Several years ago, as a graduate student, I participated in a school-based community garden serving at-risk students in a working class community. Since then, I have witnessed a tremendous growth of public gardens sprouting up in and around the community in which I live. Churches, schools, and what were previously empty lots are now lush with raised bed gardens and busy green thumbs. These suburban and city farmers are continuing a long tradition in America—one that can empower communities and promote climate solutions.
As Important Now as Ever
Community gardens have a rich history in the United States, and have roots in the victory garden movement that began during the First World War, when produce and other food was scarce and expensive. In a time of great urgency, Americans were called on to take action, and residents in neighborhoods throughout the nation answered that call.
Today, we are in a similar situation, but this time the challenge isn’t war, it’s climate change. More and more communities are facing the challenging consequences of climate change, and they can see the effects in their daily life. Americans are skeptical that representatives in D.C. are serious about climate action, and are looking to mayors and members of their community for leadership. One climate solution that any mayor can add to their climate toolkit is support for community gardens.
Community gardens are powerful climate tools, and just as powerful at building stronger neighborhoods. Families enjoy living near green, natural spaces, parks, and community gardens, where their children can play and where they can gain the psychological benefits of being closer to nature. Such spaces have all been found to increase property values for homeowners, too. Gardens also facilitate educational opportunities. They are outdoor laboratories for students and residents to hold educational programs, to learn about gardening, local flora and fauna, and connect with nature. Extensive research has been conducted linking gardening to better educational outcomes, including improved performance on scientific literacy tests, higher grades across all subjects, increased nutritional awareness, and better classroom behavior. Community gardens also yield healthy, local, often organic produce which can be sold at local farmers’ markets, integrated into school lunch programs, or donated to families or shelters. All told, more gardens in our neighborhoods make cities better places to live.
Why Gardens Are Climate Solutions
Community gardens empower residents by providing more choices for nutritional produce, better educational opportunities, and a way for residents to improve the livability of their community. They also offer powerful tools for communities to address the causes and consequences of climate change. For instance, growing produce locally cuts carbon miles, and reduces the consumption of fossil fuels necessary to stock the aisles of your grocery store. Vegetation and greenery reflect solar radiation, which has been shown to decrease the heat island effect experienced in suburban and downtown areas—decreasing the need for expensive air conditioning during warm summer months. More green spaces in our cities help to reduce pollution, decrease the scope of erosion, and can increase the local habitat for native wildlife. All of these are feasible, concrete actions that communities can undertake to address and minimize climate impacts.
What Cities Can Do
Community gardens often pop up in schools, churches, or empty lots without the help of mayors or city leaders. However, having the full support of local government can help ensure that gardens flourish, and magnify the benefits that such gathering places can provide. These are three simple steps that you can take in your city:
- Provide open spaces; the first, and often most difficult step in starting a community garden is identifying an ideal location. Rather than relying on purchasing open lots to locate a garden, cities can make their communities green by allowing gardens to be planted on unused city property. If such spaces don’t exist, cities can simply provide designated areas in existing parks, schools, or even raised beds outside of city buildings.
- Create a city garden program: many cities are finding success by incorporating community gardens into an existing parks and recreation department within city government. This provides stability, long-term planning, and financial support to build permanent community garden projects.
- Encourage participation: city and municipal leaders can leverage resources from actors throughout the community to support community gardens. Schools can provide a steady stream of students and unused spaces where gardens can be located. Businesses can help by donating seeds, tools, supplies or money to maintain and grow the gardens. Nonprofits can help to promote and provide the knowledge base to start and sustain gardens, and most importantly, to get residents involved in the projects.
What these gardens have in common is that they become a gathering point for residents and families. They bring diverse members of the community, who might never meet otherwise, together through a shared experience. Community gardens make healthier cities and nurture better-educated and environmentally aware students. But to get the most from community gardens, city action is needed. Mayors must work with partners from churches, nonprofits, schools, businesses, and the community to foster the best environment for strong, sustained programs. To learn more about collaborating and building a strong network for climate action, join with the bold leaders at Path to Positive Communities.