Community Parks Week
Celebrating Our Greenspaces
October 1 to 7
Planning and Information Guide
The New Community Garden
by Laura Berman
Community Garden Programme Coordinator, FoodShare Toronto
What better symbol can there be for Community Parks Week in the twenty-first century than the community garden? Urban planning visionary, Jane Jacobs understood as early as the 1960's that parks need people no less than people need parks. As our culture becomes increasingly urbanized it is essential that we provide opportunities for everyone to engage directly with nature, not as observers but as active participants. People need to be able to get their hands into the soil, to plant a seed and nurture it through to harvest--not for one week a year during holidays--but as an everyday occurrence within the context of normal city life. The community gardening movement that is taking now place is about making these vital connections while at the same time helping to rebuild city neighbourhoods to a human scale.
I have become aware of this first hand through my own experience as FoodShare Toronto's community garden programme coordinator, providing help to the many community groups that are clamoring to start up their own gardens. Until recently this very intangible interaction between plants and people has not been easily supported by a "facts and figures" approach. But fortunately for the current movement, researchers in economics, psychology, medicine and sociology have now begun to focus on the benefits of community gardening. And they have found that close contact with nature is a vital ingredient in healthy human functioning.1 On a personal level, plants can help us reduce stress, relieve anger and fear, lower blood pressure and reduce muscle tension. On a community level, neighbourhoods that provide a more livable, nature-centered environment create more opportunities for people to work together. Air and noise pollution are lowered, crime is reduced and a community image is created that is perceived as positive by both residents and outsiders.2
Community gardening is one of the best ways that I know to affect these outcomes. The community gardens of the twenty-first century are not like what you may have previously experienced. They are no longer simply a collection of vegetable allotment plots that cost a gardener $25.00 a year in rent and get administered by a City Hall clerk and an unenthusiastic parks employee. The new community garden still offers plots where gardeners can enjoy the satisfaction of growing their own vegetables, an increasingly important experience as we grow farther away from the source of our food. New Canadians can remain connected with their homeland by growing foods that they can’t get anywhere else. And many children are astonished to discover that food comes from the earth and not directly from factories and supermarkets. But community gardens also help to restore lost habitats for birds, butterflies and other wildlife at risk. They can help to remind us that we are connected to all life, not just human life. As we try to instill an environmental ethic in our children by teaching about the destruction of the rainforest, why not use an example closer to home?
The new community garden is the result of the coming together of individuals who want to re-establish a connection with nature and exert control over part of their urban environment. In the process these individuals become a community. With the guidance of knowledgeable and far-sighted parks professionals, a group such as this can transform part of a neighbourhood park into a varied landscape that welcomes butterflies, birds, native plants and ornamental plants, and yes, even vegetables. And it is successful because they undertake it as a community, not as individuals. The community takes responsibility for the planning and the planting, for the upkeep and the administration, for its success or failure. Parks professionals are important partners in this process.
The community transforms itself in the process of the creation of the garden. In 1995 I saw the opportunity in my own neighbourhood to start a new garden. I had lived on the same block for over fifteen years and yet I didn’t know any of my neighbours by name, just enough to recognize them, nod hello, that sort of thing. After the four months that it took to create interest in the project, decide on a simple design, get the ground prepared, organize two spring planting days and set up a watering schedule, I can now actually talk to over twenty-five people on my block. And hardly a day goes by that someone new doesn’t stop into the garden and ask how to join. That was four years ago and the garden is still going strong. It has had two different coordinators and gardeners have come and gone. But it doesn’t look messy, there haven’t been any major episodes of vandalism, and it hasn’t become a source of irritation and extra work for parks staff. It has won Healthy Cities and Canada In Bloom awards and has transformed a vacant city lot into a neighbourhood focal point. The garden works because all of the people involved work together to understand each other. As a new direction for city life in the twenty-first century we can’t ask for a better symbol than the community garden.
1Malakoff, David, "What Good Is Community Greening?" Community Greening Review, 1995. The American Community Gardening Association.
2Ibid. and also numerous other sources including a recent 1999 Toronto Star article that quotes neighbours of The Big Back Yard, a Toronto community garden in Dufferin Grove Park
Laura Berman is the Community Garden Programme Coordinator for FoodShare Toronto and the Co-Chair of the Toronto Community Garden Network. She is the author of "How Does Our Garden Grow? A Guide To Community Garden Success", a comprehensive manual covering all aspect of community gardening. It is available for $25.00 from FoodShare Toronto mailing address: 238 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario M5V 1Z7 Telephone: (416) 392-1668 or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org