A gathering of people at an outdoor table under an awning

Growing Food Together Is Healthy

Marthe Derkzen, Arnhem/Nijmegen.  Berber Bergstra, Wageningen. 
21 March 2022

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

Green initiatives are seen as educational places where many different people come together and where everyone can do what they want. They are places where peace can be found, but also where you can mean something to someone else.

Nature and greenery are good for you; we all know that by now. But is it also possible to improve your health by actively seeking out greenery or by getting involved in greenery yourself? That is, can you improve your health simply by taking an action? This is something Wageningen University and practice partners are researching in the PARTIGAN project. PARTIGAN focuses on increasing the amount of green space in the living environment, but also on the use of and the experienced contact with greenery in the city. Specifically, we look at green citizen initiatives: food forests and vegetable gardens that residents develop and maintain in their own neighborhood together with other residents. What does it mean for residents to start volunteering here? What do these green spaces mean to them, and does it affect their health?
Green spaces and health

On average, people in cities have poorer health than people living in the countryside, and this difference is largest for mental health (Verheij et al., 2008). One of the reasons for this difference could be the availability of green space. A living environment with more green space in it is associated with better mental health and lower mortality rates (van den Berg et al., 2015). Making living environments greener seems to be a promising instrument to improve public health. Green citizen initiatives can play an important role in this: places where residents sow seeds, harvest crops, and experience for themselves what it is like to grow food (which often goes to charity).
A photo experiment

But how do you find out what these places actually mean to the garden volunteers? During her bachelor’s thesis for the Health and Society degree program at Wageningen University, Berber Bergstra researched this using a participatory photography method: Photovoice. Bergstra gave participants in various green initiatives in Arnhem and Nijmegen four photo assignments, namely: (1) take a picture of your favorite spot in the garden, (2) take a picture of your least favorite spot/something you find difficult, (3) take a picture of something you have learned in the garden, and (4) take a picture of something you would like to share with others (neighborhood, community, friends, family), something you are proud of. This resulted in beautiful, varied photos and stories that we are happy to share here.
Favorite: nature

A place in nature is most people’s favorite spot. Where peace and infinity, but also the function for insects are important. One participant indicated a garden’s central meeting point as her favorite place. She says that it is the place where she meets other people, which energizes her.

A gathering of people at an outdoor table under an awning
“It energizes me to be together, every person needs other people around them.”
An open field lined with trees
“The extent of the orchard, the beautiful greenery, the grasses that are allowed to be there. All this gives me peace, a feeling of infinity. For me, De Waalgaard means standing with both feet in the mud and working with your hands, but at the same time pure poetry.”

Least favorite: weeds

Things that are experienced as less enjoyable by the participants are also related to nature. The weeds that keep growing, but also the task of weeding is seen as least favorite. Besides that, weather influences prove to be difficult, but this must be accepted because you cannot do anything about it. In addition, human influences, such as the mess they can make in a shared space, are difficult. One participant states that a clean and tidy place radiates peace and care.

An overgrown garden
“If there is one thing I hate, it is clutter in the garden. I like to keep the garden looking neat and tidy.”
A close up of a plant bud
“You must accept that weather influences play a major role, so you always have to wait and see what this does to the harvest.”

Learning in the garden

All participants have learned something from other people in the garden, mostly about nature and gardening. This concerns new techniques related to gardening, such as permaculture. One participant links this to life in the bigger sense and states to have learned that you need to follow your dreams. Participants also mention that they think it is important to help other people. One garden in Arnhem, Stadslandbouw Mooieweg, grows fresh produce for the local Food Bank. In this process, a careful selection of the crops is an important aspect.

A picture of field of bushes, trees, and various vegetation
“The permaculture method wants to approach nature as close as possible, so the system will eventually keep its own balance. I can still learn a lot about this.”
A picture of rows of produce in a garden
“Here, I learned how to harvest the crops and how to care for them. Because we deliver food to the Food Bank, it is important to carefully select the crops before you harvest them.”

Proud of the garden

Our research shows that the garden volunteers are proud of “their” green initiatives. Bringing together different people is seen as important, not only for the people within the green initiative but, also for society as a whole. The atmosphere at the initiatives, the healthy food, the work as a volunteer, the favorite places, the diversity of people, and the initiatives in their entireness are looked at with great pride.

A picture of an open field with vegetation
“This project is so beautiful and fascinating! It is supported by many people who want to achieve diversity, healthy nature, healthy food, and local food sales.”
A picture of a person standing next to a field of flowers. A picture of a person sitting and studying the plants around them
“I want to show my family where I work as a volunteer. Here you see me sitting in my favorite place, while I am meditating on different kinds of insects that feed on different kinds of flowers. What a beautiful picture.”

Green initiatives and health

Photovoice has been a great tool for getting an idea of the meaning that green initiatives have for the people who are involved in the garden, and what this can mean for their well-being. The green initiatives are seen as educational places where many different people come together and where everyone can do what they want. They are places where peace can be found, but also where you can mean something to someone else. The participants are proud of the initiatives and would like to share it with people around them.
Additional research at these locations revealed that active involvement in green community initiatives benefits your health. We found positive well-being outcomes on six dimensions: sense of safety and trust, meaningful involvement, personal development, social connection, sense of ownership, and a healthy lifestyle (Derkzen et al., 2021). Green initiatives are examples of bottom-up places in the city that can promote the physical, mental, and also social health of residents.

References
Derkzen, M.L., Bom, S., Hassink, J., Hense, E.H., Komossa, F. and Vaandrager, L. (2021). Healthy urban neighborhoods: exploring the well-being benefits of green citizen initiatives. Acta Hortic. 1330, 283-292
DOI: 10.17660/ActaHortic.2021.1330.34van den Berg, M., Wendel-Vos, W., van Poppel, M., Kemper, H., van Mechelen, W., & Maas, J. (2015). Health benefits of green spaces in the living environment: A systematic review of epidemiological studies. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 14(4), 806–816. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ufug.2015.07.008
Verheij, R., Maas, J., & Groenewegen, P. (2008). Urban-Rural health differences and the availability of green space. European Urban and Regional Studies, 15(4), 307–316. https://doi.org/10.1177/0969776408095107

Marthe Derkzen and Berber Bergstra
Arnhem/Nijmegen, Wageningen

On The Nature of Cities

 

Berber Bergstra

About the Writer:
Berber Bergstra

Berber Bergstra is a 21 year old student who just finished the bachelor Health & Society at Wageningen University, during which she wrote her bachelor thesis about the meaning of green initiatives such as common vegetable gardens. She is currently on an exchange semester in Denmark for her master's Health & Society.

Marthe Derkzen

About the Writer:
Marthe Derkzen

Marthe Derkzen is a researcher and teacher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. She works on green and healthy cities, always from a socio-environmental justice perspective.

Marthe Derkzen

Marthe Derkzen

Marthe Derkzen is a researcher and teacher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. She works on green and healthy cities, always from a socio-environmental justice perspective. Marthe is currently based in Arnhem/Nijmegen where she works with bottom-up initiatives, residents, and the municipality to build healthy, climate proof neighborhoods. Her interest is in participation, citizen science, and art-science collaborations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *