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Do Community Gardens Change the Food System?

Weighing the benefits of public garden allotments.

by Eric Hess

Spring has sprung and for thousands of northwesterners, thumbs are turning green. But for apartment or condo dwellers—like me—urban gardening can be a challenge. Many new buildings are being outfitted with rooftop gardens for tenants’ use, but they’re still spendy and scarce; most of us will have to look to home-owning friends with a few square feet to spare or vie with neighbors for a plot in high-demand community gardens.

How does a community garden work? Typically, the city or program (some are run by private developers) sets aside a patch of land—portions of parks, undeveloped lots, etc—ranging anywhere from 2,000-200,000 sq. ft. in size. The land is parceled into individual plots ranging from under 100 sq. ft. to over 400. Individuals pay under $100/year for a plot. Each location may have different specific requirements, but they generally make sure gardeners are actually using the plot.

I’ve heard a lot of hype in the last couple of years, and wondering where the vegetable starts on my windowsill will be planted next month got me thinking more about community gardens in the Northwest: How common are they? And how competitive can they really be?

Just a quick perusal of city gardening sites confirmed what I’d heard through the grapevine—there are far more green thumbs than available plots, leaving some waiting for as many as five years.

Here’s a quick run-down of where the Northwest’s three major metropolises stand on community gardens:

* Vancouver, BC (4.3 plots per 1,000 people): The Community Gardens program has expanded greatly in the last four years—from 950 plots to 2,500 across 50 gardens. The city also has a great program helping to match garden-owners with neighbors looking for an empty patch of soil.

* Portland, Oregon (5.2 plots per 1,000 people): The city’s Community Gardens program hosts 32 gardens, used by about 3,000 gardeners (with another 1,000 on the waiting list). Additionally, the city sponsors programs to connect urban gardeners with surplus food with families in need, and to teach youth about gardening and food production.

* Seattle, WA (6.3 plots per 1,000 people): Heralded as one of the US’s best urban gardening programs, the P-Patch program has more than 70 gardens over 23 acres—used by 3,800 urban gardeners with another 2,000 on wait lists (which take anywhere from three months to five years). Over half of the gardeners are low income, and the program donates 7-10 tons of fresh produce each year through Solid Ground’s Lettuce Link program.

Yet despite all the positive press and demand, I have to question the ability of p-patches to make a large impact on our food systems. A dedicated community garden owner on 200 square feet might produce a substantial portion of their vegetables (see end note), but a hobbyist on 90 square feet may simply contribute some tasty additions to their spring and summer suppers. And with an average of only 5 plots per 1,000 residents of the biggest Northwest cities, the programs have a long way to go before they are a major part of our food system or a solution to poor nutrition.

Instead, I think of community gardens along the same lines as food carts—maybe the measurable benefits aren’t so great, but they have an important place in a vibrant urban culture: they often fill land that would otherwise go unused; provide green spaces in some of our cities’ densest neighborhoods; contribute a significant chunk of fresh, healthy produce for those who otherwise might lack access; give kids hands-on experience to understand where food comes from and how ecosystems work; and, as I mentioned before, add a certain je ne sais quoi to dense, urban living by providing non-homeowners with one of the more fun advantages of having a yard.

Perhaps most importantly, there’s an enhanced sense of community when a group of neighbors get together and dig into the earth. Certainly the Victory Gardens of both World Wars provided a morale booster to civilians who felt like they were contributing to war effort (if Wikipedia is to be trusted—and it probably isn’t—they contributed 40 percent of the US’s vegetable consumption). Maybe community gardens provide a similar morale boost for those engaged in the slow-motion sustainability revolution.

Unfortunately, with a waiting time of at least a year, it doesn’t look like a p-patch will be the answer for my veggies this year. But it’s good to see such enthusiasm for public green spaces. I’m curious to hear if any of our readers have a community garden plot—and if so, what you think about it?

*End note: A quick search suggests gardens yield about 0.6 lbs of vegetables per square foot per season, and Americans consume 428 lbs of vegetables per capita per year, on average.

Seedlings image courtesy of Jackal of All Trades and Gardeners picture courtesy of sbcg08 via Flickr under the Creative Commons License. P-Patch picture is of the Belltown p-patch, taken by author.

This article originally appeared on

For more resources and information on urban gardening at Worldchanging see:
Community Land Sharing
Urban Farming Takes Root in Surprising Ways

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According to wikipedia, victory gardens produced as much as 40% of Americas food supply during WW2. That is kind of impressive to me and seems like a measurable world changing success rather than just a chance for people to 'simply contribute some tasty additions to their spring and summer suppers'.

Posted by: Joel on 29 Apr 10

A little math is missing from the endnote of this piece:

"*End note: A quick search suggests gardens yield about 0.6 lbs of vegetables per square foot per season, and Americans consume 428 lbs of vegetables per capita per year, on average."

By that logic, if the average person with a plot farms it amply, doesn't have his/her crops ruined by pests and has decent weather, then a 100 sq ft plot could yield 60 lbs of vegetables, 14% of their vegetable consumption for the year. Extending that math, someone managing a 400 sq ft plot could feasibly yield 56% of their yearly veggie intake via their plot. (Granted, not every urban farmer knows how to farm year-round, nor is that possible in many places.)

Portland's City Garden Farms and other CSA operations get away from the need for community gardens by helping people farm the land they have, even if it's a small plot behind/next to their house.

Posted by: Steven on 29 Apr 10

We're starting a project to measure food production in NYC community gardens called Farming Concrete ( - might help answer some of these questions!

Posted by: Farming Concrete on 29 Apr 10

Our research surveying gardens in Philadelphia PA and Camden and Trenton NJ quantified production and documented distribution patterns, among other things. Some gardeners eat year round from their harvest, especially those who freeze it. Some also give a large amount to others.
Community gardens research reports:

Posted by: Domenic Vitiello on 29 Apr 10

Some friends of mine and I have begun turning my backyard in San Francisco into our own "community garden." We are still working on many of the longer term details but we've already begun to reap the benefits. Mainly spending time outdoors on weekends with each other. All of our kitchen waste is also being composted in our compost tumbler instead of the city's composting program which has become questionable.

Posted by: Matt on 30 Apr 10

We planted our box gardens this year, for the first time! We are very excited. And to be frank, who cares about the food system that is designed for profit and non-health. It is making Americans and Canadians sicker than ever and obesity rates are screaming...

Time we all grew our own food...

Posted by: Iain on 4 May 10

My partner and I have fresh greens and salad pretty much 9 months out of the year. Plus fresh flowers for our apartment in the spring and summer. I can't put into words the benefits aesthetically, nutritionally, tastefully, compostabily and socially that we reap from our participation in our community garden.

Posted by: Deirdre on 4 May 10

We have a community garden system in Vienna, Austria. Although I actually have a house with a garden, I signed up for an organic vegetable gardening plot this year because I figured I could use the advice that is provided by the extension agent who organizes these mini-farm experiences. I was lucky, as somebody who had previously expressed interest apparently opted out, and I moved up on the wait list. Our plot rental fee of 150 Euros for the year includes pre-preparation of the soil by knowledgeable organic farmers, and we are provided with plants and seeds and a suggested map on how to lay out the crops, as well as planting and care instructions. I sure look forward to the vegetable harvest our family will get from this - I cannot say if it will meet all our vegetable needs, most likely not, but it will make a sizable contribution at least, and it will be rewarding, no doubt.

Posted by: Karin on 5 May 10

I live in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada--one of the harshest climates on Earth and with a very short growing season. I have a biodynamic, organic backyard garden of 45 square meters which produces probably about 10% of annual veggies for my spouse and myself--which we preserve by canning and running two freezers. We also garden another 100 square meters off-site to grow potatoes, squash, onions, garlic, etc.--all 'winter garden' foods that we can root cellar over winter.

To produce 75%+ of the food required for two people, I have estimated would require as much as .5 hectares (about 1.25 acres). This much land allows a three-phase rotation in which only 1/3 of the land is cropped each year, with another third in a green manure/pulse rotation to restore nitrogen and the last third in 'fallow' to recharge soil moisture reserves. Production systems that consist of continuous cropping of the same plot of soil are difficult to sustain for very long without significant external inputs. The .5 hectare area is also large enough to include a berry yard and small fruit orchard, space for perennials like asparagus and rhubarb, and perhaps even a bee hive or two, thus providing a more varied diet and production levels high enough to actually make a dent in annual food requirements. Needless to say, this area of land is not often available to urban gardeners--although the many other benefits of gardening can certainly be enjoyed on far smaller parcels.

Posted by: Mark on 5 May 10

There are lots of folks out there with land that is going unused. In LA we have, an online community developed by and dedicated to expanding organic food production in Los Angeles by matching neighborhood landholders with local gardeners.

Not Sure how it's working, but might be something similiar in your area.

Also, Lots of innovative ways to grow indoors. Some of the best systems I've seen can be found on I'm especially into

Posted by: Kristy B on 12 May 10

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