Let’s Grow! GeoProfessional Skills and Community Outreach Working Together

I recently had the privilege of attending the 2014 ESRI International User Conference (ESRI UC) in San Diego. The ESRI UC is the world’s largest event dedicated to geographic information system (GIS) technology. With more than 15,000 attendees, the conference provides opportunities to keep up on the latest GIS technology, meet people in the industry and show off our work.

Typically I give a presentation on the most recent GIS project completed for a GeoEngineers client. This year, however, I presented on a GIS project completed for an organization where I volunteer, Hilltop Urban Gardens (HUG). HUG is a community-based urban agriculture organization working toward food independence by developing a network of urban farms planted within parking strips and yards in Tacoma, Washington. The food produced through HUG is shared with participating members of the community.

When I heard about HUG through a friend, I immediately wanted to get involved. I helped build my neighborhood community garden from a vacant, dirt lot and love the idea that growing healthy food brings communities together and provides opportunities for food independence. HUG is unlike a typical community garden though where individuals usually grow food for their own consumption on one, centrally located property. HUG’s neighborhood food network provides resources (people, labor and building materials) to help individuals grow food on their own property and then share it with the neighborhood. Currently HUG’s boundary, or the HUG Zone, encompasses 98 homes on 18 acres within Tacoma’s Hilltop Neighborhood. Of those homes, approximately 15 are currently growing and sharing food.

At first, I helped with weeding, planting and harvesting. Then, as I learned more about the organization, it was clear my skills as a GIS analyst could provide value and address their business needs. For example, they did not have an understanding of the amount of growable land (yards and parking strips) within the HUG Zone. I created a GIS layer that displayed and summarized this information, which was vital in predicting how much food the neighborhood could potentially produce, along with being useful for grant applications. For example, a one-acre community supported agriculture (CSA) provides enough food to support 30 households. After completing the growable lands inventory, we discovered our HUG network has more than one acre of growable land in the parking strips alone.

HUG also needed a way to communicate with the volunteers about which homes and garden beds needed watering, planting or harvesting. I created basic volunteer cut sheets that included photos, contact information, garden bed locations and hose and rain barrel locations.

Perhaps the biggest challenge HUG faced was how to focus their community outreach. With limited staff, where do you start within an 18-acre area of 98 homes?  We needed a way to focus the community outreach to the prime growing areas that would provide the greatest benefit to HUG. To find the prime growing areas, I completed a 3D volumetric shadow analysis of the HUG network. I had seen this type of analysis demonstrated at a conference to identify areas ideally suited for solar panels, but had never had the opportunity to personally complete one. I was excited to get a chance to use this data visualization technology to solve a real world problem. With the analysis, I was able to identify planting areas that got six or more hours of sunlight during the planting and growing seasons. Outreach efforts were then targeted to those areas because of the growing potential they held.

So if you are a geoprofessional like me and do not love weeding, there are plenty of opportunities to use your skills and provide value to organizations as a volunteer. You may even learn something new in the process.

We want you on our team.