Communal gardens have become a fixture of neighborhood revitalization and community-building programs. Whether it be individual plots in one garden or one big lot that residents cultivate together, there is a growing escalation of a phenomenon with deep roots in American history, culture—and psyche.
Statistics are hard to come by, but a report by the National Gardening Association found that the number of households participating in a community garden grew by 2 million between 2008 and 2013. Leading the swell are millennials, particularly in our nation’s urban areas. Stats like that, along with news of hipsters flooding to bankrupt Detroit to start urban farms, can make it seem like community gardens are a recent fad driven by the foodie/locavore movements. However, not only does community gardening and urban farming pre-date the coining of the word “hipster,” but they also have so much more meaning and impact than community building and local food production—although those are significant benefits.
The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul. – English poet Alfred Austin
“When talking to ‘red zone’ [crisis or disaster] survivors—whether they be war refugees beginning a new life in Dearborn, Michigan; residents of New Orleans’ 9thWard after Hurricane Katrina; or homeowners struggling to hang on in a largely vacated Detroit—we often hear stories about how the act of planting has been critical to emotional survival and to engendering hope for the future,” writes Keith Tidball and Marianne Krasny in “Greening in the Red Zone: Disaster, Resilience and Community Greening."
In fact, argue the two researchers, this attraction to nature and particularly to the act of planting is biologically hardwired. “Biophilia” is the term coined to describe the “innate human predisposition to affiliate with, or to seek out, nature. “Urgent biophilia” kicks in once war, hurricane or other crisis induces a feeling of intense threat or loss. Gardening or otherwise actively communing with nature renews the emotional affiliation with other living organisms, paving the way for both individuals and communities to recover and regenerate, say Tidball and Kasny.
Here are a few of the many ways that catering to biophilia through community gardening can benefit both residents and their neighborhoods, as explored in a recent webinar sponsored by NeighborWorks America’s green program (plus one I added):
Emigration and intercultural connection
One of the most stressful experiences an individual or family can experience is becoming a refugee or other type of migrant. Displaced from the familiarity of their homeland, often as the result of traumatic forces such as war or persecution, they have multiple needs that community gardening can help fulfill.
“Most refugees have experienced a profound loss of control over their lives,” comments Katie Painter, program coordinator for Global Gardens, which works in Boise, Idaho, to help them cultivate the food they remember from their homelands, engage with the broader community and support themselves by becoming entrepreneurs. “Many also come from agrarian environments. It’s comforting to do something familiar, and it also draws them out of the perceived safety of their homes to mix with others. Gardening is an act that creates a feeling of empowerment and transcends languages.”
Global Gardens currently runs nine community gardens hosted by nonprofit partners, including NeighborWorks Boise, on land they own.
Gardening is often an interest that must be deliberately cultivated among youth in urban, high-crime neighborhoods. But once they are both given the opportunity and shown the appeal, it can be transformative.
One example is a unique program in the hard-scrabble eastern side of Cleveland, Ohio, that uses hip hop to attract youth to neighborhood engagement—and has found gardening to be ideal companion activity.
The program is called Fresh Camp, explains Dee Jay Doc Harrill, a hip hop artist himself. The camp name comes from the hip hop meaning for the word “fresh”: unique, original, cool.
“Hip hop is a favorite music genre among teens, especially in the inner city,” he explains. “We use something that already attracts them to draw them into other activities in their neighborhood they don’t know they’d like.”
About five years ago, Herill recalls, the group took a walk through their neighborhood looking for what was “fresh” around them. And one thing they noticed was the growing number of community gardens in the midst of what had been a food desert, often in previously littered, vacant lots. So, Doc reached out to the volunteers who run Ashbury Sprouts, supported by NeighborWorks member Famicos Foundation. They were given nine beds to garden, and at least one of the youth chose it as his favorite activity that summer.
“They would not have signed up for gardening camp,” Herill notes. “But then they discovered how awesome a really fresh tomato tastes, and that they can fulfill some of their needs on their own, without relying on a system in which they have no faith. That they can produce their own food without depending on anyone else.”
Food justice/healthy living
A 2010 study by the Denver Urban Gardens found that more than half of community gardeners satisfy the national guidelines for fruit and vegetable consumption, compared to a quarter of non-gardeners. In addition, 95 percent of community gardeners give others some of the produce they grow to friends, family or people in need (60 percent specifically to food-assistance programs).
One focus of the Greening of Detroit is to help residents develop a healthy relationship with food through self-sufficient production and greater awareness of nutrition. Seasonal produce is grown in four hoop-house tunnels year-round. In 2015, 15,046 pounds of produce was harvested and of that, 7,315 pounds were donated to community organizations. In addition, classes on everything from “Grilling Your Vegetables,” to “Wild Edibles,” to “Preserve, Pickle and Freeze” are offered.
However, the health benefits of community gardening may extend beyond the food itself. In their provocative “Greening in the Red Zone” book, the authors share the results of large, longitudinal studies of people aged 60 and older that have demonstrated a significant association between gardening and reduced risk of dementia.
Resilience in the face of crisis
Tidball and Krasny dcument studies showing that community gardens lead to more neighbor-to-neighbor assistance in times of general need. Likewise, survey research shows that in low-income neighborhoods, community gardens are associated with an increase in organizing around other neighborhood issues, such as crime prevention.
“We believe that creating an extensive network of community gardens prior to disasters would bolster the capacity for resilience before it is acutely needed,” they conclude.
“Grow a garden, grow a community” is the motto for Feedom Freedom, a group of independent growers in Detroit. (And no, that’s not a typo! When the logo for the group was designed, a vine displaced the “r” by mistake – and the quirky name became permanent.)
Myrtle Thompson-Curtis, who visited the August community building and engagement meeting for NeighborWorks America, explains how the group got started:
“Before we were married, my husband and I both moved into the lower east side of Detroit [from other neighborhoods]. We talked about how to integrate into the community, get to know who else was there, do something to be good neighbors. There were a lot of vacant lots, and Wayne [her future husband] had both a long history of activism and a lot of friends doing gardening work. It seemed right.”
Today, they have six lots and five paid staff members, made possible in part by participation in a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to offer children’s programming. They have a regular flow of volunteers, and have—as hoped—gotten to know everyone in the area, right down to all the inquisitive children and the “lady who sweeps the streets every morning, on her own initiative.”
“We have expanded from urban food production to education about art, foreclosure prevention and the water crisis in the area. When someone has a personal crisis, we’re a resource as well,” she smiles. “This has become a safe space, a transformative space.”