Growing food, community and biodiversity with permaculture - Beacon Food Forest

Jonathan H. Lee
Published: 25 May 2018
Last edited: 31 March 2019
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The Beacon Food Forest is a community-powered permaculture project that took off in 2009, aiming to create a sustainable model that can support the community with affordable, healthy food, knowledge on growing food and biodiversity, and a sense of belonging in the face of climate change and food security issues. A food forest is a sustainable model that mimics the ecosystem of a natural forest but substitutes certain species with ones that have the same ecological function and are edible to humans.


The project is located on a leisure public land in Seattle, and it is built and maintained entirely by local residents as volunteers. All harvests are open for picking by any passerby, and work is shared by residents and new-comers as a group. By making the project open to all with a clear code of conduct, the project quickly gathered hundreds of residents from different walks of life, contributing tools, skills, and knowledge that can be gathered and passed down to the younger generation.


North America
Scale of implementation
Green spaces (parks, gardens, urban forests)
Urban ecosystem and build environment
Access and benefit sharing
Food security
Genetic diversity
Health and human wellbeing
Sustainable livelihoods
Urban planning
Land and Forest degradation
Invasive species
Inefficient management of financial resources
Sustainable development goals
SDG 2 – Zero hunger
SDG 3 – Good health and well-being
SDG 4 – Quality education
SDG 10 – Reduced inequalities
SDG 11 – Sustainable cities and communities
SDG 12 – Responsible consumption and production
SDG 13 – Climate action
SDG 15 – Life on land
SDG 17 – Partnerships for the goals


Beacon Hill, Seattle, Washington 98108, United States


In large cities where most food is imported, food security is an imminent crisis in the face of climate change. The project hopes to transform 7 acres of public land into a productive food forest that can help secure local food source. For that, we must also face the challenge of growing food on a land with depleted soil, water erosion, and invasive species.


Food justice and a sense of loss are two social challenges in large cities. Being public, the Beacon Food Forest advocates free food for all, regardless of backgrounds level of participation. People here garden as a group rather than in individual plots. This helps to diminish the sense of division and encouragement for food justice; it also helps the sense of loss as people find themselves working for a common interest.


Large-scale capitalism has proven itself inefficient in terms of resources used and waste generated. The Beacon Food Forest sets an example of small-scaled, circular economic model by localizing inputs and outputs.


The Beacon Food Forest directly benefits the land and the local communities. The City gained achievements on revitalizing public land. Schools, organizations and corporations also find it beneficial to spend a day here to work with the land.

How do the building blocks interact?

The process of the Beacon Food Forest can be stated via the following stages: 1) bring forth a clear vision, 2) gain the agreement to use the land, 3) design the food forest, 4) build the food forest and volunteers, 5) utilize and maintain the food forest. Resilience was the first building block in the first stage which clearly defined the food forest as an environmentally sustainable model. However, in stage 2 and 3, diversity was the most important building block because it meant that the food forest was of public interest, which is a key to getting lots of support. In addition, incorporating ideas from diverse communities into the design also helped to make the design better fit the needs of these communities, which then increased their chance of participation in the later stage. In stage 4 and 5, community empowerment was the primary building block that helped to build a group of volunteers that can share the work and, more importantly, carry on the work even if the initiators were not there. Whilst resilience defined the food forest as an environmentally sustainable model, diversity and community empowerment defined the food forest as a socially sustainable model.


The impacts of Beacon Food Forest can be summarized into the following: a higher level of biodiversity, stronger community, and an immeasurable asset for our future generation.


Higher level of biodiversity was done by 1) planting in many native species in addition to just edible ones, 2) creating organic soil layers with sheet mulching technique, thus increasing the diversity of worms and microorganisms that are beneficial to the food forest, and 3) collecting various seeds from plants in the food forest, restoring our local genetic diversity.


A stronger community was built by 1) revitalizing a leisure public land into a space where people can actively engage themselves, 2) empowering people with knowledge, respect, and leadership as they come together to garden in a public group, 3) promoting equity and food justice for all. Many people have their own backyard but choose to garden in the Beacon Food Forest, suggesting that gardening in a group amends for the sense of isolation in a large city.


The Beacon Food Forest gathers and provides an asset of knowledge, and perhaps more importantly, the right attitude towards life and the environment. These are the values which many children do not get to learn in schools, yet are essential for cultivating a higher personal integrity that may assist them in building a sustainable society in the future.


Beacon Food Forest

I first learned about the Beacon Food Forest as the first urban public food forest in the world. However, what truly inspires me is that how a group of people realized their vision from just a course project, which has now become an indispensable center of life for many in the community.


The idea of a public food forest was brought up by Mr. Glenn Herlihy and Ms. Jacqueline Cramer as a course project in 2009. After the course ended, the project continued to carry on with the support of Herlihy's and Cramer's family and friends. However, to carry out such a project was a strenuous process. It involved getting approval from the landowners (City government), getting wide support from the local community to show that the project was of common interest, getting a licensed landscape architect to draw a legitimate design map, and going through every legal process to acquire permit and resources necessary to alter the public landscape.


When the first tree was finally planted on site, it was already 2012. Over the 3 years, hundreds of people had worked together for a common goal. People of various backgrounds had donated labor, tools, skills and even a professional design map. While the amount of commitment and patience shown by the community is unbelievable, the willingness of Herlihy and Cramer to let go of their original design to make the project everyone's is even more inspiring.


I joined a work party at the Beacon Food Forest in March 2017, surprised by the 50 people showed up to get their hands dirty on a cold, rainy day. I was also surprised by the fact that most people come here not because they can grow healthy food for free, but because they feel at home with the people and plants here. Mr. Kenji Nakagawa, who used to live just down the street but had spent most of his years away, was one of those people. Nakagawa is now a member of the steering committee. I guess neither Herlihy or Cramer had seen this coming; that a project which started out to provide food and education turned out to be a healing environment for social solitude.


The idea of urban gardening is nothing new; however, the Beacon Food Forest is most different in that it is entirely open to anyone who wishes to participate, either in a long-term commitment to care for the land or in a one-time harvesting event. I guess this is why it is still prospering to this day.

Contributed by

Jane Chen Wutong Foundation, Beacon Food Forest

Other contributors

Beacon Food Forest
Beacon Food Forest
Beacon Food Forest