1. Models of urban gardens – Select the best for your community

1.1 – What do we call urban gardening? Focus on community gardens

General definition

Urban gardening, sometimes also referred to as urban agriculture or urban farming, is the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around a village, town, or city. It’s a large and general definition which includes a lot of different scenarios, which include huge farms for intensive production to local gardens managed by social movements for sustainable communities, where organic growers, ‘foodies,’ and ‘locavores’ form social networks at a local level.

Our work is essentially based on small production and collective work motivated by social and environmental purposes. We will focus all along the following local experiences in community gardens. The American Community Garden Association defines a community garden as “a single piece of land gardened collectively by a group of people”. Beyond this aspect, the garden brings a lot of additional elements, following rules, as well as, social and environmental objectives.

Once again, the garden can be conditioned to local specificities. In many major cases, they are supported by non-profit organizations and are an economic added value in low-income areas providing for local food consumption and other needs. In developing countries, commonly held land for small gardens as a familiar part of the landscape and even in urban areas, where they may function as market gardens.

Community gardens provide fresh food and plants and contribute to a sense of community and empowerment and also create and re-create connections with the environment. The land or the area where the garden is implemented can belong to the public municipality or to a private entity (as an NGO or an individual for example) and be loaned or rented to the gardeners or to the organization which manages the garden. All the space can be cultivated collectively or each gardeners can rent or occupy a small individual part. The garden lives with the active participation of all the gardeners unlike public green space maintained by a professional staff. It also can provide a common area to be used as a meeting point, to chat and to organize workshops, dinners and social moments.

Local specificities and different types of urban gardens 

According to specifics of each location’s (climate, green spaces available, active participation of the local network, local needs of the population, etc.), urban gardening can take a lot of different forms but follow mainly the same social and environmental objectives. This guide will focus on community gardens however a lot of elements are connected. Here are some examples of urban gardening:

Lack of space or lack of land? Alternative solutions!

In order to take advantage of any space available to implement a garden and develop a green activity, a lot of buildings use their roofs or walls to grow food. This method of growing is an innovative way to bring fresh food and green spaces into cities while being environmental friendly. An example can be a low  energy usage; the garden, for example, uses the heat of the building and the collection of rainwater to provide a method of low-energy usage. Adding plants can also absorb the sound waves and considerably reduce noise pollution.

Square foot gardens can be used on buildings, in the case of roof gardens, if there is of lack of land, and otherwise according to the needs of the population. Food and plants can also be grown in square containers which can be adapted for disabled people or used inside for schools, for example. It’s easy to build, remove and cultivate in a small area once following some rules to ensure productivity. It’s easy to keep clean and is once again environmental friendly thanks to its low need of water and fertilizers.

Private individual gardening

It can be also turned toward the community.

A lot of people living in town who have a yard or a balcony can grow food for their own consumption but also to share the extra with the community by way of free access or distribution.

For example in France where the garden becomes an economic and social activity : see “les jardins d’insertion”.

The objective is to develop an economically productive activity for urban gardens in order to provide part-time jobs and foster employability of disadvantaged people (those with long term unemployment, in need of vocational retraining, former inmates,… etc.). They have the opportunity to gain professional and social skills, the garden allows gardeners to learn new jobs while having a formal contract. Participating in the garden also helps to overcome isolation, meet new people and celebrate people and their competencies. The produce is consumed by the gardeners and the extra is sold at low prices.

The different actors: who are the gardeners? A garden with whom and for who?

To live and to have the most positive impact at a local level, a community garden must be maintained and managed by motivated participants.

If the project is initiated by the municipality or by a local stakeholder such as an NGO, communication has to be done from the beginning to include the inhabitants as soon as possible to start an efficient and sustainable dynamic. Organizing social events or dinners with the local people can be an easy way to introduce the garden and its opportunities.

The target group of a project of community gardening is mainly the local people who live in the urban area. People of different ages, genders and ethnicities garden together and each individual plays a role in making the garden successful. The garden brings together people who are looking for a green space to relax and cultivate their own food in a friendly environment. The different experiences of community gardening show that the investment of the gardeners is variable. Some of them come every day, others just for the week end, some of the members come to organize or participate in social events in the garden or to provide communication in schools. They can also have different perceptions of the activity. Some gardeners just see it as a food resource and want to garden alone while others see the activity as a way to create social interaction and share the experience.

Each garden can have its own management, the rules are deliberated and fixed by all the stakeholders regarding the management of the garden, animals, guests, schedules, etc. A garden president is in most of the cases, assigned to create clear and well-enforced garden rules to minimise misunderstandings.

Potential risks related to urban and community gardening

Even if the members do their best to take care of the garden and provide the safest environment, they will have to face some issues and overcome some difficulties throughout the gardens lifetime.

Some difficulties can be related to human intervention as acts of vandalism on the product infrastructures or some cases of theft. The best way to act is to replant anything that has been damaged and not to get discouraged and as a result hopefully making the vandals bored with their efforts.

It can also be linked to internal factors related to improper management of the garden leading to less investment of people and the abandonment of the garden and of the activities.

Other types of risks are related to natural factors, such as the difficulty to access water, natural disasters, and violent wind which can damage the sheds and plants. The gardeners can adapt the garden according to the environmental specificities.

1.2 – What are the added values for the individual and the community?

A community garden implemented in an urban area is so much more than a piece of land cultivated. Three main types of added values can be identified: social, individual and environmental outcomes.

Social objectives for the community/local area

To foster social inclusion and a social local dynamic

The gardening activity is not an end in itself but more a way to stimulate the local dynamic and create bonds in the a community that recognizes the natural environment as playing an integral role. It helps to get to know each other in the neighbourhood, encouraging interactions and to include new people arriving, breaking the isolation without any criteria of age, ethnicity or wealth. Community gardening gives participants the opportunity to reflect upon the symbiotic relationship between humans and the non-human world as well as the basic principles of Deep Ecology which emphasizes that through experiences in nature one will identify with nature and therefore become empathetic towards it. Thus the empathy may “induce people to protect nature, not because they think they ought , but because they feel inclined to”. The empathetic mentality developed through nature contact can be extended and integrated into positive practices of social inclusion and the overall local dynamic of the community. The practice of community gardening is just one of many ways to raise awareness to the position of the natural world as an important and integral part of the local and global community.

Gardening is often just a part of the activity, a lot of cultural, educative and social events are organized in the garden. It’s a place of social inclusion and intercultural dialogue providing opportunities to meet different people. The garden also helps to connect the different parts of the local area (schools, retirement homes, cultural centres, etc.) giving an active and safer dynamic of life for all.

The quality of life is improved and it can also create income opportunities to reduce family food budgets. The neighbourhood is embellished by green spaces and land is use in an useful way instead of being wasted.

Working together in this kind of activity, people have to develop and learn collective working methods including listening the others, negotiating and communicating without violence, mutual sharing and understanding. They have to establish and follow common rules, encouraging the participation of the individuals and a collective management. Not to mention, gardening is a holistic physical activity promoting physical health and well-being through full body movement and direct nature contact.

At school: a great pedagogic tool and another learning process

Having a garden at school or giving the kids or students an opportunity to participate to gardening activities in the local community gardens can be part of the educational process and provides another pedagogical learning tool. Taking care of a garden or taking part in outdoor activities can help participants connect with nature and develop a diverse set of skills that can be applied to a variety of school subjects (such as biology, history, physical activity, arts, even foreign languages), as well as, promote healthy living in a non formal setting outside the classroom or more traditional health and physical education courses . When children living in urban areas are given the opportunity to learn through contact with nature, alongside the flora and fauna, then the links between seasonal products, food consumption and sustainable production can become clearer. They also have the opportunity to work on their personal skills such as time management, interfering with others and their environment, autonomy and responsibility. There are a plethora of pedagogical advantages when learning experiences are offered in the natural environment, in this case the Urban Garden.

Individual objectives

A positive impact on health

Community gardens have been shown to have positive health effects on the people who participate in the activity. Indeed, the physical and outdoor activity, especially for children, helps to fight obesity and is often completed by reflections on nutrition and cooking helping them to develop critical thinking skills in regards to what it means to sustainably consume. Community gardens, if done properly, produce nutritious food and support healthy habits for the entire household increasing both availability and consumption of fruits and vegetables while providing a widely accessible outdoor physical activity. Gardening provides a relaxing activity and horticultural therapy is more and more used to achieve specific therapeutic treatment objectives. The visual aesthetics of plants are known to provide feelings of inner peace generating positive emotions toward a meaningful appreciation of life. Direct contact with plants has the possibility to guide the individual’s focus away from stress and therefore enhancing their overall quality of life.

To grow as individual

Taking part to a community garden will impact the person fostering the sense of individual and collective responsibility (respect of schedules, of the others and their work, being part of a collective dynamic that makes decisions, etc.), developing autonomy and stimulating individual creativity. Being part of a collective activity helps to foster individual skills and increase social behaviours. The person will gain self-confidence, will grow as an individual and develop skills and competences which could be useful in daily life or in terms of employability.

Moreover, people who are included in a community garden will have the opportunity to reflect about the relation between human beings and their urban environment, opening new perspectives and developing critical thinking skills on a diversity of subjects (ecology, local policy, citizenship and active participation in the society etc.).

Environmental objectives

To implement gardening practices which are environmental friendly

Community gardens have their own rules defined by the users in regards to respecting environmental friendly gardening practices. For example, the use of chemical fertilizers is limited, rainwater is collected to be reused and a consciousness to maintaining or reviving the biodiversity is set. Community gardens contribute to maintain and preserve the urban ecosystem. Some insects can be re-introduced, such as bees, in these urban areas.

In regards to the activities proposed on the garden, many are related to an overall sustainable environment, and more  specifically recycling and the reusing of wasted objects found in the garden. In the global perspective, as small as they may be community gardens may help to encourage the reduction of human practices that contribute to climate change by, for example, providing fresh and local produce and reducing the importation of foreign similar products.

To act as a responsible inhabitant:

To act as a responsible inhabitant means to socially and environmentally understand and manage the living area in a sustainable manner . Community gardens enhance a local social dynamic  where the environment is considered an integral part of the community. Community gardens provide this opportunity for all community members gather at the point where many needs of nature meets the many needs of society. It is a resource of critical thinking and social development, skills acquisition, and overall sustainable practice. As citizens, the community managing this collective project can start to re-invest their living environment being pro-active in local participation, local council and policies, increasing their citizenship, etc.