Community Gardens Can Yield Benefits But Require Careful Planning

An April 24 Sustainable City Network article highlights the benefits community gardens can provide in urban areas with vacant lots but also notes that planning and support is critical to ensure a garden’s success.  The article focuses on the experiences of Lawrence, Kansas, which approved 4 pilot sites for the 2012 growing season that were open to neighborhood associations, nonprofit associations, and schools.

Community gardens have the potential to beautify vacant lots, augment local food supplies and enhance the urban environment in a variety of ways. But, successful program management requires careful planning and ongoing support, according to Eileen Horn, sustainability coordinator for Douglas County and the city of Lawrence, Kan.  …

The sites include a neighborhood community garden, a youth-focused garden in a city park, a community orchard for free picking, and a market farm coordinated by college and middle school students. In exchange for receiving a free license for use of city property, each applicant created a community benefit plan for their project.

Horn presented an overview of the city’s “Common Ground” community gardens program in an April 18 webinar hosted by Sustainable City Network. A video recording of the webinar can be downloaded at sCityNetwork.com/webinars.  …

Lawrence drew inspiration from successful community garden programs in Cleveland and Boston, both of which provide city property but rely heavily on local organizations to take responsibility for operating the gardens.

Key goals established for the Common Ground program included supporting the local food economy; supporting the city’s healthy food initiatives; helping address food access issues in the city’s “food deserts;” providing for potential “agritourism;” supporting neighborhoods; and avoiding maintenance costs of existing vacant lots.

The article notes that site selection is critical and important property factors include:  (1) being vacant or under-utilized with little development potential; (2) being in a safe area near active neighborhoods; (3) access to existing water infrastructure; and (4) being free of toxins and environmental contaminants.

Horn’s advice to cities considering similar programs include:

  • Target “food deserts”
  • Partner with organizations with proven capacity
  • Educate commissioners about the community benefit plan
  • Monitor and evaluate
  • Form solid partnerships with community groups
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