The Rise of Urban Community Gardens and Why They Matter

Urban farming isn’t a new concept, but it has experienced a major resurgence in cities. Residents in urban centers throughout the U.S. have reclaimed abandoned spaces and turned them into community gardens. Detroit has been an epicenter of the movement to bring neighbors, organizations and community leaders together to grow and share food. 

Detroit’s Urban Farms and Gardens

Many urban areas, not just in the U.S. but worldwide, have embraced community gardens, but Detroit exemplifies the rise of this unique type of farming. The history of the practice in the city dates to the 1890s. Detroit emerged as a leader in city gardening programs as a response to an economic recession during that decade.  

These first gardens were sponsored by the city government. Today, Detroit farming is once again thriving, but this time it has been driven by grassroots efforts. Decades of population decline in the city left large swaths of abandoned homes. Residents reclaimed many of these spaces and turned them into gardens tended to and used by the community. Today, Detroit has almost 1,400 community gardens

Some of these gardens are large and have developed into true agricultural communities, like the three-acre Michigan Urban Farming Initiative with corporate sponsorship. Others remain small, neighborhood operations. The farms and gardens grow food and flowers, sell produce to local restaurants and at the city’s farmer’s market, provide educational programming and even create new jobs. 

Benefits of Community Gardens

Detroit is just one example of a city that has embraced community gardens. People are doing it everywhere, realizing the many rewards of urban farming. Community gardens are important for several reasons: 

  • They remedy food deserts. A food desert is an area with limited access to food, especially healthy food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture identified more than 6,500 food deserts and determined they are more often found in urban centers, in areas with high poverty rates and in minority neighborhoods. Urban farms provide residents an accessible source of fresh, varied produce. 
  • A solution to food insecurity. Areas of cities that are considered food deserts are often also areas with higher poverty rates. Food insecurity is a common problem. A community garden can provide food for residents. Community members typically volunteer in the garden; it is run like a cooperative so that those who contribute share in the harvest. 
  • Gardens provide social connection. A community garden gives residents an opportunity to connect with each other. These are usually inclusive spaces where neighbors are welcome to participate or at least visit and gather to interact and socialize. 
  • Urban gardens host educational programming. Many of these urban gardens develop educational programs, for both children and adults. Residents can learn about gardening and growing food but also about nutrition and cooking. 
  • Young people benefit from urban farming. Community gardens give young people constructive activities and the opportunity to learn practical skills. Studies have found that when youth are involved in their local farms, they develop interpersonal and relationship skills, learn to value community engagement and enjoy better nutrition and physical health. 
  • Community gardening improves mental health. The benefits to mental health involved in urban gardening may be related to spending time outdoors, engaging in a useful activity and social connection. Whatever the underlying reasons, the benefits are proven. Several community gardens in Fresno, California were started specifically to help refugees come together, to feel welcome and to share their cultures through food. Participants report feeling less isolated and less depressed. The program is state-funded and includes mental health professionals who meet with community members in the garden. 
  • Gardens provide income. Smaller community farms may only serve to feed the neighborhood, but many allow residents to sell what they grow. These farms often sell produce to local restaurants or set up stalls at farmer’s markets. Some have even begun processing and packaging foods and creating new food products to sell, providing jobs to residents. 

The growth of urban farming in Detroit and other cities began with determined residents with a desire to do something productive with vacant land. Today, these gardens and farms are thriving and providing huge benefits to those involved. 

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