Urban community gardens can improve city life – but we have to help them


Urban community gardens offer the potential to positively transform our urban landscapes. They provide us with space for recreation, community development, and help to mitigate the urban heat island effect. However, many urban community gardens struggle simply to exist, much less thrive.

I have been researching the problems that community groups such as urban community gardens face in transforming our society. Recently, I along with a colleague have been working to understand the causes and effects of the relationship urban gardens have with local governments (Check out an episode of the Sustainable Transitions Podcast on urban community gardens with that colleague here). What we uncovered was the power that local governments and larger non-profits have over the organizations, and how that made it difficult for urban community gardens to do their work.

Understand the power local governments have over urban gardens

We found that urban community gardens often have little in the way of money or resources. Instead the gardens have to rely on others to acquire these resources. This creates a situation called resource dependence – a fancy term that generally means “you need me so I have control over you.” This plays out in local governments and larger organizations having a lot of say in what the gardens can and can’t do. For example, the gardens may have to apply for grants in order to get money from the governments and those grants usually come with conditions. They could, for example, dictate that the garden has to have 10 members before it can apply for funding or limit the grants only to gardens that grow vegetables. This can take the garden away from its original goals – maybe the garden wanted to stay small with only 5 members or wanted to focus on growing unique types of flowers.

The worst of these impacts can be seen in groups looking for a permanent space to set up their garden. All of the gardens we interviewed had to rely upon the local government to provide them with this space. The gardens often had to move several times and often were still under threat of having to move again. This led to urban community gardens not investing in their space. If you are not sure how long you are going to be at a particular spot- why would you invest your limited resources into it? Would you really build a nice fence or perhaps spend money on a shed? I think not. Instead you would take a wait and see approach.

On top of all of this, urban community gardens also had to compete with developers for the limited number of undeveloped spaces within the city. Developers have more money and often more pull with local government. The result is that brownfields and other such undeveloped sites are frequently given to developers instead of community gardens. Even when community gardens existed on a given site, they were sometimes kicked out in favor of developers.

Why this hurts the gardens longer term sustainability

However, the problems do not end there. While the relationship that urban community gardens have with the local government can cause problems described above- those initial problems then lead to other internal problems for the gardens.

How does this happen? Well, for example, this happens because of the limited number of spaces for urban community gardens and the competition with developers- urban communities gardens are often given space that is not very good for gardening. All of the gardens we interviewed had poor quality soil that needed to be improved which usually means spending their limited funds on purchasing soil and raised beds. For some gardens it also meant that they could not grow food to eat, since the soil was contaminated. Another example includes issues such as the garden having an inability to prevent members of the public from vandalizing the garden because of the rules imposed on the garden to be allowed to occupy the space.

Okay, so why does this matter? Well, all of these problems cause a lot of frustration for the members of the gardens. Who wants to garden if you cannot grow vegetables? Or if your flowers die because you cannot water them? So, often people eventually leave the garden if the problems continue. It also becomes difficult for the garden facing these types of issues to get new members to replace those leaving. This is because few people want to join a garden that is struggling.

This matters because if people are leaving the garden and no new members are joining, it’s hard for the garden to continue their work. We cannot expect an urban community garden to contribute positively to their community and any sort of urban landscape transition if they are bleeding people.

There is a lot we can do

But it is not all doom and gloom. There is a lot that local governments, communities, and gardens themselves can do, for example:

  1. Balance needs to be found between green spaces and development. Few would doubt the need for new apartments in our cities, but we also need adequate green spaces for recreation and to mitigate the urban heat island effect. This means local governments realizing the importance of including urban community gardens in their planning, communities advocating for gardens in their local communities, and gardens spreading awareness of the benefits of having a garden in the neighborhood.

  2. Encourage urban community gardens to diversify their income streams. For local governments this can mean grants to help community gardens set up other income streams. For the community, this can mean visiting the garden and purchasing vegetables, donating, or visiting the garden’s café. For the gardens themselves this can mean renting out flower beds or taking on jobs from companies.

  3. Making spaces permanently available to urban community gardens. This is one mostly local government can do a lot about through city planning. However, community and gardens can also advocate and campaign for local government to provide these spaces permanently to gardens.

By focusing on the relationship between urban community gardens and local government, we can prevent or lessen the initial problems arising out of this. Then, with luck, the gardens will not only have fewer problems, but will be better able to focus on the benefits they provide to their communities.

Want to learn more about this topic? Why not check out the journal article:

Becker, S. and von der Wall, G. (2018) “Tracing regime influence on urban community gardening: How resource dependence causes barriers to garden longer term sustainability” Urban Forestry & Urban Greening. 35: 82-90. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1618866718300116