A Case for Supporting and Growing our Tool Library in Washington, DC

Josh Singer, Manager of DC’s Department of Park and Recreation’s Garden Tool Share program, organizes some of the tools in one building.

Note: GNDC is holding a Tour of the Tools Saturday, the 26th, of DPR’s Garden Tool Share, at 1380 Taylor ST NW, 10 – 2 pm. Taylor ST is being worked on, so parking on 14th St is best.

In 2006, the Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) in Nairobi, Kenya, began working with residents of the densely populated Kibera neighborhood. Their project focused on creating more public spaces for its severely underserved residents. Being one of the most impoverished areas of the city, barely any support from the municipal government, Kibera is home to much improvised housing and poor infrastructure. Conditions are harsh and the area’s growing vulnerability to floods is only amplifying Kibera’s issues. With its many challenges, how could the installment of public spaces possibly serve as a solution? Simply put, it gave community members a space to collaborate. Since 2006, KDI has collaborated with residents to establish eleven public spaces that serve as community centers, workshops, wells, sanitation facilities, laundromats, etc.; each of which helps address the web of issues faced by the community. Because of the collaborative and educational nature of the project, residents now independently oversee the management of these spaces. For example, Public Space Project 02 gave residents the necessary training and skills to build flood-fighting infrastructure, a sanitation center, kiosks for small businesses, and, finally, inspiration to start their own community organization: The River Ufasi Group.[1]

Communal collaboration in the form that Kibera’s residents have harnessed it has proven to be highly effective when addressing local issues and could be an inspiration for cities all over the world.[2] Unfortunately for many cities in the United States, due to the pandemic and declining social capital, communal collaboration has been seriously hindered, whether supported by the government, nonprofits, or the community itself. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, networks of relationships among American people have been growing increasingly narrow[3]; and this past year only made it sufficiently apparent for many people to realize it.

This issue is not new, the idea of “declining social capital” was brought to the attention of mainstream audiences when Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which focuses on the declining American social economy, was published 21 years ago. At that time, the internet and other forms of media were not as immersive as they were now. Because of this, it can be easily inferred that, in the time since the releases of Bowling Alone, the decay of communal and civic engagement has not improved.[4] Why does this matter? There are many explanations for why social capital makes a society function. For example, simply knowing your neighbors can give you a network of people to reach out to and potentially trust in times of need. Examples like Kibera, where neighbors are coming together and learning from one another, show how collaboration and shared resources could provide effective tools for mitigating and adapting to the effects of current and upcoming climate change.

At Green Neighbors DC, we believe that D.C. can mitigate and adapt to the forthcoming climate crisis, which will have harsh impacts on residents,[5] through stronger communities and effective partnerships. We see these ideas manifesting in public spaces similar to Kibera’s public space projects, and lucky for us, some of those spaces exist already in our city, although some have been underutilized through the pandemic.

Thinking about scraping your lawn and letting native plants take over your lawn? The wheel hoe can help reclaim your soil!

Green Neighbors hopes to help begin the new wave of community engagement by assisting with the post-COVID reopening of the little-known DC’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) Garden Tool Share, located in the Twin Oaks Community Garden lot in NW DC.  The type of tools present go beyond garden tools and include all types of hardware such as saws, drills, solar cookers, a generator, and more. GNDC inventoried the collection and has created an online checkout system. This tool share, also called a tool library, will serve as more than an area for people to check out tools; it will also be an educational space for people to learn with their fellow community members via training workshops. Community events potentially include repair cafés, toy swaps, free stores, and workshops on how to be more routinely sustainable. Tool libraries are thus not only the ultimate environment for getting tools without having to purchase them, saving resources, but they provide great new spaces for learning skills, meeting people, and collaborating. Essentially, they have almost all the perks of a real library (except you don’t have to be quiet), and you get access to plenty of tools!

Have an overgrown hedge? There’s not one, but two black and decker hedge trimmers!

Naturally, this library will help break up consumerist practices as well, such as buying tools that go unused or throwing out broken appliances just because of the user’s inability to repair them. This will help proliferate a mindset of consuming less and reusing more, as well as provide financial benefits to residents.[6] Additionally, not having to own tools can help people conserve room in their living spaces. How many times a year does the average person living in an urban space need a power washer? Never until they do! The same can be said for a plethora of tools.

We do not have to look as far as Nairobi to find example of strong community collaboration. Successful implementations of tool libraries already exist in the states. Our close neighbors in Baltimore are a prime example. The library itself is called the Station North Tool Library (SNTL) and is staffed by over 20 community members. Since their founding in 2013, they have able to offer access to an extensive library, diverse classes, and even pop-up Jazz concerts! They’re not alone either, the Chicago tool library also effectively serves its residents.[7] Even further away, is the Tacoma tool library in Washington state, which just celebrated five years of providing to their community at the time this article was written.

Being a city that has already made extensive progress in its green initiatives (see Clean Energy Act, Platinum LEED Certification, most parkland among most populous cities, etc.), DC’s Post-COVID reopening of DPR’s Garden Tool Share can really bolster our status as a model for other cities. With the help and collaboration of community members, the library will garner success that will help the library offer even more resources and possibly grow other branches to serve more parts of the city. If this happens – and we are going to work hard to help it do so – our currently humble tool library will lead to a stronger and greener DC community.

If you or your environmentally conscious children are interested in gardening, there’s a wide selection of gardening books! 

If you would like to use, or even be a part of the revamping of the Garden Tool Share, do not hesitate to get in touch with us through greenneighborsdc@gmail.com or via our social medias or website. On the last one, we list our hours of operation at the tool library, ways to get involved, and more content for our Green Neighbors.

Photos courtesy of Peter Martin, Green Neighbors DC. License CC-BY 4.0.


[1] https://www.kounkuey.org/projects/kibera_public_space_project_network

[2] https://www.kounkuey.org/projects/kibera_public_space_project_network

[3] https://web.archive.org/web/20100201190211/http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/DETOC/assoc/bowling.html

[4] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/in-the-midst-of-the-pandemic-loneliness-has-leveled-out/

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xi2vDwF7cTY&ab_channel=WashingtonInformerTV

[6] https://climatesteps.org/2020/09/03/a-tool-library-is-a-seed/

[7] https://www.chicagotoollibrary.org/annual-report

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