Photos by Michael Piazza
Economists and other higher minds credit our century with playing nice, and have tagged it the Sharing Economy. Recently, “sharing”—or re-using stuff as in Zipcar, Airb&b, or equity-sharing as in Kickstarter, Fundageek, etc. —was named one of TIME magazine’s best world-altering ideas. But I see it as nothing new—just an internet-applied upgrade from a generation or two ago. When I was a kid I had to share everything. We were 6 sisters in a 4-bedroom cape, with a mom and a dad and a dog. We doubled- or tripled-up on everything—bedrooms, clothes, toys, even beds. We learned to share all right. Today’s Sharing Economy is driven not by the expectations of an older generation but by young, nimble entrepreneurs who extract maximum value from social media and information technology and aspire to create transparent, open communities with smaller carbon-footprints and larger economic opportunities. Bravo, you guys!
The 21st-century notion of sharing now extends to gardening—in particular, land-based gardening. (There are ingenious ways to garden without land, of course: container boxes for a patio space; vertical solutions if all you have is a wall; gardens for the roof of your house or apartment building; and a growing number of companies in the business of designing and installing all of these for you.) But up until now, you would probably choose a community garden if you wanted to garden outdoors in the ground and didn’t have any ground of your own. Community gardens are the original Victory Gardens from World War II, and many communities still have them. (You can locate a community garden near you at www.bostonnatural.org.) Trouble is that plots are limited at community gardens and there is often a long wait time to become a member—sometimes years.
In Somerville, Shobha Gunnery has only a patio to grow the vegetables she loves. She has waited four years for a spot in one of her city’s community gardens. Her name was wait-listed on three or four of them. In April of this year she finally made it to the top of one of the lists and got her own plot. But before this year she had been gardening in Mary Gilbert’s backyard in Arlington Heights. The two connected through a new, interactive website called mycitygardens.com, developed by a group of clear-focused entrepreneurs from MIT.
Jessica Bryant, 31, is a full-time graduate student at MIT’s Department of Civil Environmental Engineering. She is socially conscious, environmentally concerned, and computer savvy—a poster child for the Sharing Economy. She grew up in Natick and lives now in Cambridge by way of Malaysia, where she was responsible for the daily research activities focused on improving tropical forests’ management practices. In Cambridge, in her spare time, she and a couple of friends figured out a way to connect people in the Boston area who have land (an unused garden plot, a front yard, a back yard) with people looking for a plot to plant—private yard-sharing in other words. In 2012, mycitygardens.com was born, founded by Bryant and Howie Rosenblatt.
Bryant and Rosenblatt met through PartnerUp, a free online resource that matches entrepreneurs with potential start-up partners and cofounders. Erik Kastman joined the two after seeing their fliers in coffee shops around Cambridge. Another team member, web-developer Galen Sanford, joined after participating in a MIT sustainability “hackathon,” (an event where techies get together for a short period of time to solve a problem.) The hackathon problem they tackled was food insecurity: the growing condition of the lack of consistent access to enough nutritious food by some populations. The idea of yard-sharing was a natural outgrowth.
With a passionate, highly motivated team in place, the challenge became getting the word out. Bryant comments that, “Communicating the message and letting people know the site exists is the trickiest part. Everyone [on the team] is part-time. We all dabble a little in everything.” Marketing mycitygardens.com has been through emails, social media and, ironically, old-school paper flyers on community bulletin boards in parks and coffee shops, and through postings on neighborhood gardening email lists. “We are never going to charge for yard-sharing services. If we could bring in a little money it would allow us to cover our hosting costs and marketing costs. Marketing takes a lot of time.”
Mary Gilbert in Arlington Heights had three small, raised beds in her yard. For the past three years she had tried to maintain the beds, but with her travel schedule the beds were neglected. She read about mycitygardens.com on a list-serve for Arlington gardeners and connected with Gunnery in Somerville. Gilbert remembers, “The first person I got through mycitygardens was a bad fit. She was nervous and fearful of the sun.” Gilbert’s second match through mycitygardens was Gunnery. Gilbert and Gunnery talked and met and “got along really well.” The two gardened together last summer, purchased seeds together and shared the cost of everything— including the harvest. Gunnery’s help allowed Gilbert to travel and still keep up her garden. Although Gunnery now has her own plot much closer to her home and work, she will continue to help maintain Gilbert’s garden and share in the harvest.
The website works in several ways. First you create an account and login. Then you can list your own property, find a property that you can garden, or volunteer to help out with someone else’s garden. For an example, when I put in my Charlestown zip code and checked off that I was seeking a garden, an interactive map popped up covered with pins. The pins are all the people around me who were offering their yards. I see that Ellie in Newton has space in her front and back yards and wants an organic gardener. And Charlie in East Cambridge has space in his backyard. Alternately, if I clicked on seeking gardeners, another map showed me pins all over the area representing folks who are looking for a garden spot. I click on one of the pins and a nice photo of Joseph pops up who is in Somerville and is looking for a garden. Clicking through gives me a message box to send a message to Joseph. Clicking on another pin, I find that Bruce in Brookline is also looking for a garden. Like most online sites, the inventory changes constantly so you can just keep looking if you do not find what you want immediately.
The website is a work in progress. Bryant says the mycitygardens team is hoping to “continue facilitating people to make better use of their outdoor spaces.” Right now the site covers Cambridge, Somerville, Arlington, Brookline, Jamaica Plain, and Dorchester. But Bryant sees potential all over the country. They hope other cities will adopt the model.
Consider that by the year 2050 there is estimated to be 9 billion people living on our planet. This generation gets that, and wants to contribute solutions to the problems those population numbers will create. The mycitygardens team is working to become a part of the solution.