Duron Chavis has been an urban gardening advocate for nearly a decade. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
When he joined Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden’s staff as community engagement coordinator last summer, Duron Chavis brought with him a wealth of urban agriculture knowledge, having spent nearly a decade building and advocating for urban gardening programs across the nation. We talk with him about the Beautiful RVA coalition, why it’s vital to create more green spaces in urban communities and how Lewis Ginter is helping combat food deserts in the city. In 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department's Community Development Financial Institutions Fund named Richmond the largest food desert for a city its size in America. Chavis hopes to empower Richmonders to grow some of their own food.
R•Home: What does your role at Lewis GInter involve?
Duron Chavis: I was hired to help boost Beautiful RVA, a collaborative effort to promote urban greening and space beautification. It’s a partnership of several local and regional organizations. We spearhead it, then there’s Groundwork RVA, Capital Trees, HandsOn Greater Richmond and many others, and we promote public horticulture and urban greening across the region. In conjunction with Beautiful RVA, I developed the Ginter Urban Gardener and the Community Greening Toolkit programs. … We realized we needed to be a lot more deliberate and intentional about how to do urban greening and beautification within the community itself.
R•Home: Where in the city are these programs being implemented?
Chavis: The first iteration of the Ginter Urban Gardener program is being developed in Jackson Ward. So, we’re teaching Jackson Ward residents horticultural skills, gardening and greening methods, but we’re also putting everything in context by sharing how that community came to be. We’re working with Sixth Mount Zion [Baptist Church] to put in an urban garden there. We’re talking about how the construction of I-95 destroyed parts of the community, and how we can rebuild that through the development of more green spaces, making Jackson Ward greener. The next iteration will be in Church Hill; we’re partnering with the East District Family Resource Center.
R•Home: Data shows a strong correlation between food deserts and food insecurity. How are you addressing these issues?
Chavis: Richmond is a city that has a big problem with food insecurity. There are 12 different tracts in the city defined as food deserts [which means, in an urban setting, an area that doesn’t have a supermarket or grocery store within one mile]. Our work with Beautiful RVA and the Ginter Urban Gardeners program combats that. We give people training, and then let them decide how they want to use those skills — whether that means making a garden, growing a fruit orchard, planting trees, etc. Creating urban gardens is part of the solution to our food access problem, and it really speaks to the first step of solving it: How do we get more fresh fruits and vegetables into food desert communities? … It’s far more important for us to do this work with the communities, not for the communities. We don’t want to come in, make a pretty garden and then disappear; we want to teach people how to care for their own gardens and grow their own food. It’s a collaborative effort.
R•Home: Besides tackling food insecurity, how else do these programs benefit the larger community?
Chavis: There’s something, psychologically, that happens when you have greenery around your home; it feels better, and promotes a positive energy and atmosphere. ... We’re trying to help people understand that there are benefits to having ecology around you. For example, if you live in the inner city, and there are no trees and a lot of asphalt all around, it’s probably hotter in your community in the summer, because you don’t have any trees to absorb that heat or provide shade. Trees also help with the absorption of pollutants and improve air quality. So, our programs aren’t just “feel-good fuzz” efforts; they’re making a real difference in the quality of life for people in our urban communities.