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Building Community Through Gardens

April 27, 2011, 6:43 AM

The increasing number of urban gardens that are springing up across cities like Washington, D.C. are much more than the addition of new green space, they are important sites of citizen connection and network building.  That's the argument today of Lindsey Flick, a student in this semesters "Science, the Environment and the Media" course at American University -- MCN.

Throughout the District of Columbia and many other urban areas, community gardens have recently become a fashionable trend. These gardens, often just small plots of underutilized urban space, give neighbors the chance to try their hand at gardening, even if they have no land to call their own.  Taking small areas of land to create these gardens has many lasting benefits to the community. The environmental benefit of growing some of your own food is quite large, as is the human health benefits of both the act of gardening and the decreased reliance on processed foods. Not only do community gardens bring additional green space to a local neighborhood, but they also can bring people together in ways that may have not been possible without the gardens.

            The DC area’s collection of community gardens is small but growing. While there are a handful of gardens that have been around for years, many other gardens are just starting up or being completely revitalized as a new wave of urbanites focused on sustainable and ethical eating move into the city. The Neighborhood Farm Initiative is a nonprofit organization in DC looking specifically to increase the accessibility to and sheer number of community gardens throughout the District. As of 2010, there were 36 community gardens within the borders of DC alone; this was up one in number from the 2009 growing season. Check out their DC map, complete with links to basic information about all of the gardens in DC here. No matter where you live throughout DC, there is most likely a garden near you.

            One garden, albeit a small one, in D.C. is the Waterside Community Garden, located in the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood. The garden has 12 plots that are currently being tended by 10 gardeners (2 gardeners each have 2 plots). For just $60 a year, which covers the use of shared supplies, water, and a dumpster, these 10 gardeners grow a wide selection of vegetables, herbs, raspberries and flowers. Camille Cook, manager of the garden, noted that they do not advertise in general to the public, as there is already a long waiting list for the garden. They do, however, get a lot of attention from people simply walking by in the neighborhood or from people who see the list and send her an email. While it is not the biggest community garden, it brings the residents of the neighborhood together for fun, exercise, food, and the contribution to the beauty of the community.

Green Space that Builds Community Social Capital

            Social change and civic engagement is another side effect of the growth of urban community gardens. People from the community all meet and become connected in ways that previously may have never occurred. A study of community gardeners in Denver, Colorado observed that garden participants enjoyed the gardening for its explicit benefits but also benefitted from the true feeling of community that they received by being a part of the garden. One gardener told stories of learning to cook new cuisines from the many cultures represented by the members of the garden while another noted that the mutual trust they had in each other helped to create a new community. Collective decision making and open communication was noted as a major component of the garden, allowing for open participation by all members and that all major decisions were decided as a group.

            Montgomery County, Maryland is celebrating a new victory in its push for more community gardens. Montgomery Victory Gardens, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Silver Spring, MD, recently helped to push through new legislation to incorporate the community gardening movement into the local schools. MVG supports local agriculture throughout the county and is currently looking to expand a community garden program. The inclusion of gardens in the Montgomery County Schools has been one of their biggest accomplishments to date, the culmination of many conversations, letters, and hard work.

            Community gardens are not just a passing fad; they are here to stay. These gardens help to bring vibrancy to the community and can benefit human and environmental health. Through organizations like the Neighborhood Farm Initiative and Montgomery Victory Gardens, these gardens will hopefully continue to grow and prosper, creating centers of informal communication and social change.

-- Guest post by Lindsey Flick, an undergraduate majoring in Environmental Science at American University, Washington, DC.  This post is part of the course "Science, Environment, and the Media" taught by Professor Matthew Nisbet in the School of Communication at American.  See also other posts on the food policy by Winn and members of her project team.



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