Community Gardens Grow Much More Than Food and Flowers

Many people see community gardens as lovely. Isn’t it nice that a neighborhood came together to tend to this little project? But what you may not see is that there’s a lot more at work than just neighbors growing vegetables and flowers. And our local government should be doing much more than simply setting guidelines for allowing them—we should be encouraging community gardens wherever possible.

The initial positive benefits of a community garden are the increase in neighborhood solidarity. First, when neighbors come together, talk to each other, get to know one another better, and work toward a common goal, they become more aware of their neighborhood dynamics and are more likely to communicate concerns to each other. This kind of neighborhood conversation promotes neighbors looking out for one another and their families.

Many times, the neighborhood involvement brings in local youth as well. In addition to teaching them valuable life skills and providing them with an opportunity to be more immersed in their immediate community, it also helps them spend their time in constructive activities, gain a fuller understanding of civic participation, and develop crucial emotional and cognitive maturity as they move into adulthood.

In addition, neighbors are coming together to remove a safety hazard from their vicinity. Neglected vacant lots become magnets for local crime and dumping grounds for garbage. They are more than just eyesores for passersby—vacant lots can endanger the health and security of everyone living around them.

Transforming a local hazard into a community garden also provides health and financial benefits for the surrounding neighborhood. Growing vegetables, particularly in lower-income areas where there are cost and availability barriers for obtaining fresh produce, can enable people to afford healthier food, increase access, and, in time, help people who don’t eat a lot of fruits and veggies to change their personal taste perceptions so they enjoy and seek out healthy food more.

What’s more, many community gardens sell their excess produce at local farmers markets, and they can then use this money for any number of community projects, such as improving or expanding the garden, helping neighbors in need, or embarking on other local projects to better the neighborhood.

And let’s not forget larger economic benefits. The mere presence of a community garden has a significant positive impact on property values within 1,000 feet of the garden. This increases over time, and the most disadvantaged neighborhoods see the most improvement. Neighborhoods that open a community garden also see increased rates of homeownership, which is a catalyst for more economic redevelopment within a community.

What’s more, as the effects of climate change increase, community gardens are a local measure that can help promote sustainability. Gardening:

  • improves air and soil quality,
  • increases biodiversity of plants and animals,
  • reduces “food miles” required to transport nutritious food,
  • improves water infiltration,
  • reduces neighborhood waste through composting, and
  • positively impacts the area micro-climate.

However, many community garden groups face challenges in affording to take over a vacant lot and creating a legal structure that will indemnify individuals from possible litigation as a result of injuries that may occur in the garden. Local governments that have officially declared community gardens as serving a positive public purpose have helped neighborhood groups overcome obstacles in a number of ways. One source has reviewed many cities’ community garden–friendly policies and came up with the following template for cities to use when individualizing policies to their own unique needs and dynamics:

“(1) Assign the duty of inventorying vacant public lots and vacant private lots in low-income neighborhoods, and the duty to make that information readily accessible to the public;

(2) Authorize contracting with private landowners for lease of vacant lots;

(3) Authorize the use of municipal land for minimum terms long enough to elicit commitment by gardeners, such as five years; and provide for the possibility of permanent dedication to the parks department after five years’ continuous use as a community garden;

(4) Provide for inter-agency coordination of resources to facilitate creation and operation of community gardens;

(5) Provide for the clearing of rubble and contamination where needed, and for regular trash collection;

(6) Prepare land for gardening by tilling and building raised beds, configuring some gardens for access by disabled gardeners;

(7) Provide for access to water without charge to gardeners, where possible;

(8) Provide compost from the locality’s recycling programs, if available;

(9) Provide tools, hoses, and secure storage facilities for tools and other necessary items;

(10) Tap resources for training about gardening, including organic methods or pesticide use, and consulting about particular garden problems;

(11) Provide technical assistance to support programs with youth, elderly, disabled, low-income, and other populations, depending on neighborhood needs and interests;

(12) Provide signage, if requested;

(13) Network with farmers’ markets, entrepreneurship programs, vocational education, and organizational leadership programs;

(14) Provide for liability insurance against personal injury;

(15) Permit sale of excess produce by charitable organizations;

(16) Provide trash collection service;

(17) Provide maintenance for adjacent park property;

(18) Provide favorable tax treatment for loan of private land for garden use;

(19) Identify sources of program materials (for teachers, youth and senior counselors, etc.); and

(20) Provide a funding mechanism to cover the locality’s costs in establishing a computer database and mapping program, property acquisition and maintenance, and technical assistance.”

Here in Cleveland Heights, we have a handful of community gardens that are helping not only their members and surrounding neighborhood but also the city as a whole in a number of less tangible but nonetheless significant ways. The city should take an active role in promoting community gardens and enabling neighborhoods to easily begin and maintain these and other positive neighborhood projects.