There is little agreement about the definition of a community garden, probably because the most important goal of such places is to create a healthy community rather than a healthy crop of flowers, vegetables or fruit trees. Betsy Johnson of Garden Futures in Boston defines them this way: Community Gardens are community spaces that are communally cultivated and cared for; these spaces may consist of individually-worked plots, multiple person caretaker areas, sitting areas, and small-scale children play areas.
Examples of community gardens that fit these different definitions abound in the Twin Cities. There are ornamental flower gardens on parkway medians, school gardens, classic individual plot community gardens, demonstration gardens, church gardens, youth farm and market gardens, boulevard gardens and more.
Community gardening in the U.S. has a long and rich history that dates back to the nineteenth century. Community gardens helped revitalize communities when large groups of people began migrating to the city from rural areas after the Civil War. This continued through the two World Wars, when there were federal programs designed to encourage U.S. citizens to raise as much food as possible to help support the war effort. The Dowling School garden in Minneapolis is the oldest continuously operating community garden in the Twin Cities and was formed as a Victory Garden during World War II.
In the 1970s, as part of a back-to-the-earth and urban pioneering movement, community gardens began taking form in vacant lots throughout most major American cities. Often in neighborhoods abandoned by the middle class, these gardens served to rebuild community pride and identity, decrease crime and form bridges between and among different racial and ethnic groups.
The neighborhood effects of community gardens are significant and positive but often they do not outweigh the benefits of housing or commercial development in the minds of land use planners and politicians. In cities where housing is in short supply and vacant land is limited, community gardens are displaced in order to make way for tax generating development. Garden permanency is the number one critical issue confronting the movement in this decade. New York City has received nationwide publicity for its struggles to maintain community gardens in areas where a city lot is worth a half million dollars or more. In the Twin Cities there has been some publicity and certainly some organizing around saving gardens that are threatened by development, but to date there has been no high profile celebrity or powerful politician who has taken up the cause of ensuring the permanency of community gardens.
Why are these community gardens so important? Some people, such as Karl Linn from Berkeley California, claim that community gardens are the last existing opportunity that Americans have for reclaiming the commons. What “commons” did that people still need is ensure connections with neighbors and involvement with the good of the community. This kind of social capital is essential for the health of a community but the modern day American city is gradually and inexorably being designed to prevent it from occurring. Instead cities are designed for the ease of traffic and transportation and ultimately for the benefit of commerce. Lost in the city planners’ cost-benefit equation are the gains that came from hanging out on the front porch or the stoop talking with neighbors, playing pick-up kickball on neighborhood streets after dinner, and exploring wild and uncharted open tracts of natural land within walking distance of home.
Linn cites an estimate that some 300,000 community gardeners across the U.S. are bucking the movement toward social isolation and instead are out there in the garden patch from first thaw in the spring until hard frost in the fall, gardening in community. Despite the pressures on scarce tracts of open space in cities, around the world, community gardening and urban agriculture is growing, for many sound reasons. Community gardens produce food that is local, organic, affordable and in season. Trucks, freeways, go-betweens of any sort, preservatives and chemical fertilizers are costs eliminated by gardening for your own kitchen. Community gardens also create important biodiversity in cities, supporting insects and birds, creating habitat, filtering air and buffering sound. In Chicago, an intensive urban greening project is underway with a goal of abating the heat reservoir created by the built environment. Community gardens are opportunities for old and young, racially and ethnically diverse, able-bodied and physically challenged to learn and work together, building the bank of social capital that communities need in order to be livable.
Community gardens are demonstrably therapeutic – hospitals, half way houses, nursing homes and other therapeutic communities are installing community gardens in order to improve the mental health of their residents. Plant-person interaction studies are so persuasive that architects who design hospitals are now including gardens, plants, windows looking out onto gardens, woods and lawns and even images of the green world in their new facilities.
Community gardens expose children to the natural world and lead along multiple paths to positive youth development. As a consequence, the school gardening movement in the U.S. is growing. In California, the superintendent of schools is calling for a computer in every classroom and a garden in every school. Across the country, including in the Twin Cities, there is a campaign to include organic food in school lunches and to connect the ability of children to learn with the food they eat and the settings in which they study. Teachers are finding that gardens are the ultimate outdoor classroom, lending themselves to every discipline at every grade level.
There ought to be a community garden in every neighborhood in the Twin Cities, just as there is a library, a school, a couple of churches and at least one park. For more information on how to start a community garden or to find one near you, contact the GardenWorks program listed in the resource box. The Minnesota Green program of the Minnesota Horticultural Society has an excellent publication entitled “Creating Community Gardens, A Handbook for Planning and Creating Community Gardens to Beautify and Enhance Cities and Towns