The voluntary participation by local residents in the creation, establishment, and ongoing activities of a community garden instill empowerment and sense of ownership in individuals, which are key ingredients for building healthy communities.
2003 Urban Fellow
Research Topic: Urban Agriculture
Faculty Advisor: William Burch
Cultivating Community, Food, and Empowerment: Urban Gardens in New York City
Throughout New York City, urban residents have taken the initiative to use vacant lots for the community’s benefit through the creation of community gardens. The benefits reaped range from increased food security through food production, poverty alleviation through creation of urban farmer jobs, open green spaces that serve as community centers to provide educational and recreational services, and environmental services such as serving as pollution sinks and improving air quality. Community gardens have also shown to improve the quality of life for individuals, decrease crime rates, and beautify the neighborhood. As grassroots initiatives, community gardens serve as catalysts for building social capital and social cohesion by establishing networks that enable collective action. Collective action allows them to challenge negative factors such as crime, and have a stronger voice in what’s happening politically and socially in the community. The voluntary participation by local residents in the creation, establishment, and ongoing activities of a community garden instill empowerment and sense of ownership in individuals, which are key ingredients for building healthy communities. Interestingly, the history of urban gardening in the United States demonstrates a cyclical process of urban garden creation and destruction that moves in conjunction with economic crisis and recovery. Urban gardening in the US dates back to the economic depression of the mid-1890s when the city of Detroit allotted 455 acres of land to 945 families and seed potatoes for planting. The temporary leasing by the city of abandoned land spread to more than 20 cities in the US, but with the increase in real estate development these gardens were short-lived (Hynes 1996). The next revival of urban gardening came with the “liberty gardens” of World War I and then the postwar “victory gardens”. These were part of a national campaign to supplement food shortages and “maintain morale on the homefront” (Kurtz 2001). The war gardens were part of a collective effort that reflected the current cultural and national ideals with “an estimated five million gardeners rallying to such slogans as ‘plant for freedom’ and ‘hoe for liberty’” (Hynes 1996). However, once the 4 immediate need to produce food subsided so did the government support. Community gardens today in New York City are different in that their purpose is to reclaim and revitalize their neighborhoods in addition to producing food. But, community gardens in NYC are similar to the “war gardens” in that they are experiencing this cyclical process and many are presently threatened by urban renewal development plans. This paper briefly documents this cyclical process in New York City from the 1970s to today. The main purpose of this paper and of my research is twofold: 1) to identify the multitude of benefits provided by community gardens; and 2) to identify what kinds of management schemes community leaders have developed to mange this collaborative effort. These two aspects will be addressed using data collected during field research conducted in the summer of 2003, literature review, data collected by community garden city agency GreenThumb, and personal experience working as an NGO representative with community gardens. In addressing these two aspects this paper will explore how and why community gardens were created, what benefits and burdens exist, and what some of the key factors are that contribute to the sustainability of community gardens. This paper first provides some historical context in section II, starting with the initial creation of community garden’s in New York City to their threatened existence today. The paper will then zoom in on the Melrose neighborhood of the Bronx, in section IV, where field research was conducted in the summer of 2003. A description of each of the 10 community garden research sites will follow an outline of the research methods used, in section III. Melrose as a case study serves the purpose of providing empirical data on garden benefits and varying management systems as well as serving as a springboard to extrapolate on generalizable benefits and key factors that play a role in the sustainability of community gardens in general. Section V and VI are dedicated to describing and analyzing specific benefits and burdens of community gardening, and their varying management systems.