Writer Abbye Churchill on why shared gardens are as important as ever in an increasingly urbanized world
Community gardens were designed to create a shared land resource. Most consider these spaces as we know them today to have originated with the practice of planting Victory Gardens during World War I and II in Canada, America, the United Kingdom, Germany, and across Europe. These vegetable, fruit, and herb gardens were created in private residences and public parks as a way to bolster the food supply during the lean times of war.
But community gardens predate all of this: for First Nations peoples in North America, the act of gardening has long been a community activity. In the 1890s, in cities like Detroit, San Francisco, and Boston, community gardens were planted during times of economic downturn to ensure food supplies were stable. Then, of course, there was all of human history: growing crops has always meant sharing labor and harvest, toil and treasure, with the people around you.
While community gardens may be nothing new, they are just as vital and important today as they were long ago. In our rush toward urbanization and the ensuing, inevitable overdevelopment, we have created food deserts where access to fresh produce is limited by cost or distance. Climate change is shifting growing patterns and, necessarily, practices. The ever-increasing industrialization and automation of food systems—and the corporations that benefit from production—continue to prioritize the availability of processed foods over fresh fruits and vegetables, even as our health suffers. And, as digital culture and work demands encroach on our time, who could have time to cook those vegetables anyway?
Taken as a whole, the state of food production in many industrialized countries can feel quite disempowering. What better way is there to take back the means of production, and your agency, than to start a garden? Around the world, this revolution is brewing. From small-scale steps like joining a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) to supporting local farmers, to large-scale food co-ops, people everywhere are taking back the means of production and demanding access to better, more nutritious foods.
Building a Community Garden
There are many different ways to participate in community gardens. In neighborhood or co-op gardens, also known as allotments in some areas of the world, individual plots on public or private land are rented by individuals for a small annual fee. Often, the members of these kinds of gardens share resources like communal compost, water sources, and sometimes tools, easing the cost burden that can sometimes be prohibitive to getting started with gardening. These gardens often feature raised beds with square-foot programmatic growing, ensuring that every inch of the plot is creating a productive yield. In cities like Detroit, gardens like the Farnsworth Community Garden sprawl across entire city blocks and act as a fresh food source in the middle of a food desert.
Shared resource gardens are not exclusive to food, however. At the Means of Production Garden in Vancouver, British Columbia, artist Oliver Kellhammer started an open-source garden for other artists to come and grow the raw materials needed for studio and craft practices, as well as to conduct experiments in botany. And at The Plant in Chicago, instead of plots of land, residents of the experimental garden participate in a closed-loop circular economy, where the by-products of hydroponic garden production are used to feed other projects housed in the building. Excess wheat from an on-site brewery becomes an ingredient in the on-site bakery. Refuse from the hydroponic garden fertilizes the organic garden outside and an indoor mushroom farm. Each piece supports the other so the entire community of gardeners and producers can thrive.
Residential gardens are another way to extend the community space. These spaces are usually maintained by the residents of the apartment complexes. In Liverpool, the Turner Prize-winning collective studio Assemble has created one such garden as part of the Granby Four Streets rejuvenation project. The interior space contains a seasonal garden, an event space, and an artist residency—all designed for community use.
Thinking of community more broadly, urban community gardens like the Elizabeth Street Garden in New York City are maintained by caring volunteers. In the middle of the bustling commercial neighborhood of SoHo, the Elizabeth Street Garden is a quiet sanctuary filled with flowers, sculptures, and ample seating. Created and maintained by a non-profit, this space functions as an oasis—a wash of green and quiet in the middle of Manhattan. These spaces of quiet, production, and community are essential not just as food sources or sanctuaries, but as areas of restoration of mental and physical health.
Start your community garden by first looking at the resources around you. Is there an open plot of land in your neighborhood? Call your local government. Does your apartment building have a neglected courtyard? Speak to your building manager. Do you have a front yard but not enough spare time to cultivate it? Perhaps a friend or family member does. Look to your neighborhood, home, or city: what can you offer to share with your community?