The Sebastian County Conservation District (CD) began projects at nine locations in two counties in the Arkansas River Valley. These projects include community gardens, gardens serving homeless shelters, educational gardens at elementary schools, native pollinator plantings and urban meadow plantings. Each project site has been led by the community, implemented by volunteers and assisted by the conservation district.
Through the project, the district has expanded its partnerships in the community and across counties. With these partnerships, the district has been able to develop gardens in schools, homeless shelters and public spaces, and also incorporate conservation education into area schools with pollinator programs and plantings.
The urban meadow installations benefit a part of the community without access to green spaces. That project will incorporate redevelopment of a parking lot to provide recreation space for children. The gardens at the shelters have provided, beyond the produce, a place for the residents to work and learn skills they can take with them after they leave. The school gardens have provided the opportunity to introduce fresh foods into classrooms, and teachers have begun incorporating the gardens into their curriculum.
To better promote the program in the community, district staff with the urban initiative have done many programs with the local Master Gardeners, community organizations, Boy and Girl Scouts, churches and other civic groups. All of the programming has focused on how homeowners can make an impact on their environment through simple landscaping choices to benefit water quality, wildlife habitat and native plant restorations. The community was initially intimidated to try these techniques. But, once given some overall strategies and resources for further learning and research, the participants were much more enthusiastic about adding these features to their property
As the year has progressed, the district board has found further grant funding to extend its work in urban programming; additionally, the schools have secured funding to continue their gardens. Future projects, beyond continuing to support the current projects, will focus on rain garden installations, pollinator habitats at elementary schools to be integrated within the curriculum, an urban food forest and potentially, an expanded community garden in Fort Smith.
The Sebastian County Chief Executive Officer supports the new pollinator program, as is the incoming Fort Smith Mayor. The neighboring conservation district applied for funding to expand the work just begun there.
Partners such as First Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith have been great supporters and have committed to continued work in the community gardens and pollinator spaces as part of their mission’s program. The relationships with local Master Gardeners and other civic groups will also continue to develop.
The district utilized traditional news sources and social media extensively throughout the urban agriculture conservation initiative. The district commits to continue public awareness for urban programs through excellent relationship with legacy media and through its social media program, which includes a website, Facebook and extensive email list.