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Shefali Bhattarya's questions

  • Subject: [cg] Shefali Bhattarya's questions
  • From: Don Boekelheide dboekelheide@yahoo.com
  • Date: Tue, 22 Mar 2005 03:35:36 -0800 (PST)

Hello, Shefali and all,

Thanks very much for your questions, and for your
interest in researching community gardens as part of
your doctoral dissertation. Community gardens can
benefit enormously from research, both by gaining
information that helps improve their design and
management, and by helping build the case for
supporting community gardens with data that goes
beyond heartwarming anecdotes. I commend your efforts
to find ways to include community gardens in city
master plans.

In my responses, I hope you won't mind a question or
two for you, as well.

I first encourage you to contact Ms. Betsy Johnson,
Executive Director of ACGA (American Community
Gardening Association), for more answers to your
questions. She is at betsyjohnson@communitygarden.org,
and she can put you in contact with officers of the
organization and members around North America.

Finally, before my very brief replies, let me
encourage you to submit a short (1000 word) article
based on your research, after you finish, to the
annual publication of ACGA, currently named The
Community Greening Review. The 2006 edition will focus
on community garden research. You may send it to my
email address, dboekelheide@yahoo.com.

>  Currently I am working on my dissertation which
> focuses on developing a
> strategy for integrating Urban Agriculture
> (community gardens) in the
> city masterplan.

My question - what discipline or department are you
getting your doctorate in?

I'm aware of several studies and essays on the subject
of how community gardens fit into urban agriculture.
The answer seems to depend on how broadly you define
community gardening, and where the gardens are

If you look at the developing world, for instance,
such as the large vegetable-growing market gardens in
West African cities (that share many characteristics
with 'allotment' type community gardens), community
gardens fit very well. (Allotments are where each
gardener has an individual plot, as opposed to areas
gardened by a group). 

In US cities, however, some farmers see community
gardens as competition, since they produce the same
products that small farmers are trying to grow -
especially when a community garden begins growing 'for
sale to restaurants'. The water gets even muddier when
you consider hybrids, such as farmers in urban areas
creating community gardens ('rent-a-plot' or group
community supported agriculture (CSAs)  as a way to
manage land and survive); and where community gardens
are created as part of urban 'green space', to
'preserve agricultural heritage' - where a farm family
has just been pushed off the land by urban sprawl.

My own personal take: 

Community gardens are one valuable component of 'urban
agriculture', but not by any means the only important

Four key elements community gardens (which come in a
wide variety of forms) bring to urban agriculture are
1. Participatory mechanisms for building cohesion and
increased access to political power for neighborhoods;
2. improved nutrition and health through access to
fresh food and a place to be outdoors; 3. creating a
'patch of Eden' (a green space) in the largely paved
and built-over urban landscape that's personal in
scale and accessible to the wider community; and 4. an
environmental 'island' for some measure of
biodiversity amidst intense human habitation. There is
a 5. economic benefits. The jury is out on this point,
in my opinion - while gardens are credited with
increasing the value of neighborhoods (home values,
attracting new development - a double edged sword if
there ever was one, for community gardeners) and there
are some very interesting job programs and economic
development projects out there (ask Betsy), the record
is mixed on their sustainability.

> I am right now interviewing the
> local gardeners to find
> out the benefits of gardening to them. From speaking
> to many gardeners
> now, I have come to know that they all feel that
> benefits from community
> gardening are vast and diverse. 

The data supports you (and them) on this point.
> Another component of my research deals with
> proposing some more (new)
> suitable sites in Gainesville for community gardens.
> But before this I
> have to identify some preconditions to community
> gardening for the City
> of Gainesville and therefore have to define a
> criteria for proposing new
> garden sites. I am using GIS for this. I would like
> to seek your
> suggestions for this component of my research. 

Quite a good idea.
> I am looking for various criteria (both formal
> research based and non
> research based are OK with me) for proposing new
> garden sites in a city
> (e.g. nearness to a neighborhood or nearness to bus
> route etc). I would
> appreciate if you all can provide some input in
> this. I am eager to see
> what the criteria are and if they differ from city
> to city depending
> upon city characteristics e.g. city size etc. or
> they are more or less
> the same.

You are right that things differ in different places -
please keep us informed about what you find out.

My take: In US cities like Charlotte, NC (population
of metro area about 1,000,000, very fast growing (and
sprawling) 'new south' city), where the automobile is
king, a fundamental question is 'how close are the
gardeners to the garden'? 

If they drive, gardeners want bigger plots (roughly 36
m2, or 500 ft2). In such cases, often a peri-urban
site is ideal, where there is space to expand as the
garden gets established. Here, we often find such
space in county-owned parkland, obtained as the city
expands. In many cases, what 5 years ago was a
farmer's field is now becoming a community garden. For
these kinds of gardens, GIS (at the relatively
primitive level available to the public through the
county website) is a very useful tool. However, you
still need to 'calibrate' on the ground - GIS doesn't
show weeds and problems, like a stand of Johnsongrass
or an outbreak of fire ants.

In more densely populated areas where people walk to
their garden, individual plots are usually smaller, 9
m2 (100 ft2) or even half that and less. For these
situations, GIS might be a distraction - these are
best sited by gardeners themselves on lots near their
homes. A couple of conditions on this, though - GIS
might reveal city or publicly-owned land available for
gardens; you might be able to do a virtual 'fly over'
to spot, say, churches or businesses with suitable
areas that are 'hidden' and through GIS-based real
estate systems you can identify owners of 
'abandoned' lots so you can approach them about a
community garden.

Both gardens increasingly reserve space for a 'park'
open to all - an approach done beautifully by the
Clinton Community Garden in the middle of Manhattan
(where Adam Honigman gardens), which features an
'outer' garden for the public, with gathering space,
wildflowers, all kinds of good stuff, and an inner
garden of allotments. I'm not sure how GIS would be
helpful for this essential 'human factors' design.

In short, I'd see GIS as one useful tool among many,
especially in the early phases of finding a site. I've
found the 'overview' helpful in drawing garden plans
for larger gardens. As for sustaining the garden or
human factors - it isn't of all that great a value,
I'm afraid.

> Hope to hear from you. 

In closing, you certainly have heard from us, Shefali!

Community gardens, like the community garden movement
as a whole, or a healthy ecosystem, are a diverse
mosaic of plants and people. No one voice speaks for
all community gardeners. Sometimes the greatest
harvest from a community garden comes from lessons in
patience and compassion, such as those learned dealing
with a good person who - coping with a personal
tragedy - might be having a very bad day. It's this
face-to-face personal nature of community gardening
that is so deeply valuable in an increasingly
impersonal and technologically-moderated world. I
commend you for getting out into the garden to talk
with people, and urge you to always bear the human
dimension in mind as you explore the potential of
powerful but distant perspective of GIS.

Cheers and good luck, please keep us posted on all
your discover - and may your committee be good one,

Don Boekelheide
Charlotte, NC

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