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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Community Gardens Are Good Neighbors

Good fences make good neighbors. This old adage is true but it is only the beginning of being a good neighbor for community gardeners. Community Gardens can be seen as a positive neighborhood resource offering neighborhood residents space to grow vegetables, herbs and flowers, a place to meet neighbors, habitat for birds and insects and an amenity that improves property values .

Surprise, surprise, Community Gardens are not always seen as good neighbors. Other residents might see a community garden as a nuisance that brings unwanted visitors to the neighborhood both human and rat. Next door neighbors might be upset about noise, smells or problems with their buildings possibly caused by the garden. I know of a case where an adjacent landlord would not allow the gardeners to divert rainwater from his downspout which was not more than 2 feet from the garden because he was upset that he could not purchase the garden lot, so he was not willing to support he gardens in any way. There are many instances where community gardeners and neighbors do not get along.

In a recent posting on the ACGA community garden list serv someone asked if anyone had a survey she could use to gauge neighborhood concerns about a new community garden in their neighborhood. While this might be a good tool to have, it seems to me that this is a case where if you have to ask then this might not be the place for a community garden. Successful community gardens are created from the ground up by community residents who want a garden in their neighborhood. Attempting to get agreement before the project starts from all neighbors is probably a good idea but fraught with possible scenarios for short circuiting the yet to be community garden. Just one neighbor could bring up a concern that the folks don't have an answer for because they haven't had a chance to create their vision and run it for a season. I am totally in favor of a community garden being governed by consensus with every member having a say but to allow a neighbor not involved in the garden to block a project does not make sense to me.

A community garden group has to spend quality time being good neighbors by being open to all to join or to visit. Having good signage that informs passersby about the garden is important. Making connections and developing collaborations with community organizations, schools, senior centers and day care centers takes time but shows that the community garden is a community amenity and not just a private garden. Knowing and listening to concerns of adjacent neighbors and making realistic adjustments based on these concerns once the garden is up and running is also part of being a good neighbor.

There are instances where a garden group can do everything to be a good neighbor and positive community resource but marginalized groups like homeless squatters, drug dealers or substance abusers will still see a community garden as a threat to their lifestyles. One such case happened about 6 weeks ago at the Hattie Carthan Community Garden in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. A fire burned their shed that was used to store supplies for their community market.

When I heard this my first thought was that a garden member that did not like the market or someone involved might have done this. There are times when infighting can cause real problems for a garden group. More likely it was squatters living in the abandoned building adjacent to the garden who were the arsonists unhappy that the market was drawing attention to their illegal activities. So here is a case where surveying the next door neighbors did not make sense, listening to their concerns (that the garden not exist?) would be ridiculous and that trying to be a good neighbor to these folks would be akin to abetting many criminal activities.

There are very community centric issues that one finds in a neighborhood like Bedford Stuyvesant that one might not find in a smaller less urbanized place. So how a community garden group relates to their neighbors will vary based on these local issues. As important as it is to work really hard at building a strong group, this strong group has to work really hard at being a good neighbor for the community garden to be successful and sustainable.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Lots of Community Gardening Research

Research about community gardening is happening on many fronts. Over the last few weeks news and events have come to my attention and I attended a workshop all concerning research on community gardening. The first was a simple notice on the ACGA listserv about a study in England that found that people who have allotment gardens (one of the European versions of community gardens that can be found in England, Sweden and France among other places) and especially seniors tended to be "significantly" healthier than those who did not have allotments. A relatively small study of around 180 subjects but none the less shows the health benefits of increased physical activity and eating fresh produce.

A second notice on the ACGA listserv announced an article that is a review of over 50 research studies over the past 10 years about community gardening in the Journal of Community Practice, a journal of research by and for social workers. 'Review and analysis of the Benefits, Purposes and Motivations Associated with Community Gardening in the United States' by Carrie Draper and Darcy Freedman analyze the research in terms of primary theme and secondary themes. They found that much of the research is qualitative with a dearth of quantitative research.

The Living Concrete/Carrot City exhibit at the New School also has been a forum for public panel discussions. The last in the series which I unfortunately missed was titled Engaging the University in Urban Agriculture. The premise was that much of the research up to this point has come from the land grant/ cooperative extension schools and focused more on the agriculture aspect of community gardening/urban agriculture. The need for a focus on additional liberal arts, social science and design research is clear. There has been some research as was pointed out in the 'Journal of Community Practice' article but there is a need for additional research, in particular qualitative research.

A workshop that I attended last week is the first step in a year long project titled Five Borough Farm: The Future of Farming in New York City that will look in depth at urban agriculture in New York City. A project of the Design Trust for Public Space that embarks on year long research initiatives relating to improving public space in the city. The workshop goal was to get input from practitioners and advocates before the research begins. Community gardening / urban agriculture in New York City is flourishing at the moment but so much is happening so quickly that it is hard to keep track of it all. What are the benefits of all of this activity? Are the outcomes from urban farms, rooftop farms, school and community gardens positive for the neighborhoods and the city? What are the variables we need to look at? Do the outputs justify the inputs? What are the social and political effects of all of this activity? There are many more questions and few answers.

These four publications and events point out how robust the community gardening movement is; much is happening and a lot of research has been done or is in progress to chronicle and measure what it all means.