When I first heard the term “community garden,” I pictured a big, open plot in the middle of a neighborhood-a large garden accessible to, and maintained by, any and all members of the community who would like to help maintain it. In fact, community gardens take many forms.
The most common form is the allotment garden: a piece of land divided into plots that are then rented out to individual gardeners or small groups. Of the communal variety I initially imagined, there are only a handful in the Twin Cities. All types of community gardens can offer multiple and similar benefits to their surrounding communities, but some arguably deliver more benefits more effectively than others.
Part One of two articles on community gardens.
GardenWorks, an organization established in 2005 to document and promote community gardens in the Twin Cities area, has thus far counted about two hundred community gardens (of all structures) in the area. Many got their start on vacant lots in the 1980’s and beginning of the 1990’s when property values were in decline. However, with the property market boom of the last decade or so, most of these gardens have been consumed by development projects. Those that survived face mounting financial pressure due to government budget cuts.
The three basic resources necessary to sustain a community garden are land, labor and water, and the cost of leasing land is on the rise along with the water bills. These increasing costs can make it difficult for garden organizers to stay afloat, much less afford other important resources like tools, seeds, compost, soil and hoses. According to the Twin Cities Community Gardens Sustainability Report published in 2005, “Taxes can also be burdensome to community gardeners, and do not make sense when garden sites are open for the entire local community to enjoy.”
For almost thirty years, Twin Cities community gardens were able to obtain liability insurance and reduced-price leases through the Sustainable Resource Center’s Urban Lands Program. However, this program was canceled in 2002. In 2004, the Twin Cities Greening Coalition (TCGC) decided to develop a plan for sustaining community gardens. The Sustainability Plan Final Report, cited above, recommended that a Community Garden Association be established to collect data on community gardens, promote information sharing among gardeners across the city and generally assist community gardens in any way possible.
GardenWorks was formed in response to this recommendation, but of course, many of the difficulties identified in the report persist. In addition to financial burdens, problematic trends that GardenWorks hopes to tackle include a lack of information resources for new garden organizers and the narrow leadership base of many community gardens. To remain sustainable in the long-term, most gardens need a larger core group of committed volunteers and more diversified leadership among volunteers.