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Quest For Cohesion in Atlanta

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Atlanta’s Director of Urban Agriculture Mario Cambardella shakes hands with Georgia Organics Farmer Services Coordinator Tenisio Seanima.

Before making history by becoming the City of Atlanta’s first Director of Urban Agriculture, Mario Cambardella took a vacation to Italy.

Due to a series of unfortunate events — which turned out to be quite fortunate, in retrospect — Cambardella wound up in Milan for the World’s Fair. The theme was how cultures are preparing to feed their country and the world.

“I realized how well positioned Atlanta is to showcase to the world how urban agriculture could coalesce to become something great and wonderful,” said Cambardella.

Cambardella brought the encouragement and energy from his trip to the Georgia Organics office for an Atlanta Local Food Initiative (ALFI) meeting in January. Flanked by his proud parents, Cambardella was full of smiles and positive energy as he enjoyed food and chatted with attendees.

“You don’t maintain a food producing landscape, you sustain it, as it sustains your life,” Cambardella told attendees.

Cambardella spoke from a knowledgeable place. After all, he’s had plenty of experience with both building and sustaining landscapes.

Out of college, Cambardella went to work for “The Man”, as he put it, but quickly became disillusioned with the life of a Landscape Designer for a multinational firm.

After three years, he quit and formed a company with Brian Barth called Urban Agriculture, Inc. Their focus was edible landscapes, ranging from vegetable plots, to orchards, to aquaculture, and small scale animal husbandry.

Cambardella and Barth brought this vision to the City of Atlanta by submitting a design for the now infamous Trinity Avenue Farm Competition in 2011.

The competition sought designs for a 1-acre urban farm on a vacant lot on Trinity Avenue, directly facing City Hall. The competition, though well-intended, fell on its face. A winner wasn’t named for years, until the city hired a new Director of Sustainability, Stephanie Stuckey-Benfield, in 2015.

Benfield chose Cambardella and Barth’s design.

It was bittersweet for Cambardella. On one hand, winning the contest earned the designing duo $25,000. On the other, the city determined the Trinity Avenue plot wasn’t feasible for the project.

But Benfield wasn’t satisfied with just cleaning up the mess. Following a meeting with Georgia Organics and ALFI, Benfield took their recommendations into action and asked the mayor to hire an Urban Agriculture Director. Not only did Mayor Kasim Reed approve the hire, it was finalized within months of his decision.

Cambardella won that contest, too.

Now, he plans to use his position to help farmers and gardeners interpret code, design plans, assist with permitting processes, and provide support for grant making opportunities.

Over the course of the ALFI meeting, Cambardella fielded questions, took notes, and heard about challenges facing urban farmers.

Land access is a big issue. Incentives to manage rainwater needs to be thought through.

Other questions included: How can we make sure school gardens are maintained during the summer? What can Atlanta do to facilitate the creation of a local food hub? How will cultural heritage be preserved while surrounded by so much development? Is it possible to keep our compost “in-house?” Can the city develop gardens that foster collaboration between farmers instead of competition? How can we highlight local food in ongoing food festivals?

Cambardella was saved by the bell, though only temporarily. This was the first in a series of meetings intended to take a base assessment of the already ongoing projects, analyze areas of need, and, essentially, form the basis for Cambardella’s job description.

There were a lot of topics to cover, but Cambardella remained unfazed.

“I am extremely blessed to be in this position,” said Cambardella. “Not because I get to go to City Hall, but because I get to break down the barriers at City Hall that keep you from realizing your goals, dreams, and visions.”

Convergence hasn’t always been Atlanta’s strong suit – unless you’re talking about Interstates 75/85. But perhaps, under the leadership of Cambardella, Atlanta can finally break the gridlock.

“This is about food, and food is about bringing people together,” said Cambardella.

 

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