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The largest community garden in Baltimore is aiming to make Baltimore more sustainable and push the city toward zero-waste, but it is under threat of demolition by the city

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Written by Dharna Noor. Produced by Dharna Noor and Taylor Hebden. Shot by Taylor Hebden and Will Arenas. Photo courtesy of the Filbert St Community.

DESTINY WATFORD: The garden is a space that my little brother helped to build when he was in elementary school. He’s in college now. Like, it’s a part of him. He grew his first tomatoes there. It’s where my nephew is exposed to actual farm animals and can see what life looks like. Like literally from planting a seed in the ground to seeing it grow into something beautiful.

DHARNA NOOR: South Baltimore residents are concerned that city officials might demolish a hallowed, decade-old institution. The Filbert Street Garden was once a trash-filled lot, but ten years ago a community transformed it.

MARVIN HAYES: This is an amazing place in the middle of crime and grime and pollution.

DHARNA NOOR: Not just into a place where hundreds of people gather to learn about horticulture, grow tomatoes, and care for ducks and chickens, but also into a way to divert waste from the city’s trash incinerator.

MARVIN HAYES: Now we’re diverting about 300 pounds a week.

DHARNA NOOR: And a way to fight climate change.

BRENDA PLATT: If materials go to landfills, landfills are one of the number one manmade sources of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, and incinerators are huge sources, continuous source of carbon dioxide. But when you compost you’re producing this black gold that avoids all that. And when you add it to the soil, guess what it does? It sequesters carbon.

DHARNA NOOR: The garden itself is run by South Baltimore residents, who provide 40 plots for locals to fill. It’s the largest community garden in the city.

BRENDA PLATT: This is also a food desert. So situating this in a place where people are growing food, and can be growing more healthy food and enhancing the soil, it’s a win-win for the neighborhood.

DHARNA NOOR: And it’s also where the Baltimore Compost Collective operates. They gather food scraps from surrounding neighborhoods like Curtis Bay, Federal Hill, Riverside Park, and Locust Point, and turn them into compost for the garden.

MARVIN HAYES: So we deliver the buckets. We go out every Saturday at 9:00, and we deliver to the customers. They apply at, and we deliver the buckets. They place their food scraps in, along with our bio bags, compostable bags, and we bring them back to the garden and we process them.

DHARNA NOOR: The scraps would otherwise likely be burned in the Wheelabrator trash incinerator, which is just five miles away.

The incinerator, commonly known as Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Co., or BRESCO, burns most of the city’s trash, and is responsible for a third of the city’s air pollution.

BRENDA PLATT: So when you burn trash, you’re creating a lot of pollutants in the air; not only carbon dioxide and NOx emissions, but mercury is being vaporized, and a lot of other heavy metals and pollutants. You’re creating dioxins, one of the most potent chemicals known to man.

DHARNA NOOR: Those emissions are felt hardest in South Baltimore, where the EPA says residents breathe in some of the most toxic air in the country.

DESTINY WATFORD: My neighbors dying of lung cancer. My mom and my friends suffering from asthma. I mean, that’s not fair.

DHARNA NOOR: The state of Maryland issues millions of dollars each year in renewable subsidies to the incinerator, but it’s currently considering legislation that would stop that practice. And this month, Mayor Catherine Pugh signed legislation that would impose far stricter emission standards on the incinerator, which its owners say could force them to shut it down.

Supporters say the new law creates an opportunity to move the city toward a zero-waste future by expanding practices like composting, with Filbert Street Garden’s compost collective as a model.

RODETTE JONES: Actually, Mayor Pugh wanted us to be a site for other community gardens to home compost and their gardens. And actually, she did go and apply for a grant so that other community guides can have access to funds to start their own compost site at their garden.

DHARNA NOOR: But late last month, garden supporters got word that the Department of Public Works (DPW) are planning to build a new pumping station in Curtis Bay to drain stagnant water from a city water tower, a plan they fear would lead to the garden’s destruction. Garden supporters and zero-waste advocates say they won’t let that happen.

TERRIQ THOMPSON: It is the center of zero-waste in our communities. As a community we need to help save it.

DHARNA NOOR: And among the most vocal are kids from Curtis Bay’s Benjamin Franklin High School, less than a mile from the garden. Eight years ago, students there formed Free Your Voice, a subset of the activist group United Workers, and led a successful campaign to block the construction of a new trash incinerator in their neighborhood. Now Free Your Voice has been working with current Benjamin Franklin students to research means to build environmental and economic justice in South Baltimore. The Filbert Street Garden has been a central piece of their work.

CHRISTIAN MILLWARD: Everybody in the classes went out to the garden and has physically helped compost, or have done something with the garden in particular. Physically helps them with the gardening.

DHARNA NOOR: Students and their mentors held an event on March 16 to showcase their leadership and drum up support to prevent the garden’s demolition. And earlier this month, dozens of garden supporters met with DPW officials. They presented alternative sites for a new pumping station.

We reached out to DPW for response, and they said DPW is just beginning a study for a possible new pumping station. The study itself will take a year, so there isn’t anything to comment on as to possible locations. There are no plans to impact the garden.

But this does little to ease garden supporters’s fears. They say while DPW has no specific plans to impact the garden, they also won’t commit to plans that would definitely not impact it. Currently the land is city-owned, made available to residents through the Adopt-a-Lot program. But garden supporters are pushing for full control over the lot where the Filbert Street Garden sits, or at least for the city to give them a low-cost 50-year lease.

TONY HOWARD: We would be able to do what we please with it, right, which means, like you said, the Adopt-a-Lot, if they were to own their property the city would have to find somewhere else to put the pump, and we could continue to be unbothered by it.

DHARNA NOOR: They’re also calling for the city to expand zero-waste practices like the ones they spearheaded. Over 200 American cities have implemented mass composting programs. Seattle diverted 90,000 tons of organic waste from landfills in their program’s first year.

MARVIN HAYES: 50 percent of Baltimore City municipal trash can become composted. 30 percent can be recycled. We would only need a 5 gallon container for our waste if we compost. So guys, we have to learn so we don’t have to burn.

DHARNA NOOR: They say these practices could better the environment at large.

BRENDA PLATT: Composting is actually one of the best near-term opportunities we have to draw down carbon from the atmosphere.

DHARNA NOOR: And they say the garden betters their community.

MARVIN HAYES: This is an amazing place. When you’re here it feels like you’ve stepped into the Garden of Eden.

DHARNA NOOR: For The Real News, Dharna Noor, Baltimore.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.