According to a recent study published in the Journal of Community Practice, around 23% of land in American cities lies vacant. Community Gardens are one of the emergent trends in transforming these vacant lots into viable Public Spaces in cities and towns across the country. Since 2009, there has been a 19% increase in the prevalence of Community Gardens nationally.
Numerous benefits have been noted regarding the presence of Community Gardens in neighborhoods. A study in the Journal of Public Health showed a link between Community Gardens and measurable improvements in the physical health of participants in Community Gardening (specifically improvementsin their Body Mass Index), as well as their mental health - through improved self-esteem and mood. Community Gardens also provide “opportunities for constructive activities, contributions to the community, relationship and interpersonal skill development, informal social control, and exploring cognitive and behavioral competence.” They also have significant positive impacts on nutrition and food access in communities with little access to fresh and healthy produce.
Community Gardens can also have significant economic impacts. A study of community gardens in New York City shows that they can improve property values on surrounding lots by as much as 9.4% in less than five years and an increase in tax revenues of $500,000 per garden over a 20 year period. While there are some issues with this study’s scale - it focuses solely on one of the largest and most expensive cities in the country - it does demonstrate that there is a potential economic incentive for the installation of Community Gardens.
This economic benefit is not necessarily entirely positive. A 2014 article in The New Yorker by Lauren Markham titled “Gentrification and the Urban Garden” discusses the tension between the positive aspects that Community Gardens have and the potential for those positive aspects to be co-opted by property developers as a tactic to improve the aesthetics (and property values) of the surrounding area.
It is unclear if the referenced economic impacts of Community Gardens play out in communities at the scale of Lexington’s North End due to differences in the scale and pace of property development.
While these economic impacts may depend on the scale of property development - the physical, mental, and community health benefits seem less likely to depend on the external factors in the same way as the economic impacts.
In the North End, there are two prominent Community Gardens - the North Pole Community Garden and the New Beginnings Castlewood Community Garden. Both of these gardens are owned by non-profit organizations (North Pole by the North Limestone CDC, and Castlewood by New Beginnings Church), and are maintained and operated by the non-profit Seedleaf. Both are free and open to the community.
These spaces serve many of the same functions as Community Gardens detailed above. They provide locations for neighbors to come together to grow and celebrate food. However, they are not without their issues. There is a strong need for more dedicated funding streams for infrastructure and maintenance costs for the gardens. In addition to this, legislation legalizing the status of Community Gardens is needed. This could allow Community Gardens to have proper signage, sell produce and goods, and any other specific needs not met by the residential zoning ordinances found in most municipalities.
Other reccomendations for North End Community Gardens include more signage near the street explaining the purpose of the garden, and signage throughout the garden. Also, more garden hours —times when the garden is staffed by somebody who can give a quick tour and orientation— as well as person-to-person visits with neighbors would be advisable to make the gardens more inclusive and actuated. Having events onsite, such as trainings or community grill-outs, would also help people feel more welcome.