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Growing Community Gardens in Cities

An eighth excerpt from the recently released book published by Island Press called Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. In this post, we look at some cities who have created parkland by adding community gardens to underutilized spaces.

Community gardens are a vastly underappreciated and underprovided resource for cities, both at ground level and on rooftops. As reported by University of Illinois Landscape Architecture Professor Laura Lawson in her excellent book City Bountiful, surveys from the 1970s and 1980s revealed that while gardening was Americans’ favorite outdoor leisure activity, somewhere between 7 million and 18 million people wanted to garden but weren’t able to because they did not have the space. With today’s higher population, including millions of immigrants who live in cities but still have deep cultural attachments to agriculture, the situation is now unquestionably more severe. In a nation engulfed by profligate use of land, the irony is hard to miss.

Not only does the Central Bainbridge St. Community Garden produce thousands of pounds of vegetables, it also serves as a hub of activity in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant community. Credit: Avery Wham.

Community gardens do not have full-fledged pedigrees as parks, but they are certainly members of the extended family, and they are overwhelmingly urban. Coming in a diversity of forms, they can provide beauty, supply food, educate youth, build confidence, reduce pesticide exposure, grow social capital, preserve mental health, instill pride, and raise property values. In 2008, The Trust for Public Land’s survey of the park systems of the seventy-seven largest cities revealed 682 gardens (and 12,988 individual garden plots) specifically owned by park departments and located on urban parkland.

The national movement has a great deal of exuberant vitality, demonstrated even by place names and their fostering organizations: the Garden of Eatin’, Queen Pea Garden, Harlem Rose Garden, Jes’ Good Rewards Children’s Garden, Paradise on Earth, Garden Resources of Washington (GROW), Denver Urban Gardens (DUG), Boston Urban Gardeners (BUG), San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG), and Los Angeles’ Gardening Angels. But the movement is also severely underfunded, poorly organized, and subject to a bruisingly high level of burnout and turnover. (GROW, SLUG and BUG have all gone out of business.)

Put simply, between the legalities, the neighbors, and the typical challenges of soil and weather, urban agriculture is extraordinarily difficult, even more difficult than running normal public parks. But, community gardens make extremely efficient use of space. An area that could barely fit a single tennis court might hold 75 garden plots; a soccer field might be replaced with 300 or more. Moreover, gardens can be placed close to streets and railroads because they have no errant balls bouncing into traffic.

Most cities have plenty of underused or even unused chunks of parks that could be developed into community gardens. Even super-crowded places like Jersey City and San Francisco have parkland that is essentially unvisited. That doesn’t automatically mean it’s perfect for gardening–it may be too shady or too deep within a big park to be reachable by potential gardeners–but those drawbacks might be fixable through tree trimming or park redesign. Gardens need to be near edges where they can be seen and where people, vehicles, and irrigation water can easily reach them. But putting a garden near an edge helps open up the next internal ring of the park to greater use, thus gradually reclaiming what might be a no-man’s land in the interior.

On the other hand, putting a community garden into an existing park could well mean not putting in a soccer field, dog park, or memorial grove that some other constituency wants. Thus, developing a new, standalone community garden leaves existing parkland unmolested and raises the tide for everyone. (It also provides a boost to home values in the surrounding community; a 2007 study by the New York University Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy found that gardens in New York’s poorest neighborhoods lifted property values by up to 9.4 percent after five years.)

A community garden program cannot be left to operate reactively. It must be designed to protect gardens at the beginning of the process, not at the end. Gardens must be clearly recognized as an integral part of a city’s park system, and they should be included in all redevelopment projects–particularly those that are high-density and that are marketed to former suburbanites who may love all aspects of the city except its lack of gardening space. As of 2009, the only city that has a truly sophisticated garden structure is Seattle. Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and several other places have relatively strong private-sector agencies or public-private partnerships that own, hold and support significant numbers of community gardens, but only Seattle’s P-Patch program proactively plans, sites, negotiates, sets rules, and protects gardens throughout the city.

With 68 gardens totaling 23 acres and containing 1,900 plots cultivated by 3,800 gardeners, Seattle's P-Patch is the national model for a city-run community gardening program. Credit: Seattle P-Patch Program.

P-Patch, which began in 1973 and was named after Rainie Picardo, the farmer who first allowed residents to begin gardening on his land, once even counted as a gardening member Mayor Wes Ulhman. Today P-Patch has sixty-eight gardens, an annual budget of $650,000 and a staff of six, and Seattle has more garden plots per capita than any other major city. Even more impressive, Seattle’s City Council passed a formal resolution supporting community gardens and recommending their co-location on other city-owned property. The city’s comprehensive plan calls for a standard of one garden for every 2,000 households in high-density neighborhoods (known in Seattle as “urban villages”). Nevertheless, despite this abundance, P-Patch still has a waiting list of 1,900 persons; in crowded neighborhoods that translates to three to four years.

Standalone gardens need not be slotted only to old home sites. One particularly promising locale is along rail lines, both abandoned and active. Community gardens have already been created alongside the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad Trail in Arlington, Virginia; the Ohlone Trail in Berkeley, California, and the Capital City Trail in Madison, Wisconsin. In Queens, New York, the Long Island City Roots Garden was created directly over the tracks of the unused-but-not-abandoned Degnon Terminal Railroad. (To prevent official abandonment the railroad required that the tracks be retained, so the gardeners bulldozed out 140 cubic yards of garbage and covered the rails with 160 cubic yards of clean dirt; the garden is a train-shaped 26 feet wide and 145 feet long.)

While gardens alongside rail trails are fine, they don’t actually increase the amount of parkland in a city. To do that requires moving up to the next level: creating community gardens alongside non-abandoned rail lines. This is a tougher challenge but has an added benefit since there are few parts of a city less attractive than the edges of a railroad. Some analysts are convinced that rail ridership would jump up a few notches solely if the view was pleasanter. Back in the 1960s, Lady Bird Johnson spearheaded the remarkably successful highway beautification program, but no subsequent first lady (or anyone else) has taken on what might today be called an extreme track makeover program. Could gardens lead the way?

One notable success is in Madison, Wisconsin, where the St. Paul Avenue Garden operates under a license with the Wisconsin Central Railroad, a subsidiary of Canadian National Railways. The line is lightly used by low-speed freight traffic, so there is not even a fence alongside the tracks. The 72-plot, 25-foot-wide garden runs for about two blocks in an intense utility corridor that includes a buried fiber-optic cable and an overhead high-tension line. “It used to be a dumping ground sort of place,” explained Joe Mathers, garden specialist with the Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin. “Then, in the early 1980s Madison got a lot of Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia so we started looking for land for them to farm. We were in a recession so there was land available. When the economy improved development resumed and we lost some spaces. But we should always be able to hang on to this garden–nothing is permitted to be built here.”

There are a scattering of community gardens alongside rail lines in Chicago, some consisting of flower gardens to beautify station areas, and there is a garden in the Bronx, New York, alongside a large railroad storage yard. In both those cities, the rail owners are public agencies–Metra and the MTA, respectively. Public rail agencies may be more amenable to leasing or licensing trackside space than private train operators, although no detailed study of opportunities has yet been carried out.

Read more about the benefits of community gardens in an earlier post.

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