neighborly newcomers while retaining sizeable, affordable space for the arts.  Our means were modest, so we could not also carve out affordable housing from the same whole, although we wished we could.  The project was only 14,000 SF (the size of some McMansions!) with 4,000 SF for the arts and 10,000 for eight new residents.  From the outset, Greenbelt sought to demonstrate that these two groups — condo buyers and artists — could co-exist in a project that honored their mutual desire to be in the same place — while making a decent profit as well.

As we were working out the details of how to merge an arts space with a residential condo, we were also thinking about Williamsburg’s history as an industrial waste dumping ground.  In the 1990s, I had taken part in protests led by Neighbors Against Garbage where the Kent Street waterfront and the area surrounding it were referred to as the “Toxic Mile.”  Given that recent history, I thought it was incumbent on any new development to address environmental impacts in an area so scarred by man-made ecological damage.

Green urban residential buildings are still a relatively new phenomenon.  Greenbelt was the first LEED Gold building certified in Brooklyn. It is one of only five residential projects certified to date in a borough with literally tens of thousands of new construction permits filed each year.  Prior to Greenbelt,  most green buildings were expensive and massive corporate towers or single family private residences.  At the same time, so many artists with whom I worked yearned for a way for their work to address sustainability but so many of them worked in a way that was environmentally problematic.  By bringing green building to a relatively affordable and neighborhood scale for an artspace and neighborhood homeowners, we conveyed the message that environmental change was possible at every level.

Our building and other pioneer projects, like LEED Platinum Silhouette, have helped catalyze a transparency of information for consumers where developers — LEED seekers or not — now feel somewhat compelled to identify “green” features of their projects.  This expectation of environmental relevance for residential construction comes about through market leaders — like Greenbelt — which take exponentially bigger risks for the sake of belief in an ideal.

LC: So not only are you creating sustainable buildings, but you are transforming existing spaces into agricultural havens. Where can examples of the Capital B project be found? Can city dwellers follow this example? Any advice for the folks faced with lack-of-space?

DD: Capital B was a project born in the boom and hatched in the bust.  Initially, we conceived of Capital B as launching a planning process that would gather community forces together to help prevent Bushwick from becoming the next Williamsburg — developed hastily and curtailing its character as a haven for the arts and affordable housing.

Our community discussions revolved around issues of vacant lots, half-finished developments, empty new buildings and problems of that nature.  From that mix of messy real estate issues, I looked to the 1970s for inspiration when neighborhood groups faced similar problems of “urban blight.”  Surveys taken by Capital B yielded universal concern about litter and need for safe, accessible open space.  In my experience, community gardens have provided the quickest and most effective way to make an eyesore into a thing of beauty.

However, Community Gardens require group consensus and a lot of volunteer time.  I began to wonder if there was some way to devise of another Triple Bottom Line project for green urban spaces by growing and selling food.  TheGreenest.Net was launched in October 2009 in an effort to investigate the status of urban agriculture and the possibility for alternative investment in its future growth.

Capital B laid out a process that any community can follow.
Basically, Capital B was a neutral-convener of Town Hall meetings.  Even when politicians hold such Town Hall meetings, they are seeking support for existing ideas or future candidacy.  Capital B removed the Town Hall from this political context.  So, if you want to replicate Capital B, simply create an unincorporated neighborhood association and then gather interested parties in a room with a cross section of incomes and backgrounds to talk about the future of the neighborhood.

The result will be an amazing sharing of ideas and information while networking in a safe and comfortable environment outside of established business, personal and professional circles.  Sometimes the Chamber of Commerce can play this role in small towns.  However, it tips too far in favor of business interests.  NYC’s major problem is that it is a City of neighborhoods run as if it is a cohesive megalopolis.  The boundaries and constituencies of NYC’s neighborhood are fluid and shifting, so a project like Capital B may be necessary every few years as a local way to define the physical and social limitations in which we all agree to be neighbors.

LC: In reference to Farm City being a utopian solution. You said ‘Brooklyn is home to a fertile cross section of both traditional and experimental urban farming methods.’ How does Farm City help to create this urban utopia?

DD: Initially, Farm City began as an idea for a micro-loan investment fund to support the growth of urban agriculture. Most of the projects I investigated were highly experimental and exciting but not yet investment-ready.  Motivated by a desire to see urban agriculture mature, I wanted to “invest” in urban agriculture in a different way — by promoting its growth and its profile with the public rather than looking for a place to park high risk capital.  For me, the social and educational aspect of urban agriculture equal the importance of any food or income that might be grown within the City limits.

Farm City was launched with the support of the most unlikely of partners, French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF).  For the past few years, FIAF has held a Fall festival of the arts called, Crossing the Line, curated by Lili Chopra and Simon Dove.  Crossing the Line seeks to engage in projects, performances and events that surmount traditional cultural and disciplinary boundaries in the hope that fertile new ideas and imaginings will come of a unique mixture.

From that inspiration, I began planning Farm City events that explored the intersection between art and urban agriculture, spanning celebrations to conversations in four different events: Farm City Fair, Farm City Film, Farm City Tours, and finally Farm City Forum.  Other collaborators approached me and I expanded Farm City to include an art exhibition, Brooklyn Utopias: Farm City, and various other Farm City events.

FIAF is based in Manhattan.  They asked me where Farm City events should be held.  Without hesitation, I answered “Brooklyn.”  Brooklyn has the highest number of urban farming experiments — from long term successes, like Added Value, to new and untested projects, like Eagle Street Rooftop Farm.  Agriculture is more than just production or farming, it involves the entire food shed: processing, distribution, marketing, sales, retail, consumption and recycling of waste.  The activity at the farms was supported by restaurants in Brooklyn presenting their produce to the public.  As Wendell Berry says “Eating is an Agricultural Act.”

I conceived of Farm City as a central gathering place to connect all of this amazing urban agrarian energy.  All events were intended to create new networks and understandings amongst the farmers, makers and artists while encouraging participants to expand their role in the food system.

Specifically, Farm City events sought to collapse the false distinction between active producer and passive consumer.  We wanted to engage participants in a continuum of agricultural practices — from intensive to easy — that would dazzle their senses and capture their imaginations so that they would feel empowered to grow, to cook, to preserve and to compost themselves.  All of the feedback that I got from attendees was positive, particularly remarking that they had never seen this combination of diverse projects under one program before.  Farm City was able to surprise and excite people and — in that moment of openness — help participants see the world as it could be — a bit more green, loving and thoughtful.

LC: You have a lot going on! It is all so wonderful, it almost makes me want to move back and get my green thumb in on the action! So, Derek what is next? What can we expect for 2012?

DD: Next. Next. Next.  I am still recovering and recording and fundraising.  Anyone interested in supporting what we have done and what we will do, should make a Farm City donation!

At Farm City Forum, Amanda McDonald Crowley, Director of Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology, ended our day of reflection on the future of urban agriculture with the charge pioneers should devote 20% of their time documenting the process of discovery so that others can learn from our successes and failures.

As someone with a fresh and current overview of urban agriculture in NYC, I am really honored that I have recently been invited to speak several times this month, including a talk for architects seeking continuing professional education!  As I talk about the status of urban agriculture, I am also looking to the future of Farm City and how it can best help urban agriculture grow. In that vein, I have been sitting down with artisan food producers to discuss creating an incubator kitchen and market that would allow them to take their businesses to scale.

Farm City has also helped initiate a lot of important and crucial discussions about the future directions for the growth of urban agriculture, which makes me pretty darn happy with our efforts so far. I have been discussing a year-round covered farmer’s market for Brooklyn (like those already underway in Manhattan). An artist with whom I work, has engaged me as a producer for a possible farm installation at a large museum.
When any one of these many possible projects is ready to hatch, I will definitely let you (and the rest of the world) know.  Right now, I am still investigating and exploring possibilities.

Thanks Derek! If you want to keep in the loop on Derek’s upcoming projects you can follow Farm City on Twitter or check out the Farm City Blog.

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