Down along Northeast Eighth Avenue, an empty brick building is hunkered squarely in the middle of seven acres of fenced-in land, its walls woven with saplings and weeds.

The structure is filled with asbestos and has begun to collect mold. All the while, the land has slowly reverted to sparse Florida scrub scattered among limber pines, wiry grass and sprouts of palmetto.

The building was once the C. R. Layton Army Reserve, a patch of land the city gave to the federal government in 1950 to train local reserve volunteers. For decades it was a fixture of the community, its physical presence a reminder of the commitments of reservists, veterans and their families.

But in 2009, the federal government decided to relocate the reserve. The reservists picked up and moved, leaving the building and the land behind. Since then, the property has lain dormant.

And now, after 64 years of federal ownership, it is being returned to the City of Gainesville and, thanks to the unified force of community, will possibly house a community farming system that is revolutionary in its simplicity.

For the past five years, a conglomeration of friends and neighborhood residents — calling themselves Friends of the Reserve Park — have been pushing for the city to convert the property into a multipurpose public park. Ideally, it could become a space that would incorporate a number of community-oriented resources.

Mandi Millam, president of Friends of the Reserve Park, said she hears suggestions and ideas from community members almost daily. Members of the group have suggested everything from a community garden to playgrounds to a memorial honoring the reservists.

But in a move that is both forward-thinking and savvy to innovations in sustainability, the members of the group have pushed for the creation of a food forest.

Food forests — known academically as permaculture — are agricultural systems that replicate natural ecological relationships as closely as possible. In the last few decades, they’ve been popping up the whole world over. Several working food forests can be found in Florida; there’s even one on UF’s campus, next to the bat houses.

Food forests, said Joe Pierce, head of Mosswood Farm Store and Bakehouse in Micanopy, are radically simple and versatile. The basis of a food forest is fruit- and nut-producing perennial trees. These plants provide the canopy and the physical boundaries of the forest, onto which all manner of edible shrubs, bushes, herbs and vines are added. Essentially, the goal is to create an intentional, edible ecosystem.

For this reason, Pierce explained, food forests have been hailed by ecologists and supporters of sustainable agriculture as an alternative to modern industrial farming and monoculture, which has the benefit of high yields at disastrous ecological costs like soil depletion and the increasing threat of food insecurity.

The design of the Reserve Park food forest has yet to be decided. But here, the versatile nature of permaculture plays to the Friends’ advantage. Permaculture allows for great variation and diversity; a system can be as large as the land will allow or as small as a few plants sharing a pot indoors. Pierce, something of an informal food forest expert, runs his own forest and is a quasi-saintly figure within permaculture circles. He likes to use a quote from one of permaculture’s founding texts: “The limit to the design is the imagination of the designer.”

Permaculture allows for great variation and diversity; a system can be as large as the land will allow or as small as a few plants sharing a pot indoors.

Wendi Bellows, another expert and fixture in the permaculture community, described food forests in terms of creating a self-sufficient system.

“Food forests require a lot of work on the front end,” she said. “But the systems are set up to maintain themselves. You don’t want to go in there and weed. All you want to do is go in there and harvest.”

Pierce concurred. The most labor-intensive aspect of a food forest is the initial planting to set up the trees, he said.

“In general, perennials are going to be 90 percent less work,” he said. “Once they’re established, they pretty much take care of themselves.”

According to Pierce and Bellows, this aspect of permaculture makes food forests ideal fixtures for public community spaces. Setting them up requires a unified community effort, which will later bear fruit for all.

Once it gets going, the food forest would transform the way the community relates to its food and to the landscape. Its presence in the middle of a residential neighborhood will give ordinary people access to sustainable, organic food. More importantly, more people will be exposed to food plants, rather than just the fruits and vegetables found in the produce section. Seeing the plants themselves will encourage people to be mindful about where their food comes from and expose them to foods beyond the conventional dozen or so that have become staples of our diets in the last century, Pierce said.

The opportunity to educate may be one of the food forest’s strongest potential assets, Millam said, and mentioned that she hopes local schools will take field trips there.

According to Pierce and Bellows, this aspect of permaculture makes food forests ideal fixtures for public community spaces. Setting them up requires a unified community effort, which will later bear fruit for all.  

Randy Wells, city commissioner and supporter of the Friends group, said he believes the community-grounded approach will make what the reserve park becomes radically different than other public spaces. Rather than simply handing over responsibility for the park’s planning and construction to the city, Gainesville’s government will act simply as an enabler for the needs and desires of the community, with the Friends of the Reserve Park acting as a vanguard for the community’s vision.

And this setup, Wells said, will ensure that the community’s vision becomes a reality.

In fact, the initiative to build a food forest has gained traction within the community and among the Friends themselves. But the reserve park food forest’s most ardent and vigorous supporter is Robbie Guggenheim, a community resident and permaculture enthusiast.

Guggenheim runs several Facebook groups promoting permaculture in Gainesville and the state of Florida, and he is actively involved in the efforts to build a food forest on at least some of the property’s seven acres.

However, despite massive community support and Wells’ backing, the project is still pending city approval. Aside from basic safety and code concerns, turning this land into a park will run up massive costs. Millam said that, at the very least, the lot needs be cleaned, and the building is full of asbestos that must be removed. Beyond that, there are specific things about the food forest to worry about.

Bellows was quick to bring up insurance concerns as an example. What happens if somebody gets sick from eating out of it? Or if somebody gets injured by something in the food forest, who pays the medical expenses?

Despite these daunting obstacles, Guggenheim said he remains optimistic.

“We’ve already got people who are willing to donate trees, lots of people who are willing to come out and put their hands on as soon as we break ground,” he said. “They’re waiting. All you’ve got to do is give them the word, and I think we’ll have an army out here.”