Since 2003, Brenna Bell has lived in a small apartment in a 1940s-era house at the Try/On Life Community Farm in Southwest Portland.
More recently, Bell and the other 16 adult residents of the farm, a residential community and educational nonprofit, joined with 1,000-plus supporters to raise $1.6 million to save the 7-acre site from development ("Buying the Farm," WW, Dec. 28, 2005).
The farm, surrounded on three sides by Tryon Creek State Park, is owned by the Oregon Sustainable Agricultural Land Trust and managed by the nonprofit Try/On Life Community Farm. The 17 residents, who rent the two houses from the nonprofit, want the farm to continue being a full-time lab for sustainable urban living and offering education programs such as hands-on workshops on organic gardening, natural building, and spinning and weaving.
But some of that funding—$200,000 from the City of Portland and another $100,000 from Metro, all of which went to buy a conservation easement on the land—has led critics to charge that local governments used much-needed public cash to fund an urban commune.
WW asked Bell, president of the nonprofit's board of directors, why they sought public money and what Portlanders get out of it.
WW: So did the City of Portland just fork over $200,000 so a hippie commune can exist in an urban area?
Brenna Bell: The city paid money earmarked for watershed protection to buy a property interest in a watershed, and ensure that it was protected in perpetuity. And Metro and the Friends of Tryon [Creek State Park] joined in. The city wasn't doing a rogue action. And this is a project that the city of Portland—people individually—have gotten very much behind. Over a thousand people said, "This is what I want to see in Portland," and contributed to see it happen.
The city's money for the easement came from sewer fees, which have to be used for watershed- and sewer-related projects. But how is protecting a couple of acres of wetland more beneficial than fixing the leaks in our aging sewers?
Well, the money is earmarked for both fixing sewers and watershed protection and restoration. If all the money went to fixing sewers, while all the permeable surfaces that keep the water from going into the antiquated sewers got paved over, we'd be shit out of luck.
Why did you seek public money and private donations? With 17 adults here, couldn't you get a loan?
We weren't looking for a traditional home ownership model. That depends on the residents coming up with the mortgage, and it has really no public benefit to just have a bunch of people on the land. So now a land trust owns the land, and the nonprofit TLC Farm actually manages the land. And the government has a really secure property interest in the protection of the land.
What's the public getting for its money?
They get the extra watershed protection and protection of the buffer of [Tryon Creek State Park]. They also get the benefit of maintaining this land and our programs. But on top of that [we can] be a demonstration of a more sustainable future, so people can come and get their hands on different ways of living in an urban area.
How are you moving from utopian ideals to actual things that people can do?
I don't think we have any utopian ideals. What we're doing is things that people can do hands-on. We've plastered [walls] with clay and pigment. We've got goats, we've got chickens. These are things that people have been doing for hundreds, even thousands, of years, then got lost in the Industrial Revolution. And we're just reviving them. There's really nothing utopian about it. It's just kind of survival.
The idea of a societal change where suddenly everyone would start using clay pigments on their walls is pretty utopian.
Well, I'm not expecting for there to be a revolution in sustainability tomorrow because of the farm. But I do know, from hearing from hundreds of people around the city, that work we're doing here has inspired them. The Portland community really supported this project. The elected representatives of both Metro and the city unanimously voted that this is the kind of project they want to see in Portland. So I think that definitely we're doing something that Portland is ready to see and ready to really support.
This land is inside the urban growth boundary, which is designed to protect farmland outside the boundary and have high-density development inside it. Isn't this the wrong place to be preserving a farm?
I think that question really illustrates a divide that doesn't need to be there. Our idea that you either need to have people or farmland or wild or schools or everything in its own box has created this divide. If all of our farmland is far away, then it's very inaccessible for the education programs that we want to do. And it means that farms are very dependent on fossil fuels for coming and going, and roads for coming and going. My dream is to see the people of Portland turning their lawns into gardens and re-bringing agriculture into the city, and remembering what it's like to grow your own food.
But it does really cut down on the amount of in-filling that you can do. Even here, if there were a 23-unit development and, say, only two people lived in each house, that's still 46 people versus 17.
It's true. I mean, there definitely needs to be development in the urban growth boundary. I'm definitely not anti-development, and I think some of the things that we've been doing in Portland lately to fill in areas like the Pearl and South Waterfront are fantastic. I think that the right questions is, "Where?" And almost universally, everyone who's been to this land agrees this is not the place to have that kind of high-density, big-house [development]. I mean, even if it was a big townhouse row, and there were  people living in it that didn't cover the entire property, that's the kind of density that I could get behind and support.
Would you really support a townhouse row here?
I don't think it would be as good as having a sustainability education and demonstration center. I think it would be a lot better than having it all paved over and big houses.
Bell, 31, a Lewis & Clark grad, worked as a lawyer for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Project before leaving to care for her now-16-month-old daughter, Ember, and volunteer full-time for the farm.
One-time plans for the farm included an upscale 23-unit subdivision.