Gardening has a power that is political and even democratic. And it is a political power that can be applied constantly, whereas one can only vote or demonstrate occasionally.
Because of disputes over land, access to green space, and equal rights to the city, urban gardens have become a symbol of community activism and empowerment, and they are part of a contemporary grassroots movement supporting environmental justice, collective action, and equitable access to nutrition and good health. Due in part to the current swell of interest in the local food movement, since the early 2000s there has been a remarkable surge in the prevalence of community garden initiatives.
But while they may be in the current media spotlight, the practice is certainly not new.
Community gardens have been part of American cities since the late-19th century. As a way to confront the congestion, economic instability, and environmental degradation that were part and parcel of turn-of-the-century urban life, residents began taking matters into their own hands—by planting school gardens, for example, or cultivating the vacant lots between buildings.
Since then, the popularity of these gardens has seen ebbs and flows in relation to the social and economic climates of particular eras. During the World Wars and the Great Depression, for example, the practice became much more widespread (as a result of the “Victory Gardens” encouraged by the federal government during WWII, Americans produced 40% of their own food!) only to diminish once again as the nation’s devastated economy began to recover. The 1970s witnessed another economic crisis that made its mark on urban cores. As soaring food prices coincided with the birth of the modern environmental movement and the availability of open spaces as a result of failed urban renewal projects, community gardens began to reemerge as part of a movement to reclaim ownership of the “public commons.” Most recently, after the 2009 recession, there was a 19% increase in the prevalence of community gardens as a strategy for supplementing food costs and cultivating local resilience.
While their ability to improve food access alone, especially among lower-income and under-served communities, is proof enough of their enduring value, community gardens are—and have always been—about much more than food. Indeed, they embody powerful placemaking strategies that are showing to have multiple and measurable impacts.
Across many fields and disciplines, researchers are finally beginning to see the powerful connections between social capital and healthy places. Given the physical exertion that gardening requires and the increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, the connection between community gardens and physical health is clear. But recent research is has also underscored the links between community gardens and mental health. For city dwellers, connecting with nature—a proven remedy for stress and depression—can be quite difficult. A recent UK study shows that people who gardened for at least 30 minutes a week had lower body mass indexes (BMIs) as well as higher levels of self-esteem and lower levels of tension and stress. “With an increasing number of people residing in urban areas, a decline in the number of homes with gardens, and the increased risk for mental ill health associated with urban living,” researchers write, “allotment gardening might play an important role in promoting mental well-being in people residing in urban areas.”
The educational programming that takes place at many community gardens can give neighbors the opportunity to learn about everything from nutrition and culinary skills to environmental sustainability, business principles, and job skills. The Sustainable Flatbush Healing Herb Garden, for example, holds hands-on demonstrations to highlight basic urban agricultural techniques, and it offers community workshops on using herbs in culinary practice and as medicine. As detailed on the garden's ioby funding page, the project sought to provide volunteer and internship opportunities, while also pursuing partnerships with community members, neighborhood schools, and social service organizations.
Land for community gardens can be publicly or privately held, and the programs often involve partnerships with outside entities such as nonprofits, youth or senior programs, prisons, housing developments, or schools. The national farm-to-school network is a large-scale model of how gardening can be an educational tool, an economic catalyst, and a vehicle for strong public-private partnerships. There are farm-to-school programs in every state, where the fruits and vegetables grown on school grounds supplement meals served in the cafeteria.
There is evidence linking community gardens to improved safety in neighborhoods – showing that crime decreases in neighborhoods as the amount of green space increases. Two reports in the Journal of Environment and Behavior studied (1) the impact nature has on mental fatigue (often a precursor of aggression and violence), and (2) the relationship between green space and inner city crime rates. The research determined that aggression and violence was “significantly lower among those people who lived near some green space than those who lived in more barren conditions.”
Echoing Jane Jacob’s now-famous idea of “eyes on the street,” a 2012 study in Philadelphia comparing two clusters of vacant lots—one that was cultivated and one that wasn’t—showed that greening the vacant lots made nearby residents feel significantly safer, and the newly cultivated lots could be linked to a decrease in gun crimes in the area.
"Our theory is that transforming vacant lots from a space overgrown with vegetation and filled with trash to a clean and green space may make it difficult for people to hide illegal guns and conduct other illegal activities such as drug use in or near the space. Additionally, green space may encourage community cohesion." – Eugenia C. Garvin, MD, lead author of Penn Study on greening vacant lots to reduce violent crime
Shared gardens have played a powerful role in helping communities who have experienced the traumas of displacement, such as new immigrants and refugees. For these populations, shared gardens can be a vehicle for re-establishing a sense of place, building new social ties, and celebrating and maintaining cultural traditions. Little Haiti Garden in Miami, for example, enables the area’s Haitian community to use traditional farming techniques in producing often-unavailable crops such as callaloo and calabaza. Community gardens like Little Haiti Garden, which is located in one of the poorest districts in the country, also maintain a strong economic development component. By holding gardening and nutrition workshops, teaching retail skills, and selling produce to the neighborhood, local markets, and restaurants, the garden helps brings additional money and food into the households that need it.
In Fresno, California, seven state-funded community gardens seek to boost mental health within the area's large refugee, immigrant, and low-income populations. “The thinking of community leaders and health professionals,” writes Patricia Leigh Brown of the New York Times, “is that gardens can help foster resiliency and a sense of purpose for refugees, especially older ones, who are often isolated by language and poverty and experiencing depression and post-traumatic stress. Immigrant families often struggle to meet insurance co-payments, and culturally attuned therapists are in short supply.”
Wendell Berry once quipped that it may be too easy to underestimate the power of a garden. "A garden," he continued, "is a solution that leads to other solutions. It is part of the limitless pattern of good health and good sense."
Since their origin in US cities at the end of the 19th century, the popularity of community gardens has tended to increase during periods of crisis. And as we face new challenges such as the rising rates of chronic health issues like obesity, heart disease, and depression, along with socioeconomic issues like high unemployment rates and increasing food insecurity, it makes sense that community garden initiatives are experiencing a nationwide resurgence.
Even beyond issues of food access, community gardens are about building social ties, sharing skills and experience, learning about nature and culture, and taking proactive measures to improve our physical and mental well-being. One thing is certain: As our urban environments become home to more and more people, community gardens will continue to be a powerful, place-based tool for creating local connections and enacting positive global change.