Finding Common Ground in Community Gardens
Justina Gonzalez, co-founder of a children’s themed Common Ground garden, speaks to a group of parents and children about the vegetables in the garden before they embark on
“The Great Veggie Hunt” throughout the garden. Image courtesy of Kim Scherman.
Creative and effective strategies for filling the gaps in our communities — those left by departing businesses, abandoned properties, and vacant lots — were explored by Jill Stoner in her observations on transforming vacancy and reanimating the urban landscape, which recently appeared in these pages. Stoner encourages the creative use of vacant space to revitalize urban environments “through new micro-economies, ecological inventions, and institutional inventions.” Strategies for addressing vacancy are taking shape in many cities and towns throughout the U.S., with encouraging results.
Lawrence, Kansas, has been vigorously promoting its community gardens program. In an April 18 webinar produced by the Sustainable City Network, “Community Gardens: Turning Vacant Lots Into Urban Assets,” Lawrence’s sustainability coordinator, Eileen Horn, described the many civic benefits associated with the city’s Common Ground community gardens program and how those benefits were achieved. More than 700 people participated in the online event, and, based on questions posed at the webinar’s conclusion, many appear to be considering similar programs for their own communities.
Horn began her presentation on Common Ground by describing a project borne of multiple needs: in Lawrence, more than 10,000 residents have limited access to grocery stores and healthy food choices, 54 percent of residents are considered overweight or obese, and less than 0.1 percent of farmland in the tri-county area is devoted to vegetable production – the ingredients of a classic “food desert” scenario. Common Ground was developed both to respond these needs and as a way to address a number of related social and economic goals, including the following:
- Supporting the local food economy by providing land for entrepreneurs looking to start or scale up a food production business.
- Supporting neighborhoods and creating vibrant spaces for community building.
- Avoiding the maintenance costs (such mowing and litter removal) associated with idle land.
- Addressing food access issues through licensing agreements that include a community benefit component (such as donating a percentage of the food produced to a local pantry or civic organization).
Produce for sale at farmers market, grown by middle school gardeners participating in a garden at their school and the Common Ground gardens. Image courtesy of Nancy O’Connor. Modeled on similar municipal land lease programs in Cleveland and Boston, Common Ground began by surveying city properties to identify vacant or underutilized parcels close to established neighborhoods, giving priority to those needing better access to healthy food. Candidate sites were further assessed based on having access to an existing water meter, a known land-use history (to avoid exposure to soil contaminants), and a low likelihood of experiencing development pressure. Some of the resulting sites were then designated as “preferred for community gardens,” whereas others were tagged as “preferred for farming locations.”
In 2012, program administrators selected four sites: two for development as community gardens, one as a community orchard (open to all community residents), and one as a market farm operated by students enrolled in a local sustainable agriculture program. The locations were all city-owned vacant lots and underutilized parts of parks. Two additional sites were added in 2013: an incubator farm where three Independent Market Farms will be growing vegetables, perennial crops, and hops, and a permaculture-based community garden for neighborhood residents.
Applicants for Lawrence’s Common Ground program are required to submit a Community Benefit Plan. The plan describes how the proposed project would improve conditions in the surrounding areas and how the applicant would cultivate partnerships with organizations proven to provide educational, nutritional, and other benefits to the local population. In addition to donating produce to local schools and food pantries, selected applicants’ Community Benefit Plans include activities such as conducting classes and workshops on gardening and food preservation, holding community work days during which residents learn about cultivation, and hosting food garden tours.
Other requirements include submitting a narrative project description, design drawings, and a business or fundraising plan as well as adhering to applicable city codes, ordinances, and procedures. Members of the Douglas County Food Policy Council review and score the applications; their recommendations are then sent to the City Commission for final selection/approval, and 3-year rolling licenses are issued to the successful applicants. After the initial 3-year period, projects successfully adhering to program tenets can renew these licenses annually.
Other program components and requirements include the following:
- The project must have city-installed water meters.
- Growers pay for their own water infrastructure and use.
- Growers must adhere to local codes for noise and weed control and follow agricultural chemical policies approved by the city’s Parks and Recreation department..
- The city pays for liability insurance.
- The leaseholder or licensee must allow subleases to garden participants.
- Lawrence’s sustainability coordinator and the Douglas County Food Policy Council oversee the program.
According to Horn, those interested in establishing their own community gardens program would do well to “have the conversation with your planning department up front” to address any existing zoning restrictions ahead of time. They should also educate local officials about the Community Benefit Plan component as well as closely monitor and report on the program’s progress over time. As more lots are transformed from vacant to verdant with each passing year, cities and towns throughout America are seeing the many social and economic benefits of community gardens and discovering that in the municipal context, growth can take many forms.
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