permaculture garden

A Lehigh Valley Social Impact Fellowship team has transformed a once neglected plot of land into a spiral herb garden and vegetable bed using principles found in ecosystems to create sustainable agricultural practices.

From Urban Patch to Oasis

The student-led Permaculture Revolution is actively cultivating sustainable change throughout the Lehigh Valley.

Located on the fringe of Lehigh University and the South Side Bethlehem community, a once neglected plot of land has been transformed into a spiral herb garden and vegetable bed by Lehigh students inspired by their common passion for permaculture—a design philosophy that emphasizes working with nature and using principles found in ecosystems to create sustainable agricultural practices.

The site, a former city-owned playground that was vacant after the university's acquisition, has blossomed into a community resource and an educational asset.

Students who lived in EcoHouse, formerly an on-campus university housing focused on sustainable living and adjacent to the property at 232 Summit St., first applied their self-learned knowledge of permaculture in working with the site. To bolster their efforts and gain professional guidance, they invited David Casagrande, a professor of anthropology, and Al Wurth, an associate professor of political science, to join as faculty mentors in 2018.

a student inside the shed for the garden supplies

Emma Clopton '25 is part of the team. Students are well-versed in the 12 principles of permaculture, fundamental concepts of ecology, and community-based gardening knowledge before embarking on the activities for the garden.

Their collaboration led to the project applying for and joining the Mountaintop Summer Experience program in the summer of 2019, setting the stage for an inspiring journey of transformation of the land.

"Over the past years, approximately 40 students have gained knowledge about permaculture, including aspects such as food growth, plant cultivation, insect pollinators, and even economics and politics, all through their involvement in the project," Casagrande said.

Courses provided by the Department of Sociology and Anthropology along with the Department of Religion Studies have capitalized on the park as a valuable educational resource. The courses introduced students to the concepts of permaculture through hands-on experiences such as planting fruits and vegetables.

"Students who work on the park are not only learning about but also disseminating the concept of permaculture,” Wurth said. “This concept underscores biodiversity, environmental preservation, and soil regeneration, while simultaneously cultivating crops for the community. Moreover, the park serves as a practical example of how individuals can contribute to environmental care without incurring high costs, ultimately creating greener spaces in their lives."

Recognizing that each student brings unique interests and areas of expertise to the project, Casagrande and Wurth are committed to ensuring everyone is well-versed in the 12 principles of permaculture, fundamental concepts of ecology, and community-based gardening knowledge before embarking on the activities.

In recent years, various cohorts of students have contributed to this project, which in 2020 joined the Lehigh Valley Social Impact Fellowship program, allowing groups of students to work on it over two semesters for academic credit as well as in the summer through the Mountaintop program. The students’ spiral herb garden is a striking symbol of permaculture that establishes a precedent for creative and intentional growth. Additionally, they built a tool shed from scratch, set up the vegetable growing beds, and, most recently, contributed a “little library” where community members can freely donate or take books.

The park serves as a practical example of how individuals can contribute to environmental care without incurring high costs, ultimately creating greener spaces in their lives.

Associate Professor Al Wurth

Driven by student initiative, the project has forged key community partnerships. Early on, students connected with Mark Southard, owner of Artisanal Structures in Allentown, Pennsylvania at a community gathering. A consistent contributor since, Southard aids students with material donations and hands-on expertise for projects.

He applauds the students' resourcefulness, saying, "Every year, I'm still amazed by their creativity and determination. This project really shows their creativity and can-do spirit."

Through years of dedication and hard work, the project team has not only maintained the park but has taken steps to nurture the surrounding community. This journey included collaborations with the community to construct a Nature Built Home in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional housing, leveraging locally available materials.

The current team is branching out into local engagements, enriching the students’ knowledge of community gardening and pushing to make an impact on the broader Lehigh Valley.

Julie Wright ‘26, a 2023 Lehigh Valley Social Impact Fellow (LVSIF) majoring in community and global health, said that in addition to making the park more accessible, the team is developing partnerships, including one with Lehigh Health and Wellness Center. They're initiating a food fridge program, offering students access to nutritious, locally-sourced food at no cost. Additionally, the students are collaborating with Plant a Row, an organization that will assist in distributing the team's harvest to local food pantries.

Emma Clopton '25, majoring in environmental studies who is also a 2023 LVSIF, said the team aims to leverage its research rooted in permaculture philosophy, striving to build a greener future for Bethlehem.

"Permaculture philosophy advocates for utmost sustainability and a strong interconnection with nature," said Clopton. "Being a part of this pioneering initiative has brought a new dimension to my understanding of my major."

Isabelle Spirk ‘25, a double major in political science and environmental studies (and also a 2023 LVSIF), added that the Southside Permaculture Park goes beyond the physical garden.

"Initiating community engagement allows us to solidify our presence in the community," Spirk said. "In the long run, we aim to evolve into a permaculture consulting entity for the entire Lehigh Valley."

--Story by Haidan Hu

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