Built Environment and Public Health: Urban Gardening

Urban gardening

The United States has a long history of individuals growing their own food, even in cities. During times of war these “victory gardens” have been promoted as a patriotic way that those on the home front can support the war effort. But even during times of peace, and particularly during economic downturns, urban gardening has been popular. In low-income neighborhoods there is the added benefits that urban gardening can preserve and protect open space that may otherwise be possibly subject to illegal dumping and other illicit activities. There are also numerous advantages for the gardeners that include increased social capital, more physical activity, and better nutrition. Studies of urban gardeners suggest that gardens provide multiple opportunities for interaction and can help the elderly keep from becoming isolated. A major concern with gardening has been pre-existing contamination of urban soils, particularly lead, on land that was formerly used for residential purposes; oils, lead, petroleum products, and solvents on land that was once used for parking; metals and other contaminants if the site was previously used for industry; and of the various unknown contaminants that may be found on any land that was once abandoned.  To address these concerns, organizations that own and develop urban gardens in conjunction with local groups often will extensively test the soils and remediate them if they are found to be contaminated.

The community benefits of gardening include the potential for managing vacant and abandoned land, their ability to bring neighbors together and thus promote increased social capital, strengthening of the local food environment, contributions to open space preservation and reductions in the amount of impermeable surfaces in the city, and positive psychological effects on neighbors and communities for having attractive well-maintained open space.  These gardens can also be significant locations of physical activity.

A major issue in some communities has been land tenure, or who owns an urban garden site. Many gardens are located in areas that have seen large-scale disinvestment and thus the parcels have been abandoned. If the city has foreclosed on these parcels and transferred title to a local non-profit organization, the long-term ownership of the site can be more certain. But often these gardens are located on parcels whose ownership has not been established or a city may be reluctant to relinquish permanent ownership to a local organization and when values begin to rise because of gentrification or competing demands for the land, the city or other landowner may try to eject the gardeners and use the land for other purposes.  This was a major issue in New York City when the city administration decided it wanted to use land that had been gardened for new housing construction. It was only ultimately resolved after long negotiations and the intervention of benefactors who helped fund local groups to purchase the land.

One solution to this problem of ownership and community control is the land trust, a community-based and/or nonprofit organization created specifically to own and manage land for gardening purposes. These organizations, which often need grant support to function, can hold on to the title of the land under gardens.  They can provide support to local gardeners, assist gardening groups to administer and manage gardens, serve as an interface between local gardening groups and city administrations, and work to ensure harmonious relationship between gardeners and the neighbors.

There have been objections to gardens. Some neighbors have expressed concerns about the establishment of gardens because they fear that criminals may hide in the gardens, they do not like the way the gardens look, they fear that there may be decreased land values around the gardens, or because of other similar reasons. The solutions to these problems with the neighbors include education, so that neighbors understand the value added by a garden, neighborhood involvement so that problems are not become a conflict between insiders and outsiders, and fencing of gardens so that they look attractive from the street. All these actions may require resources that some gardens may not have.


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