Beyond Food: Community Gardens as Places of Connection and Empowerment

Gardening has a power that is political and even democratic. And it is a political power that can be applied constantly, whereas one can only vote or demonstrate occasionally. ~ Wendell Berry

Herbal workshop at Sustainable Flatbush in Brooklyn, NY | Image by Sustainable Flatbush

Because of disputes over land, access to green space, and equal rights to the city, urban gardens have become a symbol of community activism and empowerment, and they are part of a contemporary grassroots movement supporting environmental justice, collective action, and equitable access to nutrition and good health. Due in part to the current swell of interest in the local food movement, since the early 2000s there has been a remarkable surge in the prevalence of community garden initiatives.

But while they may be in the current media spotlight, the practice is certainly not new.

Community gardens have been part of American cities since the late-19th century. As a way to confront the congestion, economic instability, and environmental degradation that were part and parcel of turn-of-the-century urban life, residents began taking matters into their own hands—by planting school gardens, for example, or cultivating the vacant lots between buildings.

Since then, the popularity of these gardens has seen ebbs and flows in relation to the social and economic climates of particular eras. During the World Wars and the Great Depression, for example, the practice became much more widespread (as a result of the “Victory Gardens” encouraged by the federal government during WWII, Americans produced 40% of their own food!) only to diminish once again as the nation’s devastated economy began to recover. The 1970s witnessed another economic crisis that made its mark on urban cores. As soaring food prices coincided with the birth of the modern environmental movement and the availability of open spaces as a result of failed urban renewal projects, community gardens began to reemerge as part of a movement to reclaim ownership of the “public commons.” Most recently, after the 2009 recession, there was a 19% increase in the prevalence of community gardens as a strategy for supplementing food costs and cultivating local resilience.

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