Plants and People

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Leslie Pohl-Kosbau '67 creates places for Portlanders to garden
From the Fall 2009 Caller
Do this sometime: search “Portland community gardens” in Google maps. Zero in on one of the many gardens pinpointed with a red flag. Keep zooming in. Suddenly the scale shifts, and you think you’re flying over farm country in the Midwest. There in the midst of the city are collections of rectangular plots, brown earth and a profusion of green plants in various arrays. Leslie Pohl-Kosbau ’67 made these little urban farms happen.
Thirty-five years ago Leslie joined the staff of Portland Parks and Recreation. She was brandnew in the job when her supervisor asked her to start a community garden program—one where any Portlander could lease a garden spot in a bigger community-owned plot. Leslie jumped right in and is still managing it all these years later, negotiating right now for the construction of Portland’s 34th such garden.
“Creating gardens is an act of civic accountability—and an act of beauty,” says Leslie. In addition to an education in horticulture and a career in landscaping, she brings a background in fine art (with an MFA in printmaking) to the way she develops gardens—which is always a long process of neighborhood and citywide input and discussion.
Leslie thrives on these conversations, and she loves solving problems. “Community gardens are about food, but they’re mostly about building community—I see them as outdoor community centers,” she says. As an illustration, she offers a story: visiting one of her gardens, she watched a gardener lean over the fence and hand some rhubarb stalks to an elderly woman passing by. The woman’s delight, and the animated conversation that followed, gratified Leslie immensely. “It speaks to the instinctual heart and value of community gardening,” she says.
With a waiting list in the thousands for a garden plot, the community garden program can’t expand fast enough to meet demand. Portland has some built-in limitations, with an urban growth boundary that makes space in the city more costly, especially in the close-in areas. Leslie’s goal is to create as many gardens as she can on public property, especially in parks. One of her dreams is to create rooftop gardens in dense urban spaces. “It could be on top of a parking garage, where people could gather and meet one another. Why not?”
“The community garden movement will keep growing,” she says. “The future of farming is precarious, and some community gardeners have gone on to become small farmers, supplying restaurants and farmers markets. The gardens are a place for them to experiment and learn, to see if it’s their passion.” As for her future, she says “When I’m ready to retire I want to stay involved in gardens and other civic pursuits. I’ve learned a lot about my own city and its values. At Catlin Gabel I learned that what matters is what you give back to society, and I think I have a perspective that’s useful.”
(photo: the Oregonian)