According to the USDA, as much as 15 percent of the world’s food is now grown in urban areas. City and suburban agriculture takes the form of backyard, roof-top and balcony gardening, community gardening in vacant lots and parks, roadside urban fringe agriculture and livestock grazing in open space.
Significant growth in urban agriculture has occurred in the past five years as many U.S. cities have seen firsthand the value that community gardens bring. According to cities like Nashville, Arlington, Milwaukee and Sacramento with community gardens in place, these efforts strengthen community bonds, provide food, and create recreational and therapeutic opportunities for a community. Some cities have seen resident’s property values increase and crime decrease. The gardens have also provided a means to promote environmental awareness and provide community education.
Other cities are supporting the same benefits of urban agriculture on a somewhat smaller scale through tree planting programs that also enhance the aesthetic of city neighborhoods. Programs like Baltimore’s TreeBaltimore and Raleigh’s NeighborWoods program not only provide trees to city residents through grant funding, they offer care for existing city trees and promote citizen stewardship of trees.
If your community is considering exploring a garden or a tree planting program, consider these pointers from the Local Government Commission:
- Create a municipal community garden program
The P-Patch Community Garden Program, operating under the City of Seattle’s Department of Parks and Recreation, protects the longevity of community gardens by acquiring land with open space funds. This program currently has more than 54 operating gardens throughout Seattle. The not-for-profit P-Patch Trust works in conjunction with Seattle P-Patch to acquire, build, preserve and protect the gardens. The P-Patch Trust provides advocacy, outreach and educational programs to P-Patch gardeners.
- Create a municipally funded nonprofit organization to support community gardens or tree planting programs
NeighborSpace is a nonprofit organization funded through and operating in the city of Chicago, the Chicago Parks District, and the Cook County Forest Preserve District, which is empowered to acquire property to preserve land for community gardens. NeighborSpace acts as a land-trust for community gardens and accepts liability for the site. Since 1996, NeighborSpace has acquired more than 50 sites throughout Chicago for preservation as community garden space.
- Include community gardens and trees in your general/comprehensive plan
Berkeley, California’s general plan states that the city will “encourage and support community gardens as important open space resources that build communities and provide a local food source” in the open space element. Berkeley’s general plan lists action steps, which include pursuing community gardens in specific new developments and high-density areas.
- Allow zoning for tree planting and community gardens
Boston established a specific community garden category that can be zoned as a sub-district within an open space zoning district. Identifying prime locations for community gardens aides in their creation and emphasizes the importance of this use to the city.
- Create a community garden and trees committee
San Francisco has a community gardens policy committee that works to implement the community garden objectives established in the city’s general plan. The objectives currently include expanding community garden opportunities throughout the city by establishing policies and implementing garden standards. The committee’s policy recommendations are taken to the Recreation and Park Commission for consideration at a public meeting. Be sure to thank those community members willing to volunteer their time with mementos of appreciation, like recycled notebooks, Go Green lapel pins or really wow them with a garden tool kit.
- Provide an easily accessible inventory of all vacant public/private lots and open spaces
Open Accessible Space Information System Cooperative (OASIS NYC) is a collaborative of federal, state, city, nonprofit and private organizations that provide online maps of all open space in New York City to help enhance the stewardship of open space. The USDA Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service were founding partners and funders, and local and state departments provide data and information services. Offer the same in your community by hosting similar information online or provide city buildings—like libraries and town halls—with binders or file keepers that contain this information.
- Promote the benefits of community gardens and recruit participants
Community gardens are an affordable option for many cities because community volunteers are primarily responsible for the upkeep and the overall success of the efforts. But this also means that active participants are necessary to launching any community garden or tree planting program. Communicate new programs to constituents on a regular basis to recruit volunteers. Promotional items, such as organic grocery totes or Promo Planters branded with your city’s logo and the name of your garden program are sure to help spread the word.
With financial support from grants and the federal government and the backing of constituents, community gardens can provide great opportunities for cities to explore the benefits of urban agriculture.
Perhaps your city may even realize that when you grow together, you grow together.
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