Benefits of Community Gardens to the Built Environment
With thanks to Lyle Petersen, Carol Popovic, and Charity Fleming for their contributions
Community gardens offer a wide spectrum of benefits to a community and serve a diverse group of people. The benefits of community gardens are varied and are summarized here in four broad categories: health, personal well being, community development and environmental.
The Public Health Agency of Canada (2008) has stated the two main health benefits that community garden participants experience are physical activity and stress relief. Gardening is considered a moderate to intense form of exercise and uses
all three types of recommended activities – endurance, flexibility, and strength activities. Gardening also provides a source of fresh fruits and vegetables to those that may not otherwise have access. In a study conducted with community garden coordinators in the Region of Waterloo it was reported that community
gardens provide them with a sense of personal well-being through stress relief, education, and the creation of friendships (Dow, 2003). Community gardens can provide low-income families a sense of independence, skill development, food
security and economic savings. Additionally, they provide access to culturally appropriate fruits and vegetables that may be otherwise unavailable (Wakefield et al, 2007).
The benefits of community gardens to the larger community include: beautifying the area, providing a sense of community, increasing feelings of safety and community pride, as well as providing a broader food security by becoming less reliant on global imports (Dow, 2003). Community gardens can also have a positive impact on surrounding property values. Voicu and Been (2006) determined that community gardens had a significant increase for property values in New York City. They found that property values immediately within the vicinity of the gardens increased by 9.4% over a five year period. Not only did the immediate property values go up, the city also estimated they will receive a financial benefit of $503 million from taxes
over the next 20 years.
Community gardens can also benefit the community by converting neglected spaces into positive spaces for the community. Under-utilized and empty spaces are readily exploited by criminals (McKay, 1998; Kuo, & Sullivan, 2001). Community gardens help to eliminate these problems by reclaiming ownership of these spaces through the constant presence of people. At one community garden in Kitchener, police incidents surrounding the garden site dropped by 30% the first year of the garden and by 55.7% in following years (McKay, 1998). In addition to the decrease in crime,
residents also had less concerns about property vandalism and walking in their community at night.
Environmental benefits of community gardens include increasing pervious surfaces and allowing for groundwater recharge, improving air quality through the addition of plants to the landscape, beautifying the environment and promoting sustainability (Dow, 2003). Community gardens offer a unique contribution to the urban built environment by providing a “hands-on” learning opportunity to gain knowledge of the natural world (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2006). Challenges to Gardening in an Urban Environment Despite all their benefits, community gardens continue to come and go for a variety of reasons. Some of the challenges community gardens face (as mentioned by community garden coordinators) unique to an urban environment include: land insecurity, access to land, public transportation access, water supply, vandalism, and Not In My Back Yard Syndrome (Dow, 2003).
With many gardens located on land the gardeners do not own this can be a challenge. The land that the community garden is located on could be taken away and used for other purposes if the landowner decides (North American Urban
Agriculture Committee, 2003). In Waterloo Region this is particularly a concern for community gardens in the downtown core as pressures mount for densification (Dow, 2003). As land becomes intensified, the pockets that are left will increase in value, and threaten the use of the land for gardening. Not only is land difficult to find, there are also concerns over historical contamination of the land that is available. Producing safe food in an urban environment can therefore become a challenge (North American Urban Agriculture Committee, 2003). Finding land on a transit route and with a water source can also be an issue. Even when gardeners find a place to set up a garden, many have trouble securing a water source. If accessibility and water availability are impossible or very challenging, this increases the likelihood that a garden will not succeed. Vandalism is another concern, especially for gardens located in high traffic areas. Vandalism can range from stealing of produce to the destruction of property and equipment.
Although for the most part the community can be very supportive of the community gardens being implemented, if one or two people oppose the idea it can easily prevent a community garden from developing. Without community support
for the garden it makes it difficult to start or to succeed. Community Gardening in the Region of Waterloo – The Current Situation Currently there are 39 community gardens in the Region. These gardens are scattered throughout the Region, but are
mainly located in the urban areas of Kitchener and Waterloo. These gardens are located on private properties, church properties, community centres, and some on city owned land. Every community garden is unique in how it operates, but the majority of the community gardens are set up as individual plots that community members can ‘rent’ for the season.
In a survey conducted by Region of Waterloo Public Health in 2005, 38% of respondents reported growing some of their own food, with 90% of these respondents using a backyard garden to grow these foods (RWPH, 2005). Despite
only about one third of the citizens actively engaged in growing their own food, 70% stated growing their own food is important to them. This same survey revealed that 2% of respondents garden in community gardens (RWPH, 2005). There are some opportunities for support for these community gardens from the local municipalities. Presently, the City of Kitchener provides both in-kind support as well as financial support to their gardens. They will provide shelters, water, and waste pick-up to some of their gardens, in addition to a $500 grant to new garden start-ups. The City of Waterloo is also slowly making strides through their Partners in Parks Program. As part of this program the City has agreed to provide passive public parkland for use as community gardens.
Growth of the Region
If Waterloo Region is to successfully respond to the challenges and opportunities of population growth, planners must have an understanding of how to balance growth and housing demands while still preserving urban agriculture opportunities which can enhance residents’ quality of life. (Dow, 2003) Waterloo Region is currently the fourth largest urban area in Ontario and tenth largest in Canada (ROW, 2008). It is also one of the fastest growing urban areas in Ontario and is projected to grow from just over half a million currently to 712,000 people by 2029, a 35% increase. Almost one-third of these migrants will have been born outside Canada, and as the baby boomers age, the region will have a significantly higher percentage of seniors. In light of this growth projection the Region is opting to take a more progressive approach to growth management; by focusing on sustainability and attempting to balance the needs of the rural and urban communities as well as current and
future generations. Reurbanization and densification will be a focus of development for the region over the next 20years (ROW, 2008). Most of the region’s future growth will be "planned to create a more compact urban form with a wider mix of
employment, housing and services in close proximity to each other". However, the revised Regional Official Plan (ROP) will also attempt to find a proper balance between the built and natural environment by preserving and enhancing urban
green spaces. New areas of development will still occur but these will ensure that greenfield areas be planned to conserve and incorporate "any environmental features and cultural heritage resources as prominent neighbourhood features". New
developments will also be required to support the creation of complete communities2. In doing this, the Region is moving forward in support of community gardens. The Region does call on area municipalities to “improve and facilitate access to fresh produce and other healthy foods in all residential areas” and
supporting urban agriculture and community gardens is specifically mentioned as one way to achieve this (ROW, 2008).
Municipal Supports Needed to Sustain Gardens
Additional, municipal government help is necessary, however, for community garden start-up and maintenance. The most important role local governments can play is to ensure public land is available and protected for the creation and sustainability of community gardens. This involves amending land use policies, making community gardens a priority in city planning, mapping green space, and implementing a sustainability plan for community gardens. In moving forward and ensuring community gardens’ existence and growth it is therefore important that planners are
proactive when they designate land uses and that community gardens are a part of the original plan rather than an afterthought (Dow, 2003). In this way all the factors that are needed for a successful community garden can be made a priority, i.e. land that is free of contamination, located in close proximity to neighbourhoods, and has access to water and waste removal. Providing incentives to entice developers to put community gardens in their plans or develop green roofs may be one way to do this (Public Health Law & Policy & Raimi and Associates, 2008). In conjunction, setting a
community garden standard of at least one garden for every 2500 households may also help ensure land is available for gardening.
Mapping available green space and devising plans to protect these areas, where appropriate, for gardening is essential to ensuring a community’s long-term food security. This could be aided by ensuring community gardens are allowed in all
zoning types and that gardens are protected from confiscation in areas of high growth. Redirecting some of the municipal funds for urban parks to aid in the development and maintenance of community gardens would help provide not only a recreational activity for citizens but would also play an important role in alleviating poverty in the community. This money could be used to assist gardens in supplying needed resources such as water, compost and soil.
Conclusions & Implications for Growth Management
Community gardens’ grassroots nature has brought communities together and provided many benefits to the individuals and neighbourhoods in their proximity. Despite the success of many of these community driven projects, as quickly as success can come so can defeat. Many community gardens struggle with challenges that could easily be alleviated with additional support from the neighbourhood in which they reside. Recognizing gardening as a legitimate recreational activity, and community gardens as sources of food security and providers of important environmental benefits may be the first start. From here, the protection and use of green spaces for community gardens may make more sense. With the strong interest of citizens in this Region (and elsewhere) in growing their own food this is another impetus to providing more supports to community gardens. Communities that "provide for the needs of all residents, foster social equity, inclusion and collaboration and encourage healthy lifestyles” (ROW, 2008). The Regional Official Plan that is being considered for this area has the potential to provide for the protection and development of community gardens given that the Planning Act also requires that Area Municipalities bring their official plans into conformity with the Regional Official Plan. However, with pressures to increase densification, protecting
green space from outside pressures for development will likely remain a challenge, especially in the downtown core and in close proximity to transit. Incentives and tools will therefore need to be developed to encourage municipal planners to carry through on supportive urban agricultural policies. The revised Regional Official Plan offers promising support for community gardens. However, ensuring this support
results in lands, funds, and needed resources will be an integral part of the success of community gardens in the built environment.
Dow, C. 2003. Benefits and Barriers to Implementing and Managing Well Rooted Community Gardens in Waterloo Region, Ontario. Retrieved
October 16, 2008 from http://homepage.mac.com/cityfarmer/CHERYLFINAL.pdf
Kuo, F. & W. Sullivan. (2001). Environment and Crime in the Inner City: Does Vegetation Reduce Crime? Environment and Behaviour,
McKay, T. (1998). Empty places, dangerous places. ICA Newsletter, 1(3) p.1.
North American Urban Agriculture Committee (2003). Urban Agriculture and Community Food Security in the United States: Farming from the
City Centre to the Urban Fringe. Retrieved October 16, 2008 from http://www.foodsecurity.org/PrimerCFSCUAC.pdf
Public Health Agency of Canada (2008). Gardening for your Health. Retrieved October 16, 2008 from http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/pauuap/
Public Health Law & Policy, & Raimi and Associates. (2008). How to Create and Implement Healthy General Plans: A Toolkit for Building
Healthy, Vibrant Communities Through Land Use Policy Change. Retrieved October 16, 2008 from
Region of Waterloo (ROW). (2008). First Draft of the new Regional Official Plan (September 2008). Retrieved October 16, 2008 from
Region of Waterloo Public Health (RWPH). 2005. Urban Agriculture Report. Retrieved October 16, 2008 from
Voicu, I., Been, V. (2006). The Effect of Community Gardens on Neighboring Property Values. Retrieved October 16, 2008 from
Wakefield, S., Yeudall, F., Taron, C., Reynolds, J. & A. Skinner. (2007). Growing Urban Health: Community Gardening in South-East
Toronto. Health Promotion International, 22(2): 92-101. Retrieved October 16, 2008 from