Americans cultivate an estimated 18,000 community gardens, and now more of their growing is taking place in city lots and building rooftops. Urban gardeners see numerous benefits, from a heightened sense of empowerment to a lighter grocery bill to lowered crime rates. Yet challenges to such projects inevitably spring up like crab grass.
To gather ideas for aspiring city gardener leaders, I turned to two people with deep knowledge of the topic. Josh Singer is the co-founder of Wangari Gardens, a rapidly expanding project in Washington, D.C. Natasha Bowens is the photographer and writer behind the upcoming book The Color of Food and has traveled the U.S. collecting stories of food sovereignty. Here are the top five tips I gleaned from these young experts:
First, “there has to be cultural understanding and trust,” Bowens says. “So many people assume that because some communities are lacking food access and have high health problems that gardens are the solution,” she wrote in an e-mail. But this is not always the case, she felt, and for transplants to a city, checking in becomes even more important. “You have to understand you’re a guest,” says Singer. This can apply to members of a service corps, too.
From respectful conversations, Singer learned that his Northwest D.C. community did want a garden, and in fact had started efforts in the past. He also learned that while social media spurred the recent Arab Spring, a successful first spring at Wangari meant hitting the pavement and printing fliers.
Volunteers canvassed the neighborhood, attended advisory neighborhood commission meetings, and handed out hard copy communications in English and Spanish. They went to front doors and church sanctuaries. Community meetings then brought everyone together and shaped a vision of a mixed-use park.
2. Get Logistics in Place.
Another important step is finding a spot and figuring out who oversees it. If you think this sounds simple, think again. Some city governments put out the red carpet for community gardens or offer a convenient Google Earth guide to lots and parcels, but in other municipalities, “be prepared to do a lot of footwork,” says Singer.
He hoofed between city agencies, each of which denied having jurisdiction over the bowl-shaped piece of land he had his heart set on. After months of this, Singer went to the office of the surveyor to research for himself. Others have spent years slogging through red tape.
Next to securing land, finding a water source is the second most important and difficult element to obtain. Bowen and Singer have seen everything from government-granted access to water lines to high-tech rain-catching systems to plot holders painstakingly carting water from a nearby house.
New organizations should look into the local municipality’s rules, get a free utility check, obtain a permit if necessary, and think outside the box. Wangari came up against some challenges with water delivery, but eventually pioneered a system that starts at a fire hydrant across the street, sends water through a rope of multiple hoses wrapped with tape to withstand the traffic, and delivers it to a 28,000-gallon cistern.
Also scope out ways to obtain inexpensive building materials, garden tools, seedlings, and supplies like mulch and soil. Singer swears by Craigslist’s free section for many garden needs. Local businesses have also come through with donations, sometimes relieved at the chance to unload surplus materials.
3. Make it Sustainable.
Once the project gets off the ground, organizers must set up a sustaining infrastructure. This means more than volunteers. A dedicated head of the garden, preferably full time, is a necessity, says Bowens. This person can oversee operations, make sure details like soil testing are taken care of, and know which community partners to call for an emergency fence repair or load of soil.
Interns who work 10 to 20 hours a week can provide important continuity and focus. Wangari Gardens brought in an additional work force by offering some free plots to low-income community members in exchange for general garden maintenance.
On the legal side, new gardens should link up with an established 501 (c) 3 organization that can act as a fiscal agent. This opens access to a host of resources. This relationship can come with the mentorship of experienced nonprofit administrators, a must for gardens to eventually launch as an independent entity.
Continued outreach is also key. Block parties and gardening or cooking demonstrations in nearby schools open the garden up to a larger audience and reach more potential plot holders.
4. Don’t be Afraid to Step on Toes and Tap Friends.
When Singer set out to start Wangari Gardens, he learned that he wasn’t the first to try. He just happened to be the first with the time, tenacity, and thick skin to refuse to take “no” for an answer. Singer felt the power of allies early on when a staff member in the office of the surveyor took on the garden research himself. Garden founders went on to partner with a parent-run program for neighborhood kids, city organizations with similar missions, and a number of dedicated volunteers and plot holders.
Allies come from all backgrounds. In many cases, gardens link up with youth organizations or summer work programs for adolescents to find willing hands. In one case, an Atlanta garden partnered with a facility for men who are homeless and recovering from addiction. Clients serve as stewards and garden workers, then enjoy the food in their meals.
Web-savvy constituents can help out virtually, providing tweets, Facebook asks, blog posts, and e-mails. Wangari Gardens handily funded a Kickstarter campaign on a wave of social media.
5. Look Within.
In many cases, gardens hold a bounty of resources within their own sub-community. “I’ve seen examples of reaching out to community elders–who can teach us all a thing or two about growing–and offering them a free plot in exchange for helping maintain,” Bowens says.
At Wangari Gardens, an in-reach committee plans cook-outs, family festivals, and other bonding activities. Many gardens have seen their own plot holders give workshops on preserving food, extending the growing season, using medicinal herbs, and other specialized knowledge. These initiatives go a long way in keeping energy up and costs down.
In the end, the goal of urban community gardens and the key to their success is the same, says Singer: “It’s about growing community.”
Image 1: A staff member (left) and youth intern (right) walk through East New York Farms in Brooklyn, NY. Photo by Natasha Bowens
Image 2: A hand-painted sign depicts the logo of East New York Farms, a community garden in Brooklyn, NY that follows the tip to include local youth. Photo by Natasha Bowens.
Resources for community gardens, from the American Community Gardening Association: