Community gardening and urban agriculture are not synonymous. Although community gardens can be important agricultural sites, certainly not all gardens focus on food. Instead, community gardens are community-managed open space. Thus, they can serve as recreational space, open space, performance space, food production space, gathering space, cultural space, or many other functions. Picture a Venn diagram: some gardens produce food (but not all), and some urban agriculture sites are community-managed (but not all).
Since the fiscal crisis and large-scale property abandonment and disinvestment of the 1970s, New York City has one of the largest and most robust community gardening programs in the world, with a broad base of resident engagement in the creation of beautiful, safe, meaningful sites of neighborhood cohesion. The garden history in New York City reflects a pattern that we see trans-nationally: vacant land, re-appropriation of land, and contention over temporary use of land occur in many cities across the Global North and South. Currently there are approximately 600 community gardens citywide and approximately 20,000 gardeners citywide (and this does not include the hundreds of resident gardens on New York City Housing Authority land).
Since the 2000s, there has been a rising wave of interest in urban agriculture and growing food in the city. New York City has new rooftop farms, urban farms, school gardens/greenhouses, backyard chickens, beekeeping and generally high media attention and excitement surrounding urban agriculture. Urban agriculture is presented as one of a suite of strategies for helping to address both the crisis of obesity/diabetes as well as issues of food access, security, and hunger. Again, this pattern is not unique to New York — we see a resurgence of urban agriculture in both growing, global cities where land is at a premium (the Bay Area, London) as well as in shrinking cities with abundant vacant land (Detroit, Cleveland).
Recently, funders, policymakers, and activists alike have organized around a ‘local and regional food systems frame’ that positions urban agriculture as a form of local food production, and part of a larger cycle of food production, processing, distribution, consumption and post-consumption. In New York City, food systems planning and urban agriculture made some modest policy inroads via the work of former Manhattan Borough President (now Comptroller) Scott Stringer, former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and former Mayor Bloomberg. Many other cities have created zoning rules related to urban agriculture or have full-blown food policies.
At the same time, we can draw attention to the fact that nothing is so new about urban agriculture; it is part of a long lineage of people growing food in cities that occurs across time, space, and cultural context. This work has been done for decades with little fanfare in the press and policymaking circles, which raises all sorts of questions about inclusion — why now is agriculture so appealing? And might it have to do with the demographic profile of some of the current wave of participants in the practice (young, white, college educated) as compared to gardeners and farmers from low-income communities of color? Within the food justice, food sovereignty, and local food movements, there is frank and productive dialogue occurring about how to build and sustain an inclusive and anti-racist movement.
Moreover: what is potentially lost or obscured by this enhanced attention to food?
Many community gardens were created to promote neighborhood stabilization first and foremost. In many cases the growing of plants and crops was more of a means than an end. By casting community gardens whole cloth as part of urban agriculture, there is a danger in the production of food eclipsing the many other important reasons why we might want gardens (or even farms!) in the city, such as education, empowerment, and cultural heritage. Indeed, many of the current practitioners of larger scale urban food production recognize that one of the most valuable contributions of these sites is to educate urban residents about agriculture and ecology. These sites are inherently multi-functional and are about much more than just ‘food production’. So while a food systems approach allows for elaborate coalition-building and plan-making, it is important that we remember the nuance and history of gardening in the city that long precedes the current wave of interest in hyper-local food.
Joana Chan & Bryce DuBois
Community gardens have long served as buffers to crises in cities. Victory Gardens during World War II not only boosted morale, but also produced nearly half of the fresh vegetables and fruits consumed in the U.S. at that time. During the 1970s and 1980s era of urban decline in New York City, community gardens blossomed to reclaim vacant lots into verdant grassroots community spaces in low-income and high-crime neighborhoods. Forms of urban agriculture have thus served as community responses to times of change and need, or manifestations of “local resiliency,” where residents respond to food insecurity and foster community and individual well-being through their gardening practice.
However, what do community gardens offer to cities in the face of natural disasters? This question guides our research on the role of coastal community gardens in Post-Hurricane Sandy New York City. Unlike previous socio-economic disturbances, food provision, for example, was not a major community garden function in Sandy “red-zones” because they had been flooded with water, sand, debris and sewage. Instead, what we learned was that community gardens served as safe, open community spaces after the storm ravaged the city in October 2012.
The combination of public accessibility and the personalized nature of community gardens contributed to the function of these spaces as local havens during the distress and disorder immediately following the storm. As safe community spaces, community gardens were sites for neighborhood convening, news-sharing and communal cooking. In at least one garden in the Rockaways, therapeutic healing circles were facilitated for the gardeners and their neighbors. The unplanned, adaptable nature of the gardens allowed for flexible use and appropriation of the spaces for community needs, such as staging grounds and distribution sites for food, clothing and solar- generated electricity. As time progressed, these coastal community gardens became prime sites for engaging residents in volunteer efforts and civic stewardship. Community gardens also served as ideal spaces for art and memorialization, where residents were able to (re)create their narratives of place through works of beauty, meaning and defiance.
Campos community gardeners using their social networks to help neighbors after Sandy. Photo capture from Campos Community Garden Facebook Page
One key element that distinguished the function of community gardens from other open spaces like parking lots and parks Post-Sandy, was the fact that they were community-managed spaces with their own communities of practice. For example, in Campos Community Garden in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, gardeners mobilized after the storm to help ensure the well-being of local residents, some of whom were stranded without electricity, food or water.
The intimate connection with nature that gardeners had developed through their gardening practice helped some to accept Sandy as an inevitable force of nature, and to move forward in recovery and in the implementation of infrastructural garden adaptations, such as preemptively pruning vulnerable trees and installing raised beds made of stronger, longer lasting materials, to prepare themselves and their neighborhood for future storms.
Sea level rise and extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy will become increasingly common in our new climate change reality. While community gardens are certainly not the sole method for increasing resilience to all social-ecological disturbances everywhere, our study has shown that they can serve as adaptive local spaces which foster important social networks and provide meaningful opportunities to rebuild social and ecological communities after natural disasters.
A self-disclosure: I didn’t start out loving urban gardening and agriculture. I learned to love them. I am not a gardener. The last time I visited a farm was in the first grade…to see where milk came from. These are not the words of an expert in micro-lettuces.
I have a different passion: cities. We are lucky enough to live and work in the midst of a profound urban revival. A decade ago I hoped cities would “come back”. Today I aspire to cities that nurture an ever richer diversity of people, ideas, and experiences. When asked “What can cities hope to get from community gardens and urban agriculture?” A decade ago I would have replied “not much”. Today I see them as potent tools for helping us realize the unfolding potential of urban life. For example…
—America may pride itself on its commitment to individualism, but for six decades we produced mostly one-size-fits-all choices for the building blocks of quality of life such as housing, workplaces, and entertainment. Today reinvigorated cities make life better by offering multiple choices that support multiple lifestyles. But cities also constrain choices, and limited access to nature tops the list. Voila: urban gardeners and farmers invented the opportunity to toil in the soil on rooftops, in community gardens, and on vacant lots.
—In 1960 my city, Boston, was 96% white and consisted of homogeneous or segregated (pick your word) neighborhoods that found community naturally in churches and schools that residents shared. Today Boston is a majority minority city with few places that bring us together, searching for community in the midst of diversity. Urban gardening and agriculture represent a growing source of community — inviting people to cross racial, economic, and other lines of separation to become neighbors. Just as valuable for our increasingly privatized city, gardening and farming are reintroducing the concept of working together and sharing the benefits.
—Cities are made of buildings, public spaces, and infrastructure built to last for 30 years or longer. Meanwhile the people they house, economy they serve, and culture they celebrate change constantly. Today our society…and even our environment…are evolving at a record pace. Urban gardens and agriculture were invented by people with the fortitude to adapt cities to their own passions. When they look at building roofs, shade structures over parking lots, even the walls of buildings and see gardens and corn fields, they are contributing to a personal urbanism that teaches all of us to draw on our own passions to see and reshape our cities. These passions generate the ever changing magic of urban life.
But the influx of people and dollars that fuel urban revival come at a cost. Displacement is real. For the first time in America’s history more poor households live in suburbs than cities. Equity is not about stopping the influx of affluence into cities, but empowering people to share in its opportunities. As Growing Power in Milwaukee and Chicago demonstrate, urban gardening and agriculture are also about cultivating entrepreneurship, training kids and refugees alike for jobs, and relieving food deserts.
I never thought an urbanist could learn from a farmer. I was wrong.
Cities from around the world can expect a lot of great things from the generalized practice of urban agriculture by their citizens, but local authorities need to recognize these benefits. Urban agriculture is a complete toolbox to build sustainable and more resilient food systems and cities. By reconnecting people with the natural cycles of food production, urban agriculture open the doors on responsible consumption and forces us to question on what truly is sustainable. When people start growing their own food, they often face questions about food production that they wouldn’t even have considered when buying from the supermarket. Is that food safe? Is it nutritious? Should I use chemical fertilizers? By getting people together, community and collective gardens allow people to learn how to grow food, but more importantly, to engage and participate in their community. They engage in a movement that places great emphasis on civic education and community celebration around every aspects of food. More than just about quantities, people grow their own food because they want quality — quality in flavor and nutrition.
Quebec parliamentWhat started as a disaster response here in Montreal’s southeast in 1974 became one of the first and biggest community gardens program in North America, with more than 25 hectares of gardens today. With this growing number of citizens and community organization’s initiatives in backyards, on balconies or on rooftops, other types of urban agriculture gardens appeared in the last few years. Institutional gardens on university campus, in schoolyards and even in front of Government buildings like the Parliament Building in Quebec (shown left) are becoming common. A growing number of businesses gardens or new enterprises are also appearing on restaurants, hotels and offices throughout cities. While some are dedicated entirely to food production like the Lufa farms (the world’s first commercial rooftop greenhouse), others do it for the environment, for fun, to complement their cooking, for the benefit of their employees or food banks (below, the rooftop garden of the Santropol roulant in Montreal).
Santropol roulantComing out of our backyards and dedicated infrastructures like community gardens or other group endeavor, urban agriculture’s next steps will have to be in the broader public realm. With clear definitions and understanding of urban agriculture and its components, policy makers and planning authorities have the power to innovate and provide an optimal framework that takes account of cross effects of urban agriculture (meaning that incorporates various effects such as urban revitalization, job creation, promotion of culture, integration and social participation, public health, waste management and nutrient cycling, biodiversity, and much more). A productive city that focus on human scale urban density and integrate urban agriculture into neighborhood design can generate creative solutions and offer a high quality living environment that contributes to food security and creates opportunities for participation to all members of the community.
Urban ag effectIn a medium density city such as Montreal, there is more than plenty of space for citizens to grow a large part of their fresh food needs. Projects like the Incredible Edible inspire and take pride in using these public spaces to grow stronger and more resilient communities.
In that sense, I do think the sky is the limit for urban agriculture.
Urban agriculture makes a real contribution to the urban food system in multiple ways. The benefits are not just about net food produced. As an example, urban agriculture assists in “repairing” what Nathan McClintock terms the socio-ecological metabolic rift, or our socio-natures. Such benefits for urban residents are not disputed. However, seeing urban agriculture as the primary solution to the urban food challenge is problematic.
The current global food system is a key driver of negative global environmental change. In a predominantly urban world, the consumptive nature of cities is therefore a key force precipitating this change. It is clear that cities need to play a role in retarding this change. Is urban agriculture the solution? No, it is not.
In considering the motivation driving calls for urban agriculture, Battersby noted a distinct anomaly: In Northern cities urban agriculture is predominantly described in terms of the socio-ecological benefits described above. However, when urban agriculture is advocated for in Southern cities, the benefits described seldom go beyond poverty relief, economic opportunity and notions self motivated development. This dichotomy requires deeper analysis.
Universal calls for urban agriculture assume a measure of homogeneity in how cities are considered. Such assertions miss the stark differences in development, governance, economy, geography, structure, location and climate, to name but a few. Even within Cape Town, for example, despite being one of the only South African cities with an urban agriculture policy, economies, micro climates and geographies mean that different approaches and motivations apply in different parts of the city.
Universal calls for urban agriculture “as the solution to the urban food challenge” obscure deep systemic issues within the wider urban food system. When the challenges of food insecurity are considered, assertions that through urban agriculture, the “poor” can counter the challenges of poverty and constrained food access, miss deeper considerations of the structural and governance nature of such predicaments. Such calls perversely place the responsibility on the poor to create the solutions without questioning the drivers of such predicaments.
The espoused benefits of urban agriculture also require some interrogation. There is an emerging body of literature that challenges the often argued extent and scale of urban agriculture. Different cities reflect different levels of urban agriculture uptake and derived benefit.
Changes are required in the structure, governance and impact of the overall food system. Urban agriculture is just one component of far wider urban food system restructuring.
Arguing urban agriculture as the solution to the growing urban food challenge can be likened to the notion that planting trees will resolve climate change. Both calls are actions with a measure of utility, enabling action at an individual scale. However, when these actions are offered as the solution, they divert attention from deeper, critical examinations into the systemic drivers of the challenge.
By seeing urban agriculture as the only solution to the urban food challenge avoids considerations of the imbedded drivers of the food system challenge and could precipitate greater ecological and food system instability.
The first thing that struck me upon entering Miami’s Little Haiti Community Garden was its tropical luxuriance — a community garden with bananas, papayas, coconuts, and sugar cane was something novel. As we wove our way along the winding paths, Prevner Julien looked up from his freshly composted bed to greet us in halting English. Then we sat down underneath the sprawling banyan tree with Gary Feinberg, who along with New York to Miami transplant Tamara Hendershoot, owns the 1/3 acre garden lot.
When Gary and Tamara purchased the lot in 2004, they envisioned reproducing the New York model for community-engaged, allotment style gardening in Miami. Their start was on target — volunteers worked for two months to remove the refrigerators, tires, and other trash piled 8 feet high in the back corner of the lot. Now the lot was ready to plant…except for the fact that they found high lead levels in the soil. Over 50 volunteers helped to bring in clean soil and manure to build up the beds. The soil was now lead-free, but counter to what Gary and Tamara had envisioned, the volunteers had lost interest. So the vacant lot laid vacant a while longer.
After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Gary received a call from Medishare. The non-profit wanted to bring a boy who had suffered a serious head injury for treatment in Miami, but needed work for his father. Together Gary and Medishare secured $4000 from the Miami Dolphins Foundation to employ Prevner Julien. But would employing one gardener make any real difference to the Little Haiti community?
My visit to Little Haiti was a lesson in the sky’s the limit for community gardens. That is, if we envision the sky as a horizon — and believe that change limited by the level of the horizon is important. Even though the garden has adapted its original community engagement/allotment vision, and now focuses on one employee producing food for sale (sales provide 95% of the funds to maintain the garden), it still helps to sustain a broader community. Neighbors come to buy collards, kalaloo, Malabar spinach, and papayas — and all sorts of Haitian herbs that Prevner mixes up to treat ailments. Adults and school children learn about four square gardening and permaculture, and a plan for growing herbs to be distilled into bitters is in the works. As we listened to Gary’s stories, a woman walking by peered through the fence and commented on how beautiful the garden was — just like in Haiti. And Rémi stopped in to ask if he could volunteer; Prevner immediately assigned the Parisian newcomer to Miami the job of hauling compost.
In short, Little Haiti Community Garden is a demonstration of how community gardens adapt to opportunities and challenges — along the way inventing new approaches to address their tripartite mission of cultivating community, food, and nature. A community garden in Toronto provides a haven for Afghani war refugees; in post-conflict Monrovia women gain a sense of empowerment by growing food for their families; in Sacramento Hmong refugees recreate place through growing vegetables from Laos — across the horizon community gardens are hotbeds of “grassroots” and “social-ecological” innovation. And they adapt as social and ecological conditions change, continually reinventing themselves.
But the horizon is limited — community gardens operate at a very small scale — often the size of a single city lot. If the sky is the limit, then the question becomes: “Do community gardens have the capacity, not only to dot the horizon with small patches of community and green, but to scale up to address regional, national and even international governance and environmental issues?”
Not infrequently, one of those dots on the horizon has an impact that reaches for the sun at high noon. Here are several “limitless, sky overhead” examples.
—Community gardeners in the Bronx learn about decision-making and democratic processes, and become empowered to get involved in broader food justice issues.
—Community gardens provide evidence of collective efficacy — that someone cares. When neighborhoods demonstrate collective efficacy, crime decreases.
—Community gardens in Bosnia-Herzegovina bring together warring sides of the former Yugoslavian conflict and thus have a role in peace-making.
—Community gardening is a part of larger civic agriculture, slow foods, and civic environmental movements — together they can impact policy change. (Witness Michelle Obama touting the benefits of community gardens on the White House Lawn.)
Little Haiti Community Garden transformed its original mission of reproducing New York’s community engagement/allotment model for community gardens to one that uses paid employment, and fruit, vegetable, herbal remedy and even bitters sales to build a sense of community. It demonstrates that community gardens are able to adapt and transform when faced with the unexpected. Such adaptive capacity and ability to transform are critical in face of future and unexpected stresses, including those brought about by climate change.
Acknowledgments: Thanks go to Phil Silva, David Maddox, and Gary Fienberg and Prevner Julien at Little Haiti Community Garden.
Many citizens are adopting healthy and eco-friendly lifestyles, and also trying to put forth their green thumb to have a better environment in cities. Cognizance of benefits that patches of greenery could provide, empathy towards loss of green cover in rapidly urbanizing cities has motivated the citizens to contribute towards a greener environment. Traditionally gardens were mostly cultivated for producing fruits, vegetables, flowers or medicinal plants which come in a variety of sizes and setup. People are getting highly creative and innovative now a days, and they try to make the best out of the limited spaces provided within most of the households. This has led to a sudden rise in a variety of gardens within constrained spaces in an urban environment.
The concept of urban farming is not very new to a city like Bangalore. There has always been local produce of fruits, vegetables, greens and flowers to meet the needs of consumers. Such produce is sold in a ”Santhe” (local market setup by farmers) which cater to the locals on a weekly basis, and are favoured by consumers over the ones from regular stores due to the fact that they are farmed organically and harvested fresh from the farms. This type of market not only supports and encourages the local farming community but also keeps our city sustainable. This might not be sufficient to meet the needs of an ever growing population of this city as rapid changes in land use will affect the productivity in terms of quality and quantity of local food produce.
While large scale farming is one part of the story, the gardens on roof tops, terraces, balconies, community gardens or even spaces as small as window sills for greenery have become increasingly common. Gardens have always been an integral part of almost every household in Bangalore, mainly serving as space to grow plants and trees for food, medicinal or religious purposes. In our research study on home gardens, we found a high diversity of species, about 300 species of trees and plants. Majority of the species were ornamental, but about 40% of the plants and trees were grown for food, medicinal or religious purpose which was really impressive. And, most of the residents don’t use pesticides and herbicides for their garden.
Many forums and conclaves have mushroomed for budding city gardeners, providing them a common platform for exchange of ideas, sharing knowledge and experiences on urban farming. Practices such as innovative space utilization techniques, seed exchange and composting at home are making people share the resources and provide support, building a strong community with large networking. In the near future, for a city like Bangalore there is a good potential to develop community gardens and increase its green roofs not only to reap benefits of supporting, provisioning but also to a certain extent regulating services of our ecosystem. This contribution may not seem like much of a consequence, but if everyone in the city contributed their own green bit towards this cause, it will make a remarkable change in the landscape.
Not until I saw many flowering plants, vegetables and fruits like mango, guava, custard-apple, lemons and also sometimes maize or sorghum all growing happily in my own balcony, under my mother’s tender care and love, that I started believing that there is no limit to what could be grown in an urban environment.
In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, most of the houses in the Lower 9th Ward were vacant, many blighted. And many, many empty lots. Most of the residents did not, could not, return. The ones that did had a hard road ahead of them, rebuilding not only their own homes, but a whole community. Because what is community when the people you know are gone and the places you remember are destroyed? Even now, nearly 10 years after the storm, only about 25% of the population has returned.
In 2007, a few residents got together and started clearing an overgrown pre-Katrina community garden. Together, we cut down a jungle of weeds, planted vegetables and flowers, created pathways and formed a garden committee. Throughout, people who had them talked about their own gardens, and told stories about when everyone had something growing in the backyard, and traded produce with neighbors. These stories just naturally emerged. We smiled and laughed with one another, shared with one another. A couple years later, another group of neighbors decided to turn a vacant, blighted lot into a beautiful garden space. And, similarly, these same stories, this same connectivity, naturally emerged. We talked about what we wanted for our neighborhood and how we could have those things manifest in a garden space. We started with just an empty plot of land, littered with trash and tires. And, determined to combat blight in our community, we slowly transformed the space — clearing the land, planting trees, building raised garden plots for residents to adopt, installing a rain garden, and eventually a patio area with a shade structure for community gatherings. With the help of waves of volunteers, we developed a beautiful space in a neighborhood where signs of neglect still outweigh beauty.
Last year, we started programming at the Guerrilla Garden. Six afternoons a week, neighbors come for gardening and cooking workshops, children’s activities, Black history and culture events, community potlucks and other social events. Neighborhood residents have adopted all of the garden plots and grow for their families. School groups take field trips to the garden. And people come just to relax and breathe. It’s by our community, for our community. *We are now in the running for a $20K grant to continue our programming and re-start our youth internship program. Anyone can vote for the Guerrilla Garden to win at www.seedsofchangegrant.com, daily through April 21st.
Backyard Gardeners Network was founded on the idea that the cultural tradition of growing food in the Lower 9th Ward is worth preserving because it creates more than just food. And there is something magical about a community garden. It’s a perfect community project. Any and everyone can be involved, no matter your age or skill level. Those who garden on their own feel strengthened and supported, just being in concert with others who share their passion. And when people get together and work on a project that benefits more than just themselves, they feel more connected and more proud of the community in which they live. They get the satisfaction of knowing that they contributed to making the neighborhood a better place. Garden spaces like ours are essentially open-air community centers, where food is grown, neighbors meet, skills are shared, and people just have a good time. And even passersby gain a sense of hope and joy, seeing a blighted lot transform into a fabulous community greenspace. Finally, everyone eats! So even those who haven’t gotten their hands dirty can still enjoy the wonderful food that is grown. Community gardens brings everyone together, and are often practices in self-determination. In neighborhoods like the Lower 9th Ward, still recovering from disaster, the things that emerge from creating and maintaining a community garden are the things that hold a community together.
Let’s stop confusing apples and oranges: but we like them both. ‘Community gardens’ and ‘Urban agriculture’ are not the same thing.
The initial provocation for this panel is questioning the value of these two aspects of urban life, suggesting they are synonymous, which they are not. I think differentiating between them is important to assessing their value.
Community gardens are a fabulous manifestation of ‘the commons’ — of how neighbors can come together to create a shared resource that delivers multiple benefits for them that they couldn’t possibly create by themselves. CGs beautify a vacant lot, provide respite in a dense urban environment, provide opportunities for spontaneous interactions and also more formal meetings, enable people to express their aspirations to grow or create something that nourishes them (figuratively and literally) and others. A vibrant community garden makes commensality — one of the great gifts of urban life through the commons — possible.
Urban agriculture is something else altogether. It’s about growing food within the city, at a scale that has the potential to put a dent in food security challenges. Scaling up growing food in cities is a laudable goal: but this idea needs to move from a quaint aspiration that mainly takes root in shrinking cities in North American where urban neighborhoods have been abandoned as the industrial economy has vanished. In those cities, re-pastoralizing parts of the city landscape may make sense, in the short and intermediate terms. But in dense urban environments, in rapidly growing cities in the global south and north, what makes more sense is integrating productive planting into everyday urban design. Edible landscapes, such as fruit trees along greenways and in parks, green roofs on residential and commercial buildings, living walls — these can be imaginative interventions that deliver many ecological benefits as well. But I think we need to be realistic about urban land uses and remember that density is crucial to making a city work — economically, socially, culturally and environmentally. So setting aside wide swaths of land for ‘agriculture’ in a contemporary city doesn’t make sense in the long term, because it defeats density. As an interim use — while the local economy develops and will eventually need that land for development purposes, ok.
Here is what I see as the potential of both: as forms of urban acupuncture, a term coined by Jaime Lerner, former Mayor of Curatiba, to describe the potential of hyper local interventions that can catalyze city building. Community gardens enliven neighborhoods and help cultivate local resilience. Urban agriculture, as a transitional use where the demand for developable land has slowed, makes sense. But it is no panacea: we need city builders around the world to continue to look for ways to integrate food growing into everyday life, in denser and denser urban environments, and find ways to integrate and embrace nature in cities within a livable and resilient urban built environment, not in place of one.
When it comes to tools of trade in the urban arsenal, I believe community gardens come very high on the list of “must haves”, and for a very interesting reason. In many ways, like mothers of large families, community gardens multi-task, and that is why the proponents of so many different disciplines support and praise them.
—CGs reclaim abandoned plots within neighborhoods, beautifying them and making them useful for residents, and even upgrading land value
—CGs enable residents to grow some of their own food, whether for enjoyment or as a needed source of nutrition
—CGs provide healthy outdoor activity
—CGs serve as a meeting ground, where there is non-violent interaction between different age groups, different faiths and different cultures. The setting of a garden has proved beneficial.
—CGs fulfil an educational role, so we can understand and appreciate that our food does not grow on a shelf in a supermarket.
—CGs can be excellent community compost drop-offs, and the excellent organic compost produced can be used to fertilize not only the CG itself, but also the residents’ gardens and potted plants. Organic waste is 40% of the total waste.
—CGs can talk to each other and generate a city-wide discussion and interaction
—CGs help restore nature, so birds, bees, butterflies, frogs and insects will all come back if invited by a colorful and healthy garden
For many residents community gardens are an extension of their community center, or an appropriate setting for parties and celebrations, such as weddings and birthdays, to name a couple…..
From multi-tasking community gardens to a city that is self-sufficient in growing its food is a long jump. Experts may well be able to prove that even if we coordinate perfectly, and utilize every possible open space in the urban and peri-urban areas, we can’t grow all we need. Does that mean we shouldn’t try to grow as much as we can? Of course not. Making people aware and respectful of what is invested in successfully growing food could play an invaluable role in making people environmentally responsible.
In my city, Jerusalem, local agriculture opens up an additional opportunity, to restore ancient agricultural landscapes and practices, using the terraces that have survived from the time of the Second Temple. Many urban open spaces are neglected and abandoned, begging to be taken over for the purpose of local farming and food-growing.
I honestly believe that the sky is the limit for urban agriculture, as long as the diverse stakeholders in and around the city are fully engaged with the process. The network of urban foodgrowers can include individuals that want to use their gardens, roofs or walls, community groups and cooperatives, periurban farmers, schools, senior citizens’ homes and others. The network can be coordinated through the municipality, through non-profit networks, or as a purely business framework. In Jerusalem, where 50 community gardens are already growing a lot of food, we are currently initiating an urban agriculture network, to see just how much food we can grow locally, and are waiting to see who will come on board. We hope that growing food together will be a way of finding common ground, in more senses than the physical, for the diverse communities that share Jerusalem’s public domain.
To begin with, the limits may be with the phrase “urban” agriculture. Agriculture, especially sustainable agriculture, works best described as an ecosystem of the region’s foodshed, watershed, energy resources and population patterns with as little divide between people in the various locations as possible. After all, how often do we talk of “rural” agriculture?
In the farmers market revival that started in the 1970s, the earliest markets were often in the university towns of America, but were founded by rural and periurban back-to-land farmers. The very idea of requiring all vendors to “grow it to sell it” was meant to remind urban citizens about the farmland that lay near enough to see, but maybe not close enough to smell or to taste any longer and to reintroduce those who toiled happily at that work too. Or as Wendell Berry wrote, (to know) “farming as the proper use and care of an immeasurable gift.”
Unfortunately, the astounding growth of farmers markets has not rid most of the country of its ill-conceived perceptions of rural people and farmers as lacking sophistication or of their of willingness to create a new world. So, the bulk of the work of community food systems remains ahead: to redefine wealth creation for producers, and increase the health (mental and physical) of the entire community that it serves. And yes, urban people working in agriculture must be part of that future. They can help by testing innovative farming strategies in their yards and on their rooftops to then share with their rural colleagues and by allowing agriculture to be seen, smelled and experienced in their neighborhood.
If we spent our energy organizing and connecting everyone with experience and/or the desire to farm with little or no regard to socioeconomic status or to location, we might then have a fighting chance to have a system that is direct and fair and able to withstand the inevitable environmental and political damage coming (again) soon.
Don’t take me at face value, go look for the most successful “urban” agriculture initiatives; I bet when you do you’ll find they have a bioregional focus and systems that create opportunities for all comers whether they live at the end of the block or the end of the road.