By Alan Miles
It’s the time of year that you’re thinking about planting your garden, dreaming of the first sweet sugar snap peas and plump tomatoes. Maybe you have the space for a sprawling garden, but, if not, growing your own food isn’t out of reach.
Community gardens offer individuals without their own gardening space the opportunity to garden. They are also improving the quality of life in neighborhoods across the U.S. and around the world — bringing people together to beautify their neighborhoods, protect resources, grow affordable and nutritious food, and provide a positive social environment.
1) What are community gardens?
Community gardens are plots of land, usually located in a city, that are gardened collectively by a group of people. Usually vegetables and fruits are grown for the gardeners and the larger community, though the gardens often include flowerbeds, and some are strictly ornamental. In some cases, gardeners tend their own individual plots, while in others, the entire space is cared for as a group project.
2) Why create community gardens?
Community gardens are a boost to any neighborhood, especially those in low-income urban areas. They offer opportunities to improve health, often offering access to wholesome food where it is otherwise difficult to obtain and unaffordable. They also can help preserve resources where land is being misused and neglected.
Also, these gardens offer real social opportunities — places where neighbors can interact and work together for a common good. For example, Victoria Gutierrez, who was awarded a continuing scholarship from the Simply Organic 1% Fund and Frontier Foundation for the Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture program at the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC), helped reclaim a neglected plot of land in East Oakland for a community garden. She described community gardens as “places of convergence where people know one another and look out for one another” and that “help to decrease ugliness and violence.”
Other health, ecological and social benefits of community gardens include:
• Produce nutritious, often organic, food
• Encourage better eating habits and nutrition awareness
• Provide exercise for gardeners
• Beautify neighborhoods and create green spaces
• Eliminate unhealthy urban spaces
• Conserve local resources
• Reduce city heat from streets and parking lots
• Promote diversity of species
• Broaden ecological understanding of urban environments
• Support sustainable food production
• Develop neighborhood and community unity
• Encourage social interaction, often across generational and cultural lines
• Encourage self-reliance
• Lower family food budgets
• Provide local recreational opportunities
• Reduce crime and vandalism
• Contribute to economic development
• Develop individual organizational skills and confidence
• Create non-industrial models for land management
• Offer participation in structured community activities and democratic process
3) Who owns a community garden?
This varies greatly, with community gardens found on both privately-owned and public properties with various legal statuses. It’s not uncommon to find gardens on squatted land, particularly on abandoned city lots that residents convert for the benefit of the surrounding community. (An important part of the community garden heritage is the 1970s movement to turn abandoned inner city lots in New York into neighborhood gardens.)
4) How are they managed?
Community gardens are managed in many different ways by very diverse groups: people in the neighborhood, churches, schools and universities, city recreation or parks departments, non-profit garden associations, and others. Some gardens are managed by democratically-elected boards, others by appointed officials — with almost every garden having its own individual style. Gardens are sometimes classified as “top down” or “grassroots,” depending on their decision-making structure.
5) What resources are available to learn more about starting or supporting community gardens?
There’s no better place to start than the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA), a nonprofit organization supporting community gardens in the U.S. and Canada. ACGA’s Starting a Community Garden page offers a comprehensive overview of the project in an easy-to-read bulleted format with links to more detailed info for each group of tasks.
And First Lady Michele Obama’s Let’s Move campaign offers a helpful Community Garden Checklist with links to many additional online resources.
What are your experiences with community gardens?
About the author: A Frontier employee since before the co-op had computers (over 30 years), Alan explores ideas and issues related to a sustainable lifestyle — from cooking and culture to social and environmental responsibility. He enjoys Shakespeare, but not as much as college basketball. Alan is a family man, liking nothing better than spending time with his wife of 33 years, his four kids and four grandkids.