Housing should not replace educational spaces

I wish to write not to claim to have solutions to the UC Berkeley student housing crisis but to expose one proposed solution that is doing a serious injustice to students, both in the present and in the future.

If you’ve ever traveled to the Northwest region of campus, where Hearst Avenue and Oxford Street meet, then you’ve probably seen the back ends of several large greenhouses, the oldest of which was erected in 1964. These structures exist on a space called the Oxford Tract and are accompanied by more than an acre of agricultural space that is used by the students in the plant and microbial biology department to conduct state of the art research on biological chemicals and soil microbes, essential to the future of agro-ecology.

Beyond the Oxford Tract, in a space only half an acre large, is the Student Organic Gardening Association, or SOGA, garden. SOGA has been around since the 1970s, and, over the years, the garden has been described as a space of education, community and solace. Every Sunday, SOGA opens the gates at Walnut and Virginia streets to the public, extending its branches not only to UC Berkeley students but the entire Berkeley community.

SOGA is managed 100 percent by undergraduate students, meaning volunteers, who cultivate the soils, nurture the seeds and harvest the spoils that are then donated either to incoming community members or to the UC Berkeley Food Pantry, which helps provide fresh produce to individuals who identify as “food insecure.” SOGA has its own brand of inclusive teaching methods, encouraging and emphasizing the importance of permaculture practices.

The Oxford Tract and the SOGA garden are educational spaces, and, as of Feb. 16, they are under threat of being decimated in the name of providing temporary relief for an ongoing student housing crisis, an issue that should not be the students’ burden to carry.

While the ice continues to thin under the feet of penguins and environmentalists alike, destroying these lands would be counterproductive. That the campus administration even considers these spaces dispensable is alarming.

A petition has been created that has gathered nearly 300 signatures of past and present members of the SOGA community; some who have signed have also shared their experiences and explicated the importance of the existence of spaces like SOGA.

If building student housing allows for the admittance of more undergraduates but comes at the expense of educational spaces scuh as SOGA and the Oxford Tract, are those newcomers really getting their money’s worth?

I want to be proud of the college I attend, especially one as revered as UC Berkeley. But the fact that SOGA, which hosts the Intro to Organic Gardening DeCal — one of the most popular DeCals on campus, teaching more than 120 students every spring — is being threatened with demolition should be seen as a disgrace to an institution that prides itself on its progressive image.

As environmentalists, we understand the meaning of “long term,” and when we set soil conditions, save seeds and build irrigation systems, we are doing so not just for this season or the next, but for the generations that follow.

Again, I acknowledge the student housing issue as being of critical importance across all UC campuses, and I empathize with the freshmen of fall 2016 who were required to study in San Francisco or take the BART into Berkeley every day (I live in San Leandro so that I can afford rent, so I get it). But what happens if I see one of these commuter students in open hours on a Sunday? Do I tell them, “Well you could’ve lived here instead, but then we wouldn’t have this garden?” And what of the incoming students intending on studying within the College of Natural Resources? “Sorry there’s no more organic garden. You’re paying $5,000 per semester to share a bunk bed where we used to grow fresh cherry tomatoes.”

This crisis should be raising questions about how many students are admitted to UC schools each year, the relationship between student body size and UC funding and whether or not we are getting the most out of our educational experiences when classrooms get double booked and class sizes regularly exceed 50 students. This is not an excuse to place a monetary valuation on educational agricultural spaces.

UC Berkeley: Please don’t force me to grasp for “the Good Ol’ Days.” Those days already exist for the hundreds of students who use SOGA and the Oxford Tract every year to enrich themselves and their classmates.

Andre Kushnir is a student at the UC Berkeley College for Natural Resources. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.

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  • jim hoch

    Consider enrolling at Sac State.

  • StanFromSomewhere

    Build the housing and put the student hobby gardens on the roof. Problem solved.

    • Tracy B

      They are not “hobby gardens”. The purpose is far more important, like sending fresh produce to the student food pantry, and educating students on permaculture, etc etc etc. Putting them on the roof would mean that the current system of gardens/green houses would need to be destroyed, and a whole new system created. Does this make sense? It would also mean a long lag time – perhaps several years?- when the system would not be in place. Why would we destroy & postpone something that is working?

      • StanFromSomewhere

        In case you didn’t know, you can put greenhouses and gardens of the roof of buildings. It’s done in Japan all the time.

        • Hayley Davis

          SOGA is open to the public every Sunday and used by DeCal students and student management during weekdays. The Oxford Tract is used by graduate students, faculty, and professors daily. Hard to put public spaces on top of a private building, dont you think? Furthermore, one thing that makes SOGA such an empowering space for students is that the garden has almost full administrative autonomy from UCB. I am inclined to believe university housing would take over management- thus taking the “Student” and “Association” out of the Student Organic Garden Association.