O nce you know who Chris Randall is, it seems as if he’s everywhere. And everywhere he is, so is the New Haven Land Trust.
Randall is a photographer, gardener, community organizer, nature enthusiast and cheerleader for the city he calls home. But he’s also Executive Director of the NHLT, a position he approaches with an unparalleled energy and a bright, permanent smile. Clad in his signature old-school hat, he moves quickly around the city on foot, on bike or in his cherry red pickup truck, and he seems to know everyone. He’s a very public champion of the Land Trust’s mission: turning New Haven’s natural assets into a community affair.
Randall is approaching two years as director of the Trust, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary this October. Founded as a non-profit by a group of concerned, local residents hoping to protect the city’s natural assets, it now runs, owns or maintains six nature preserves (totaling nearly 80 acres) and more than 40 community gardens across the city’s neighborhoods.
And with the weather turning warm, those community gardens are about to start hopping. The little plots of green, cultivated land can be found in the most unexpected places—tucked into urban city blocks in spots like Newhallville, Fair Haven, and the Hill; at high schools like Common Ground; and at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Whitney Avenue. Many spots were once abandoned, overgrown, eyesores. But thanks to advocacy, volunteers, and the help of the NHLT, over time they’ve been turned into a group of urban mini-farms that double as gathering places and connecting points for neighborhoods.
An individual or a group can claim a bed in
New Haven Land Trust
Community Gardens and 6 nature preserves
throughout the greater New Haven area.
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one of these gardens and adopt it as their own, growing vegetables, herbs and flowers to their heart’s content. There’s often an exchange of fresh produce between gardeners, or donations to local nonprofits. The Trust helps neighborhoods develop and maintain the plots, supplying materials like seeds, soil and fertilizer, paying water bills and offering advice on the ins and outs of gardening.
The American Community Gardening Association advocates that a community garden improves neighborhood life. Randall concurs, quickly listing concrete benefits. He says he’s seen these little plots stimulate community development, encourage social encounters between neighbors, beautify spaces and teach skills. Not to mention those fresh, healthy veggies. And, he says, they turn those involved into proactive, involved citizens.
“These are the types of people who are community gardeners. They act on behalf of the betterment of the neighborhoods,” Randall says of an army of volunteers and coordinators that keeps the gardens humming.
Miss Ida Wells is one of them. At 91 (Randall says she’s been 91 for a few years now), she’s got her own plot in the NHLT-supported community garden outside the Prescott-Bush public housing development where she lives. She says the garden has done wonders for the senior community—giving them something to look forward to, to work on together and to celebrate. She’s out there
most summer days, tending to her plot.
“I’m the one with the hot peppers—I love the hot peppers,” she says. “We had all varieties of tomatoes, peppers, collard greens last year. Near the end of the harvest we had the Mayor over and we had some serious collard greens.” The way Miss Wells sees it, one can’t say enough about the merits of community gardens, adding, “I don’t think they get their just due.”
On a sunny Saturday, Randall stops at the Grand Acres Community Garden in Fair Haven to lend a hand. A couple of gardeners are already in the plot, clearing debris collected over the winter and cutting back brush to ready the area for the gardening crew. It’s a full, lush half-acre near the Quinnipiac River and, though just emerging from the off-season, it’s beautiful. Jessica Jefferson, who moved from South Carolina last June, has already become one of the garden’s coordinators. Clad in jeans and well-used work gloves, she maintains the best way to know where your food comes from is to grow it yourself. “You know, Chris, I’d love to do some kind of event here, to get people into the garden,” she suggests, hauling a pile of brush out to the sidewalk. Randall is all for it.
In addition to the community gardens program, the Trust seeks parcels of land for long-term conservation purposes and offers environmental education—from in-school programs and nature walks to neighborhood outreach and gardening classes. NHLT is funded largely by The City of New Haven and The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, though individual contributions make up about 30 percent of the organizations’ small $130,000 annual budget. And, as Randall stresses, they’re always looking for volunteers.
As for Randall himself? He credits NHLT with his transformation into a true New Haven citizen.
“To think that 12 years ago I felt totally disconnected from my community,” Randall reflected. “Today I feel so interwoven into the fabric of what New Haven is. It’s amazing.”
Written and photographed by Uma Ramiah.