How Community Gardens Help (And Even Hurt)

Urban gardens obviously provide food, but they also get kids to actually eat their vegetables. Arina P Habich/Shutterstock

Community gardening seems like a no-brainer. Participants get together, grow food and create bonds. It has so many benefits, ranging from increased nutrition to saving money to improving the area with green space.

At least that's how community gardens appear to work. Recently, three staffers from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future took an in-depth look at the positives and negatives of these gardens to learn more. Raychel Santo, Anne Palmer and Brent Kim called their incisive 35-page report, "Vacant Lots to Vibrant Plots: A Review of the Benefits and Limitations of Urban Agriculture."

Social and cultural advantages

people working in community garden
A community garden brings together people of various cultures, backgrounds and ages. d-olwen-dee [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

It makes sense that if people are regularly working together to clear weeds, plant seeds, water and harvest plants, they'll form friendships. And that's what the researchers found: Creating a garden increases social bonds among neighbors and people of diverse backgrounds, according to many studies.

The researchers write: "[Community gardens] bridge gaps, reduce existing tensions, and foster social integration between otherwise segregated groups by bringing people of diverse races/ethnicities, cultures, religions, socioeconomic classes, genders, ages, and educational backgrounds together to participate in shared activities with a common purpose."

The gardens themselves become gathering places for people to meet and interact. And that's especially key in neighborhoods where there are few open, green spaces where people can gather.

Research also shows that where there are community gardens, there's often a drop in crime rates. That can be due to a stronger sense of community, not to mention that these former vacant lots may have once been crime magnets.

Those are the positives.

The researchers also found that not all gardens are so inclusive.

"A number of case studies have found that urban farms and gardens ... have been led by mostly young, white non-residents in predominantly black and/or Latino neighborhoods excluding people of color from participating in or reaping the benefits of such efforts."

Education and community involvement

People who spend time in a garden learn about food, nutrition, agriculture and sustainability. They develop new skills. Plus, gardening is a constructive youth activity, especially in neighborhoods where there might not be a lot for young people to do.

Working in the community may also plant the seed for greater activism.

"As they shift from being passive consumers of food to becoming co-producers and gain increased control over how their food is produced and distributed, participants become what some scholars refer to as 'food citizens,' " the researchers write.

Their involvement in the urban garden may catalyze civic engagement in other areas such as community organizing and fundraising, encouraging them to get involved with other issues that impact their communities.

Environmental impact

compost bin in the garden
Composting is one of the environmental benefits of a community garden. Evan Lorne/Shutterstock

It's obvious that growing plants means lots of good things for the environment. The report names many benefits including:

  • Reduced air pollution through filtration of particulates
  • More habitat for pollinators
  • Increased rainwater drainage
  • Recycling of organic waste through composting
  • Reducing the urban "heat island" effect

Small community gardens seem like an environmentally friendly alternative to large-scale industrial farming where the negatives are well-known, ranging from increased fossil fuel use to soil depletion and air and water pollution. But small-scale urban gardens have drawbacks too. They typically use of water, fertilizer and pesticides less efficiently than industrial agriculture operations. And often more fuel is needed in situations where people drive to the garden instead of walking.

All about food

little girl working in garden
When children work in a garden, they're more likely to eat the food they grow. Katya Shut/Shutterstock

Probably the clearest advantage of a garden is the food doors it opens. An urban garden provides more access to fresh fruits and vegetables to not only the gardeners themselves, but also the greater community when food is donated to other members. That means cost savings on grocery bills, as well as access to healthier foods that might otherwise be unaffordable.

"Urban agriculture supplements household, community and municipal food security with seasonal and culturally-appropriate foods, and if knowledge sharing and long-term land tenure are adequately supported, may offer resilience in the face of temporary future food shortages," the researchers write.

When children participate in the gardening program, there's a willingness to try the fruits and vegetables that they've grown. When they've tilled the soil, planted the seeds, and watched them grow into real food, children are much more likely to eat the food they've cultivated.

Working in the garden offers physical and mental health benefits from exercise to stress reduction. Yet, there are also negatives. There are health risks to growers, the researchers point out, including the possibility of exposure to soil contaminants and airborne pollutants.

The economic impact

abandoned lot
Gardens can increase property values in a community, especially when they replace vacant lots. madabandon [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr

Sometimes, having a community garden can increase property values in a neighborhood. That can have a domino effect, leading to capital investment and other improvements in the area.

Although the researchers didn't find that these gardens typically create lots of employment opportunities, there are other economic benefits.

"While large-scale job creation potential has not been demonstrated, urban agriculture projects offer valuable opportunities for skills development, workforce training, and supplemental income generation," they write. "These may be particularly helpful for neighborhood youth, immigrants, the differently abled, and the formerly-incarcerated, though external financial support will likely be necessary to support the extra time and expertise needed to operate such initiatives."

They suggest that the real benefits of community gardens will only be reached with adequate, long-term funding from local, state and federal governments.