How Gardening Brings Communities Together

This is a story about one group's effort to reclaim a vandalized space.

friends on a rooftop garden

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There are plenty of examples of ways in which gardening can bring communities together. As a garden designer, I have worked on many communal gardening schemes. The inspiring examples I have encountered give me hope for stronger, more resilient communities, while also confirming my belief that we can resolve many conflicts and avoid "othering" by growing and gardening together. Here is one real world example that shows how gardening can bring communities together.

Reclaiming Space, Building Community

In a rough inner-city area in the eastern U.S., a small brownfield site was a lawless jungle where vandals ruled. Broken glass, a rusted-out car, and mindless graffiti turned the space into a "no-go" zone for most of the area's inhabitants. Drug use was an issue, and teenaged arsonists had, on several occasions, set the area ablaze.

A small group of people living nearby decided that enough was enough. Seeking a resolution, they set up a small nonprofit to turn the area into a community space—a space of healing, hope, and growth, not destruction and despair. 

Moving in (with the absent landowner's permission), the group realized early on that those who were using the space, however inappropriately, must have a say in how it would be used. They had a problem, though—how to engage those using the site and avoid the sense that they were just sweeping in and taking over. At night, a group of mostly teenagers gathered here, but outsiders were not welcome. The group arranged a meeting, but no one came.

Starting the Conversation

Thinking outside the box, they started with one simple idea—installing a white wall where anyone could leave their thoughts about the future of the site. At the top was one question: "What should we do with this space for our community?"

Not all of the suggestions were constructive. But slowly, the group itself and others using the site began to see some progress. The group kicked things off with some simple ideas, such as "a place to grow some food," "a place to meet up," "a creative space." A breakthrough was made. "We should have somewhere to sit in rain," someone scrawled. Someone else had drawn a tree.

Slowly, those who would not usually have a voice in such discussions began to weigh in. One surprising addition to the wall was an amazing artwork of a couple sitting on a bench eating a picnic. Someone else said, "Clean up first."

The group began to clear the site, reusing materials that could be saved and removing the rest. One day, a couple of young men showed up and just started helping. They did not say much. Some other people passing by also took an interest and joined in. One of them said, after the men left, that they had seen them mucking around on the site at night and to "watch out for those two."

The group made a small sheltered area out of reclaimed wood with a bench seat inside. There were concerns that this would not last long, but over the weeks it remained. And, remarkably, over the next week or two, it was added to and improved. Someone added a small side table. A string of LED lights arrived. Colorful artwork was created.

The group added four small raised beds, planting some lettuce, radishes, and peas in one of them, with labels saying what each of them were. They left a box of seeds in the shelter and waited to see what would happen.

The seeds disappeared and the group made plans to continue with their own planting. But a few days later, the group arrived on site to find some young people laughing and chatting. They were sowing the seeds. "We can put these where we want, yeah?" asked one.

Gradually, as plants began to grow, there was far more interaction between the group and those who used the site after dark. People who had never gardened before slowly got involved. The site became used far more during the day, not just after dark.

A Sense of Ownership Turns Vandals Into Growers

In spite of fears that vandals would wreck what had been achieved, the site was left unharmed and gradually begin to improve. 

One young man, harvesting carrots, admitted that he had been so bored before that he had set fire to a petrol can. Now he was growing his own food. He and his girlfriend had plans to start a windowsill garden in their new rental.

Each day the groups became more involved with one another. Some were keen to learn more about how to grow plants. One evening there was a barbecue and they cooked up some of the things they had grown. Someone had a birthday party and was given a tree, which they planted in a new bed in one corner of the space. The plans were coming together.

This is just one example, and yes, damage may sometimes occur. But as this project shows, when people feel a sense of belonging and a sense of agency and autonomy, they are far less likely to destroy—and far more likely to enjoy communal spaces.