A Student’s Perspective on Development and Land-Use by our Public University

Written by Natalia Semeraro
Fall 2017

Community-engaged land-use planning at Smyth-Fernwald

I work as a student manager at the Clark Kerr Garden. This space is unique because it intersects many lives: from seniors in affordable-housing apartments, campus faculty, and preschoolers, to first-year college students and dining hall staff. This fall I decided to continue a project focused on a single tract of land next to Clark Kerr. In contrast to the space where I have been pruning trees, planting starts, and saving seed for the past three years, Smyth-Fernwald is a rather underutilized sloping plot with bordering oaks and an abandoned building. But the history of the land is fascinating. Just 4 years ago, there were faculty and their families living here, along with a daycare center and a small community garden. And in the early 1900s there were large gardens and an orchard. Before that, cattle grazed the open grassland. Even before that, the Chochenyo Ohlone inhabited the East Bay and likely utilized Derby Creek which runs along the northern border. In this same space that is now dusty and usually empty, we know there can be something productive and beneficial to the people, and restorative for the entire ecosystem.

After reading a report done by a group of students this summer, I began discussing the possibilities for agroecological practices to start community building and hillside restoration. These ideals were quickly met with reality, the challenges confronting students around me – of accessibility and affordability, interacting with the dichotomy of housing versus agriculture.

Bruce Jennings, acknowledges an issue in our academic institutions, one that has been very real at Berkeley:

Many of the time-honored procedures for assuring impartiality in the production of knowledge[…] fail to address the loss of alternative lines of inquiry. Ostensibly removing themselves from the poverty, violence, and the context of social struggles as a means of assuring objectivity, scientists are frequently discouraged from ascertaining the wider consequences of their works in the world. (Killing Fields, pg. 261)

This statement about the disconnection academia has from our communities and the real world is part of what I hoped to explore through beginning a community- engaged land use plan for Smyth-Fernwald… Though I didn’t quite realize that when I started.

My vision of Smyth-Fernwald was one where students could carry out projects and gatherings could take place with both university and neighbors sharing the space. Indigenous organizations could lead a renewal of native plants and reclaim part of this land, while fruit and nut trees could be planted near the fault, growing food wherever unsuited for housing construction.
But, I haven’t physically changed the site. Though, perhaps I have attained a different sort of productivity, by broadening my evaluation to the current state of affairs: where academia does more basic research and any applied science is carried out without addressing the needs of or even meeting the community; yet we are beholden to a food system inextricably intertwined with political, social, and economic issues. I have begun to understand how our university prioritizes: how it approaches land-use, development, and education. And ultimately how that disjointed nesting changes the food that we eat, changes how and what is grown by our state, and changes who decides what food should be in our world.

Why is it critical to fit Smyth-Fernwald into the greater space of development on our campus? I have been researching and engaging with the land. But maybe more importantly through meeting with the people around the land, hearing their perspectives and showing up, I have realized that working to fight for spaces where more than learning can happen and striving to encourage alternative modes of research, teaching, and planning for development, is essential to creating a vibrant educational institution and resilient environment. If we don’t talk about it, ask for it, seek it out – demand it, even – then many of our lessons may continue to be directed through funding straight from corporations.

Ultimately, it is not hard to realize that power dynamics go hand in hand with both the ability to grow, and ability to access, food and with access to experiential education. So, by reprioritizing supporting work by the people, students, organization, and community members and emphasizing the possibilities for involvement, that control can be shifted for more alternatives, more innovation and fundamentally people-driven sustainable solutions. The disorganization and bureaucratic processes, along with the focus on finite resources are actively seeking to funnel us into one direction. But shouldn’t our education and skills be up to us? The 40,000 students who will go out to address challenges outside of our campus and interact with respective communities, have the real power, that’s just not what most of them realize by the end of their time at this university.

It is about more than expanding edible landscapes and providing spaces for simultaneous food production and hands-on-ground education, but that just might be where I start.

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