Tucked away behind the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impacton the north side of Franklin Boulevard rests the Urban Farm. A walk into the Urban Farm reveals rows of lush, green crops and an assortment of weathered wooden structures that contrast with the modern glass building of the nearby Knight Campus. An area in the northeast corner of the farm — known as the “back 40” — hosts lines of flowering fruit trees. The sounds of bird songs and buzzing insects almost overcome the distant roar of traffic.
“It’s one of the only places that I know for students to really get away from the busyness of campus, on campus still,” says Grace Youngblood, a University of Oregon student who has been involved in the Urban Farm for four years. “It provides a step into nature.”
The Urban Farm has been in operation since 1976 and is a space where “people grow food, work together, take care of the land and build community,” according to its website. Run through the Department of Landscape Architecture, the Urban Farm is both a physical space and a program that provides hands-on learning opportunities to students across various disciplines.
However, plans to develop the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact threaten the Urban Farm. The Knight Campus currently features one building — which opened in December 2020 — and is an initiative made possible by donations from Phil and Penny Knight to promote scientific discovery and innovation, according to its website.
The plans to develop the Knight Campus — known as Phase 2 — include constructing an additional multistory, 175,000-square-foot building for bioengineering and applied science research. The building is set to break ground in January 2023 on two acres along Riverfront Research Parkway.
According to Urban Farm Director Harper Keeler, the proposed construction of the building will adversely affect the farm. He says the building’s most current design plans show a “great deal of displacement” of the farm. This displacement includes the removal of many fruit trees in the back 40 and using the farm’s eastern edge as a “construction staging area,” according to Keeler.
Keeler has a strong connection to the Urban Farm, having been involved in the program for more than 30 years. He began his journey as a student in the Urban Farm class in 1990. He later became a team leader in 1996 and eventually became director in 2007.
Since Keeler’s role as director began in 2007, the Urban Farm program has grown in size and popularity. The Urban Farm class fills within the first days of registration and hosts over 100 students a term. According to Keeler, construction of Phase 2 will limit the program’s ability to operate at full capacity due to its displacement of the space.
To protect the Urban Farm from displacement, UO students and community members formed a coalition called Save the Urban Farm. The coalition began earlier this year in response to Phase 2 of the Knight Campus. Its initial goal was to obtain information about Phase 2 and share this information with the UO community, according to Youngblood, an organizer of Save the Urban Farm.
Youngblood says the coalition had difficulty obtaining information about Phase 2. The most current design plans for Phase 2 were released in February 2022. Formal design plans were scheduled to be available following a UO Campus Planning Committee meeting on April 29, 2022. However, discussion about Phase 2 was removed from the meeting agenda.
Madison Sanders — another organizer of Save the Urban Farm and UO student who sits on the Campus Planning Committee — says Phase 2 could have been removed from the meeting agenda due to a variety of reasons, such as scheduling conflicts or the design team needing more time to finalize plans. Still, she says obtaining clear answers remains a challenge.
Despite the challenge of obtaining information, Save the Urban Farm advocates for the inclusion of students’ voices in decisions regarding the farm. The coalition has been collecting testimonials from students and community members. These testimonials speak to the value of the Urban Farm. Youngblood says the coalition has received over 90 so far.
Some students and community members shared their testimonials at an event Save the Urban Farm hosted in partnership with ASUO on May 6. The event took place at the farm and featured community activities and a presentation about the impacts of Phase 2.
Advocates who are part of the Save the Urban Farm coalition are not opposed to Phase 2 of the Knight Campus, according to Youngblood and Sanders, but aim to protect the Urban Farm in the space and to the extent it currently operates.
The most current design plans do not align with this aim, according to Sanders, because the use of the farm’s eastern edge as a construction staging area will produce permanent damage. She says the use of the farm as a construction staging area will destroy its soil — which has taken years to cultivate –– and expose it to pollutants. A study conducted by Samara State University demonstrates that soil in construction sites is destroyed due to machinery and materials, which produce waste, pollution and erosion.
Sanders also says construction will disrupt classes, and the building could cast shadows that limit food production. Phase 2 construction could be an opportunity for collaboration between campus planners, students and community members, she says, but this hasn’t been the case.
“From the perspective of me and the people I’m working with,” Sanders says. “They’re planning to operate around the Urban Farm in a way that keeps it existing in some way but is not allowing it to thrive.”
Additionally, the most current design plans might not align with the UO’s Campus Plan — a document outlining the university’s campus planning policies and procedures and featuring 12 principles that apply to all campus construction projects. The document is also legally binding, according to University Policy IV.07.07.
Principle 12: Design Area Special Conditions of the Campus Plan names the Urban Farm and recommends “the Urban Farm Outdoor Classroom should be preserved.” The principle also states that “proposals should carefully consider impacts to Urban Farm activities currently occurring outside of the designated Outdoor Classroom and consider replacing any displaced uses to support this unique and important academic program.”
The proposed use of the Urban Farm as a construction staging area would impact the back 40. According to the Urban Farm’s website, the back 40 is not a part of the designated outdoor classroom, and therefore, is considered a “build-able space.”
However, Principle 12 still calls for campus construction projects to “carefully consider” impacts on the area.
Another principle related to the Urban Farm is Principle 5: Replacement of Displaced Uses. This principle reads: “All university uses are important to the university. A new use must not benefit at the expense of an existing use. All plans for new construction (buildings or remodeling projects) shall keep existing uses intact by developing and funding plans for their replacement.”
According to Keeler, the Urban Farm has not officially been provided plans for its replacement — which Principle 5 calls for — to mitigate the impacts of Phase 2. Yet, since the back 40 is not a part of the designated outdoor classroom, the university does not have to adhere to Principle 5, Keeler says.
“To date, the Knight Campus hasn’t indicated that they are necessarily going to provide funding for Urban Farm enhancement,” Keeler says. “I’d like to think that with the organized voices of the students, that might encourage them to rethink that.”
UO Vice President and General Counsel Kevin Reed says Principle 5 does not require the university to provide replacement of displaced uses by a deadline, but he anticipates alternative areas for the Urban Farm will be identified before construction of Phase 2 begins.
Reed also says he sees “no evidence that Phase 2 of the Knight Campus violates the Campus Plan,” and campus planners are dedicated to following the plan. However, University Policy IV.07.07 — which obligates campus planners to follow the Campus Plan — allows deviations from the plan at the discretion of the President, according to Reed.
In addition to the Campus Plan, the Campus Physical Framework Vision Project is a document intended to supplement the Campus Plan and provide a vision for open spaces and buildings at the UO. The document refers to the farm, stating its intent “to honor the Urban Farm” and “to design open space with plant materials to complement the adjacent Urban Farm.” However, unlike the Campus Plan, the Campus Physical Framework Vision Project is not legally binding and is only a recommendation.
Ethos Magazine made multiple attempts to contact Campus Planning and Facilities Management for comment on the documents, but CPFM leaders did not respond to these attempts. Instead, these attempts were redirected to Public Affairs and Issues Management staff, who responded with answers from the Urban Farm’s frequently asked questions.
While the Campus Plan and the Campus Physical Framework Vision Project are intended to guide decisions about development at the UO, the President and the Board of Trustees have a significant amount of power over such decisions, according to Michael Fakhri, a professor at the UO School of Law.
Fakhri teaches a course called Food, Farming, and Sustainability — which utilizes the Urban Farm — and considers himself both a teacher and student of the program. He says there were concerns about the Urban Farm in 2018 during the initial construction of the Knight Campus. Since 2018, Fakhri says, the university has prioritized the Knight Campus over the farm.
“My experience of watching the decision making and knowing the policies, I think they actively ignored the Urban Farm. They actively decided to treat it as something they can worry about later,” he says. “It was clear that a lot of the decision-makers and ultimately the Board of Trustees and the President — they are the ultimate decision-makers on this — chose to treat the Urban Farm as a very low priority.”
Keeler says he had discussions about the Urban Farm with some designers and campus planners and submitted an impact report to the College of Design detailing the consequences of Phase 2. The College of Design has been in conversation with Knight Campus developers, according to Keeler, but he has not been included in these conversations.
Students have not been included in these conversations either, and Youngblood says impacts on the Urban Farm will dissatisfy students — Save the Urban Farm estimates about 900 students and community members attended the event it hosted on May 6. She says seeing a building as more important than the trees, plants and soil at the farm is offensive to her.
“It makes me sad to see people not recognize the value and importance of a space like this,” Youngblood says.
If it’s not feasible to protect the Urban Farm in the space and to the extent it currently operates, Sanders says students’ voices need to be included in conversations regarding the farm’s future.
“The students and the faculty who understand the farm need to be included in those conversations” before it’s too late, Sanders says.
Both Youngblood and Sanders say it is important to protect the Urban Farm in its current location due to the history and significance of the space. The space is significant to many students, community members and Keeler himself. After investing “30 years of blood, sweat and tears” into the farm, Keeler says he feels compelled to protect it.
“People have faith,” he says. “And although this isn’t sort of a recognized church, this is my faith; to protect living things and especially the ones in this area that students have worked so hard for.”
Youngblood has a connection to the farm too. This connection began when she took the Urban Farm class during her second year at UO and “immediately fell in love with it.” Youngblood had some gardening experience before the class, she says, but witnessing plants blooming and popping out of the dirt with the onset of spring drew her to the farm.
“I felt a real connection to the space and the garden, and it sort of started me off on this whole journey,” she says.
After taking the class, Youngblood volunteered at the farm until she was offered work-study there in her third year at UO. She says she has found community and grown as a person through her involvement in the program. Originally coming to the UO as a pre-med student, Youngblood says the Urban Farm developed her love for growing food and influenced her to change her career plans. Youngblood — now in her fifth year — continues to work with the farm through her work-study.
While she has not taken the Urban Farm class, Madison Sanders’ path was influenced by the program too. Sanders studies landscape architecture, but she came to the UO as a geophysics student. It wasn’t until she spent time at the Urban Farm through the Environmental Design First-Year Interest Group that she changed course, she says.
Sanders –– who serves as an ASUO senator –– became involved in Save the Urban Farm and says she proposed the coalition pass an ASUO resolution to communicate the information regarding Phase 2 and its impacts on the Urban Farm to the UO community.
“As students, we really have the power to mobilize with really large numbers,” Sanders says. “So the goal of the resolution that I was proposing was to tap into that on the rest of the campus.”
With the help of other Save the Urban Farm organizers, Sanders wrote the resolution and received 260 co-signatures. She says she hopes to use her positions in ASUO and on the Campus Planning Committee to connect Save the Urban Farm with other organizations at UO.
Determining the capacity of Save the Urban Farm and the UO community to affect change is a question that both Sanders and Youngblood are grappling with. The two strive for students’ voices to be included in decisions regarding Phase 2 of the Knight Campus and the Urban Farm but are unsure what power their voices will have.
“It feels really daunting, just with the amount of money and power they have,” Youngblood says. “The difficulty in finding clear answers has been frustrating as students and hindering what we’re trying to get done.”
While it feels daunting, Fakhri says students have options to protect the Urban Farm. One of these options is to go to the City of Eugene and the State of Oregon to designate the farm as a historical site. He says the designation as a historical site may not halt development, but it could slow down the process and raise the public profile of the farm.
Youngblood says Save the Urban Farm discussed this option and tried to designate the farm as a historical site. However, the coalition has not made much progress yet. The coalition will continue to work towards a historical designation, according to Youngblood.
Another option is to create a UO policy that explicitly protects the Urban Farm, Fakhri says. Section 4.3 of University Policy I.03.01 reads: “Any individual in the University community, any University unit, or the University Senate may submit a proposal for the development, revision or repeal of a Policy.”
Fakhri says putting forth a UO policy is a long process, and “law moves slower than life needs it to.” However, the process could publicize what’s happening to the Urban Farm and provide more protection.
Protecting the Urban Farm is important not only because of the program’s positive impacts but because it implies what the university values, according to Fakhri. While the Knight Campus promotes progress and innovation, Fakhri says protecting the farm is a “modern thing” because it is dynamic, evolves and provides an example for urban farms at other universities.
“What’s at stake is literally, ‘What is the University of Oregon all about?’” Fakhri says. “The heart of the university itself.”