“I’m an urban change warrior,” says Walker Marsh of Baltimore, who uses vacant lots in the inner city to grow high-quality flowers, herbs and vegetables. The tall, soft-spoken urban farmer is sitting on the floor, gluing sunflower petals to a discarded stop sign with childlike wonder.

Baltimore is not known for its softness, and you can’t help wondering how someone such as Marsh succeeds in a city that has seen gun crime, rape, robbery and murder spike many times the national average. In 2015, the death of Freddie Gray in police custody touched off riots and a crime wave that caused the highest per capita death rate ever recorded in the city’s history.

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In tough, crime-ridden communities, you usually have two choices: become like them or submit to them. No one expects you to start growing flowers.

When Marsh couldn’t find a job, he decided to create his own. Tha Flower Factory now trains young horticulturalists who are recruited from the juvenile justice system and together they are changing East Baltimore – one flowerbed at a time. Brightly colored patches of flowers stand out starkly against the dull, faded inside walls of buildings that were demolished years ago and never rebuilt. Empty lots in cities become magnets for the homeless, drug dealers and dumping grounds for waste, but Marsh has transformed them into green lungs and living symbols of growth and renewal in places of despair. The flowers get sold to local stores, restaurants and businesses.

In poor neighborhoods, a bunch of flowers is seen as an extravagant luxury, yet Marsh has seen this narrative change and now gets enormous support from total strangers. “If people grow up in a beautiful environment, they become beautiful,” he says. He’s had tools donated and people honking their horns in support as they drive by. “Vacant lots serve as shortcuts for pedestrians, and many people stopped when they filled with flowers. I think they thought it had become private property, but now they know we want them to walk through and smell the flowers,” he laughs.

Another positive spin-off is that sunflowers draw lead and arsenic from the soil in a process called phytoremediation. It’s not widely known that sunflowers were planted around Chernobyl to remove some of the radioactive isotopes released by the nuclear meltdown. Vacant lots in cities are notorious for being polluted with toxins from old housing stock and paint, and Tha Flower Factory is helping clean the environment and make it less toxic for inhabitants.

Taking a break from his sunflower petal design, Marsh looks up and considers what a real leader might be. “Leadership should foster a feeling of togetherness,” he frowns. “When I work with the 14-year-olds in the flower gardens, I get much better results when I approach them as a peer, not as a ‘leader.’ There’s an old African proverb, ‘I am what I am because of you,’ and that resonates deeply with me.”

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