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Summer 2007 - Act•ionLine

by Heather Steel | Summer 2007

Seeds of Change – Growing Community Gardens

What’s green, promotes health and safety in communities, and helps bring beauty to the world? The answer … community gardens!

What is a Community Garden?

Community gardens are outdoor spaces on public or private lands where neighbors meet to grow and care for vegetables, flowers and native plant species. The gardeners are responsible for organizing, maintaining and managing the garden area, and, like the gardeners themselves, each community garden is unique. They come in many shapes, sizes and locations. They’re found beside railway tracks, in city centres, and even on rooftops. Many have raised beds so as to be accessible to people of all physical abilities.

Gardeners usually have their own plots to tend, but it’s also possible for everyone to share the work and harvest. The gardeners themselves decide how to run the garden.

An Important Tradition

Community agriculture has a long history. In many parts of the world, it’s still an integral part of a healthy community. During and after both world wars, community gardens increased the food supplies from local sources, especially during the Great Depression, when city lands were made available to the unemployed for food production.

In prosperous times, a quick, convenient food supply may take over the role that community agriculture once filled. This can alienate us from our food sources, reducing our knowledge and even the quality and safety of our food. To reverse this, and to address the environmental effects of agriculture, many people now desire a closer connection to the cultivation and harvest of food. Hence, the North American return to farmers’ markets, local growers, and backyard vegetable plots.

Cultivation in the City

Many cities have come to realize the connection between community gardens and safe, vibrant urban areas. The South Central Farm in Los Angeles was a stunning example of how community gardening can grow more than just vegetables. It was once an abandoned lot, slated to become a solid waste incinerator site. But after the Rodney King riots, the city gave the L.A. Regional Food Bank a revocable permit to convert the land into community gardens.

These gardens brought 350 growers together. On fourteen acres, they cultivated pesticide-free crops for many living below the official poverty line. In addition to food, the farm hosted social events, cultivating connections and stability in the community. In an open letter to the mayor of Los Angeles, Devon Peña, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington, wrote that the farm exemplified “a self-reliant and community-based approach to control drug-use and gang membership among the youth without the violence unleashed by the police.”

Unfortunately, in June of 2006, the members of the farm were forcibly evicted, in the midst of protest by gardeners and their supporters, including a large celebrity contingent. Between the bulldozers and sheriffs’ deputies, the supporters were eventually removed from the land. Some were arrested. Developer Ralph Horowitz, one of the original owners before the land was transferred to the city in the late 1980s, sued for it and sold it for development.

Today, a year later, supporters continue to band together in an effort to recreate the urban paradise they once cultivated. They continue to use the law and non-violent protest to counter what they feel was an unjust business transaction while finding balance by hosting community celebrations of solidarity. Although it’s no longer producing food, the South Central Farm reminds us of the benefits gardens can bring to urban areas, and the activism of its supporters demonstrates the strength such gardens can generate.

Green Benefits

As we’ve seen, cultivating a community garden involves challenges far larger than those presented by rocks and caterpillars. It often takes a great deal of convincing to explain why a patch of cabbages and carrots can be as valuable a development as a condo or a throughway.

In 1990, horticulturists came together to establish the Plant-People Council (PPC), and developed a database of scientific studies highlighting the individual and community benefits of plants and greening activities. Whether through a forest, a park or a garden, exposure to plant life is good for us. Researchers from a wide array of disciplines, ranging from psychology and economics to sociology and medicine, have reported powerful demonstrations of the importance of our connection to plants. Living in this fast-paced, high-tech age, people need plants for more than just food, and green space for more than just pleasure.

Quiet, plant-filled environments reduce stress and offer relief from the noise, movement and complexity of our lives. Studies have shown that simply looking at a plant can reduce stress, fear and anger, and lower blood pressure and muscle tension. In addition, by acting as filters and natural barriers, plants help control temperature, noise, and pollution.

On the more obvious level, a vegetable plot is an economical way to ensure healthful, organic produce. The gardener chooses veganic gardening methods, which are sensitive to our own health and to the interests of other animals, and the health of the planet’s ecology. Local gardening immensely reduces the fossil fuel consumption required to transport produce long distances. Home food waste -- husks and seeds and unused leaves -- can be composted and used to enhance soil, rather than sent to the landfills.

On a societal level, green spaces help create a positive community image for residents and visitors. Notably, the City of Toronto Community Gardens Program found that instances of graffiti on nearby walls diminished when garden spaces were created.

Want to Start Your Own Community Garden?

If there are no community gardens in your area and you’re interested in starting one up, begin by asking whether you have the energy, commitment and resources. Creating a community garden requires a serious effort, although the rewards are substantial. A good way to start is by visiting nearby gardens and talking with the organizers to get a sense of what’s involved. From there, you can find many valuable resources through the computer or at the library that will give you direction and support. Here are some of the most widely cited resources to get you growing:


How Does Our Garden Grow? A Guide to Community Gardening Success

by Laura Berman
Published by FoodShare.

This manual, published by FoodShare with a grant from the Ontario Ministry of Health, covers such topics as group committee structures, leadership, effective meeting strategies, fund-raising and community relations, vandalism and safety, and gardening for people with disabilities. It also includes an extensive list of seed companies, reference books, master gardener groups, and community food advisor groups.

To order (Visa cards accepted) by email:
By phone: 416.392.1629

A Handbook of Community Gardening

by Boston Urban Gardeners, edited by Susan Naimark. Published by Charles Scribner's Sons; ISBN 0-684-17466-9.

This book includes the basic steps of organizing a garden and finding resources.

Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community

by Heather C. Flores. Published by Chelsea Garden; ISBN 978-1933392073

The author -- both an activist and urban gardener -- shares a nine-step permaculture design to help growers build fertile soil, promote biodiversity, and increase natural habitat. A useful resource once you’ve got the groundwork for your community garden in place and need a hand with the ecological design.


Vegan Organic Network:

Promotes animal-free cultivation and farming. Aims to reduce the use of artificial chemicals, livestock manures and animal remains as fertiliser. Based in England, with international branches and a magazine, Growing Green International. Especially recommended for its emphasis on animal interests. Why not help them start a local chapter?

City Farmer:

Comprehensive site on the Internet about urban agriculture, community gardening and sustainable agriculture, and all the latest news. Based in Vancouver.

Heather Steel

Act•ionLine Summer 2007

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