HOUSTON — A funny thing happened after Keiji Asakura suggested the creation of a vegetable garden in the middle of the concrete corridor and skyscraper canyon that is downtown Houston.
It actually came to fruition — with a swiftness that stunned the landscape architect and the nonprofit group that shared his vision.
Within three weeks, seeds, plants and container pots had been donated, city officials had hopped on board, and a nascent garden had sprouted outside the 25-story Bob Lanier Public Works Building.
Now, a mere two months later, herbs, vegetables and flowers are flourishing on a bustling city street. A community has been forged among co-workers and strangers who once did little more than brush shoulders on crowded elevators. Skateboarders and street people have grown protective of the fledgling plants.
And this experiment, which involves nonprofit groups, the city's Sustainability Office and employees of the Department of Public Works and Engineering, has become living proof that urban gardens can take root in the unlikeliest of places.
"We caught lightning in a bottle," said Mark Bowen, executive director of Urban Harvest, the non-profit organization that spearheaded the project. "This is proof that there is something great to be gained from gardening with other people."
The "Downtown Houston Container Vegetable Garden Project" is also part of a trend in cities across the country, where once-vacant lots, apartment building windowsills and rooftops are being turned into community gardens which help provide fresh produce for the gardeners, farmers markets, and for food banks serving the needy.
Although community gardens date back at least to Eleanor Roosevelt's World War II Victory Garden, more and more cities are now using them as a tool for economic development and neighborhood revitalization.
In addition, first lady Michelle Obama's vegetable garden at the White House, and the "locavore" movement — which encourages people to eat locally grown food — have created new interest in urban gardening.
In Cleveland, the city is considering legislation to create urban agriculture districts. In Miami and Milwaukee, officials overhauled city ordinances to make urban farming easier. Other cities, including Detroit, are looking at gardening as a way to reclaim blighted blocks.
"More and more cities are becoming open to community gardening," said Vicki Garrett, projects coordinator of the American Community Gardening Association, which has seen new membership nearly double in less than a year.
In many cities, she said, community gardening advocates still must plow through a bog of government bureaucracy. Houston, on the other hand, is "very proactive," Garrett noted.
That may be due largely to the city's new sustainability director, Laura Spanjian, who came to Houston from San Francisco, where city officials created a victory garden near City Hall. Although temporary, that project served as inspiration for the Houston garden, which is designed to be permanent.
Spanjian had just arrived in Houston when Bowen and Asakura approached her about starting a downtown garden. She embraced the proposal, as did Mayor Annise Parker, who was among the volunteers digging in the dirt outside the Department of Public Works on June 4.
That day, a small squadron of public works employees scattered seeds in 36-inch container pots and selected vegetable seedlings for their gardens. Each pot was assigned to a floor of the building, with employees from that floor assigned to care for it.
Derrick Neal, a staff analyst in the department, was charged with getting city employees on board. At first, he wondered if they would be willing to give up lunch hours and free time to garden in Houston's unforgiving humidity and summer heat.
"Conceptually, it didn't seem like it was possible," said Neal. "But once it started, the buy-in began to spread like wildfire."
These days, the downtown gardeners often spend lunchtime tending to the pots or sharing recipes using the vegetables they are growing. Once a week, they get gardening tips and advice from Bowen, a horticulturalist.
"Something as simple as this brings a message to people downtown," said Asakura, as he visited the garden on a recent shower-soaked afternoon. "It's about connection, about bringing people to a place where they can connect and talk."
Even the rain that day did not stop gardeners from clustering around their pots, where they cooed over banana peppers, basil, okra, eggplants, rosemary and mint like proud parents. There are even lemon trees, in containers in the building's basement atrium.
And the downtown gardening project won't stop with container pots. On the drawing board are plans for a larger victory garden and a farmers market near City Hall.
"We haven't heard of any other city doing this the way we have," said Spanjian. "The goal is to show people that they can grow local vegetables anywhere. We want to be a model for other cities and other businesses."
The gardening fever already shows signs of spreading. Office workers from nearby buildings often stop by to inquire about the downtown garden, and a neighboring bank has expressed interest in starting a rooftop garden.
"It adds greenery and beauty in an unexpected place," said Neal. "This is what gardening is about — totally ordinary people doing extraordinary things."