Research Papers

Community Gardens

Three years ago, the University of Chicago sparked a passionate debate when it announced its plans to construct the new Theological Seminary. The staging area for the construction would take place on a lot at 61st Street and Dorchester Avenue, home to a community garden of 143 plots belonging to UChicago students, faculty and alumni as well as Hyde Park community members who did not take the news of the garden closure lying down [1]. Although the land was owned by the University, a vibrant community had taken over the vacant lot to create a thriving garden space, one that would exist on the land for over nine years [2].  Now that community was told it would have to leave to make room for the staging area of the construction going on at the other end of the block. There were many other vacant lots nearby, it would not have been so difficult for the people to start a new garden (especially with the University’s offers of help), but the gardeners would not leave without a fight [3].

The gardening community quickly mobilized itself against the University. Numerous articles in the Chicago Maroon (the UChicago undergraduate student paper) as well as other local papers picked up the story of the controversial move by the University to build on top of an established community garden [4,5]. Some claimed the University had every right to do what it was doin

g, that the garden had only existed up until this point because of the University’s generosity with its land, and that the garden could easily be moved [6]. Others shared the gardeners’ view, claiming that the plots meant more than soil and vegetables, that the established community of the garden could not survive a move without some serious damage. One student started the Facebook group “Bulldozers vs. the 61st Street Community Garden,” which reached 139 members, including many who didn’t even use the garden [7]. The “Invisible Institute”, a local journalistic institute, took up the fight by producing a ‘living documentary’ of daily interviews with gardeners at the site, reflecting on their experiences and attempting to explain the magic of the 61st and Dorchester community garden [8].

All the efforts of community members, however, could not dissuade the University from its course. To the sorrow of many, the garden saw its last season, before being relocated a block down the road to 62nd and Dorchester. Hearing this tale, I had to ask:

Why is it that community gardens inspire such passion?

Food production
One seemingly obvious answer to this question is that community gardens provide a source of fresh, healthy food of the kind that is often hard to come by for lower-income families residing in lower-income urban areas. According to the widely used definition of food security by the Food and Agriculture Organization,

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physial, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy lifestyle [9].

"Food Security in the United States: Key Statistics and Graphics." ERS/USDA Briefing Room. Web. May 2012..

In 2010, 14.5% of households in the US suffered food insecurity [10] Of these, 40% were  households with incomes below the Federal poverty line, and significantly more were in metropolitan than non-metro areas [11]. Community gardens are one way inner-city residents can start to combat food insecurity. A study of 766 adults in the city of Flint, Michigan showed that adults who either lived with someone who participated in community gardens, or who participate in one themselves consumed fruits and vegetables 1.4 more times per day, and were 3.5 times more likely to have five fruits and vegetables a day, than those who did not participate [12]. Gardens in the city of Philadelphia are estimated to produce more than two million pounds of produce each year [13].

The hope was that community gardening in Hartford would join the expanding national gardening movement and begin to close the food gap… the reality has generally been less paradisiacal… Hartford’s community gardens have made only a marginal contribution to the city’s food security, with the exception of a relatively small number of ardent gardeners who have significantly augmented their food supplies.amounts to almost $5 million worth of fresh fruits and vegetables. In New York City, a similar study measures the produce from 43 gardens to be over 17,000 pounds worth around $52,000 [14]. This sounds like a lot, and the value of this food to those who painstakingly plant, care for, and grow these plants should not be understated. For many participants, community gardens are an important source of food and a way to increase food security [15]. They are also a step along the right path to food sovereignty for inner-city residents. However, it is important to realize that community gardens cannot single-handedly end hunger. The expectations for community gardens’ potential are often unrealistic. In his book Closing the Food Gap, Mark Winne discusses this general trend in relation to his personal experience with a community garden started in Hartford, Connecticut [16].

Community gardens are not the complete answer to food insecurity, but they can play a significant role as part of an integrated food system, particularly in urban areas.


“The most important word in community garden is not garden”

Or so claims Jack Hale, community garden organizer and president of the Hartford Botanical Garden Planning Committee [17]. The gardeners of the 61st and Dorchester would seem to agree with this statement; the community of their garden was emphasized in the fight to keep it alive. They were not satisfied with the University’s offer to help them find a new location, as they believed they might lose something fundamental in such a move. This sentiment is explicated well in an article in the “Invisible Institute”:

The University’s argument for relocation gives us too much credit. It assumes that we know how to do this, that we have a recipe for creating a wonderful garden. But the power of the 61st Street garden to nourish and console, to delight and instruct is more mysterious than that.  It is the product of countless acts of attention and care by many people over time—an organic process of immense complexity shaped by chance, serendipity, and grace as well as design. [18]

It is impossible to state in exact terms this incredible quality of gardens to encourage social interaction and create a community around them; but it is equally impossible to ignore that it is a quality brought up time and time again in any discussion about community gardens.

“It’s more than just dirt and tomatoes”
-Jack Spicer, garden coordinator at 61st and Dorchester [19].

“The chemistry is not just in the soil, it’s in the people”
- Debra Hammond, Gardener at 61st and Dorchester [20].

Effects on Crime

Not only can gardens help to build communities, but there is evidence that they make communities safer. Two studies in the Journal of Environment and Behaviour investigated the impact that nature has on mental fatigue (often an instigator of aggression and violence), and the relationship between vegetation and crime rates in the inner city [21;22].

In the first study, Frances E. Kuo and William C. Sullivan surveyed and studied 145 urban housing residents living in buildings that were nearly identical except for the varying levels of nearby vegetation (such as grass and trees). The residents had been randomly assigned to apartments as part of the nature of public housing policies [23]. The authors of the study assessed the attentional functioning, the capacity for directed attention as measured by the Digit Span Backwards test of each resident as a measure of mental fatigue, as well as their aggression and violence as measured using the Conflict Tactics Scale [24;25;26]. They conducted further tests to rule out other possible sources of the differences seen in aggression levels. The study found that aggression and violence was significantly lower among those people who lived near some green space than those who lived in more barren conditions [27]. Although this study did not look at the effects of community gardens in particular on violence, it is reasonable to extrapolate the results; if the presence of trees and grass nearby can reduce violence, community gardens should have at least as positive an effect.

Kuo, Frances E., and William C. Sullivan. "Environment and Crime in the Inner City: Does Vegetation Reduce Crime?" Environment and Behavior 33.3 (2001): 343-267. May 2001. Web..

The second study, again conducted by Sullivan and Kuo, looked more specifically at the impact vegetation in inner cities has on crime. This study was conducted at the Ida B. Wells Homes public housing development in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago and the US [28]. Again, the residents had been randomly assigned to apartments by nature of the public housing policies of the city, and these apartments were near varying levels of vegetation. The authors measured the vegetation near to each apartment building, then looked at two years of crime reports for each of the low-rise apartment buildings on the site. After accounting for differences in the number of apartments per building, building height, vacancy rate, and the number of occupied units per building, the study found that the ‘greener’ a building’s surroundings, the lower the crime rate [29]. This relationship held for both property crimes and violent crimes. The authors suggested some possible reasons for this positive impact of vegetation on community safety, including increased surveillance (more people will be out in the neighborhood if there are more green spaces), as well as the psychological effects of nature [30]. Again, although this study did not look specifically at community gardens, the results can reasonably extrapolated to include them. Gardens could increase the number of people outside even more than other forms of green space, as adults rather than kids might frequent gardens, so surveillance in the neighborhood increase. Community gardens could also positively impact the psychological health of those living nearby.

Property Values

Been , Vicki and Voicu, Ioan, “The Effect of Community Gardens on Neighboring Property Values” (2006). New York University Law and Economics Working Papers. Paper 46.

The demonstrated social value of community gardens also manifests itself as an economic value. A New York University study looked at the impact of community gardens on the neighboring property values [31]. The authors of the study, Vicki Been and Ioan Voicu, compared the sales prices of properties within a certain distance from community gardens to prices of similar properties in the same neighborhood, but not near a garden. They then compared the magnitude of this price difference before and after the community garden was opened. By comparing prices in the same neighborhood, the authors hoped to deal with the potential price difference due to neighborhood location, and the possibility that gardens were specifically placed in areas with higher property values. This analytic tool is called a hedonic regression model with a difference-in-difference specification [32].

The study found that community gardens have statistically significant positive effects on the values of property within 1,000 feet of the garden [33]. Interestingly, the authors found that these positive effects were strongest in lower-income level neighborhoods; community gardens raised property values by up to 9.5 percent within five years in the poorest neighborhood measured [34]. The effect also increased over time; as each year went by after the opening of a community garden, the prices of nearby properties increased more and more in relation to properties that did not have access to a community garden [35].

The economic benefit of a community garden to the residential area surrounding it is just one more testament to the high value that people place on these plots of land.

Been , Vicki and Voicu, Ioan, “The Effect of Community Gardens on Neighboring Property Values” (2006). New York University Law and Economics Working Papers. Paper 46.

Community gardens have many positive attributes, but it is important to understand the difficulties in creating and managing one as well as the multitude of benefits. Community gardens are not the answer to hunger in the world, and should not be represented in that way. The practice of urban gardening has a whole host of issues associated with it, and not every start-up garden becomes an established and beloved part of the community. One practical challenge is a lack of available funding, as start-up expenses to cover site remediation can be quite high [36]. Other challenges include fears of toxic soil; and the difficulty in securing permanent control of vacant lots [37]. This last point was the ultimate downfall of the Hyde Park community garden at 62nd and Dorchester. When the choice for a piece of land is between a garden and residential or commercial development, the garden will most likely lose out. Urban gardens often face a lot of skepticism and consequent lack of support. There are many who think that gardening only occurs in rural areas, not vacant inner city lots. Many believe that there are more important issues that need to be addressed with already limited funding, and community gardens should be far down on the list. This lack of support often makes it difficult for gardens to obtain services as basic as garbage disposal, access to water, or police protection [38]. The creation and maintenance of a community garden is not easy, and those few that have succeeded in fully establishing themselves over the years are not indicative of the many others that ultimately failed. This is no reason to give up on all community gardens; the many benefits discussed above are reasons enough to try harder, put more effort in, and respect those gardens that have managed to surpass all of these challenges.

Joy, LaManda. "Chicago Victory Gardens 101." A Year in the Yarden. Web. 25 May 2012..

Community gardens have a long history in the US and in Chicago in particular. In 1942, as part of the Victory Garden movement, Chicagoans put in 500 community gardens, and 75,000 people started home gardens to help the war effort [39]. In 1942-45, during World War II, food was short in cities across the US. The nation’s resources were spent on moving troops and equipment, with not much left over for shipping fresh produce. Adding to the problem, farms were left short staffed as workers joined the military. The food shortages the war created led to the creation of the Victory Garden movement, in which hundreds of thousands of citizens in Chicago alone, most of whom had no previous gardening experience, joined the effort to feed the city. During the summer of 1943, these Victory Gardens produced 55,000 pounds of food (to compare, remember that 43 gardens in NYC produced a total of 17,000 pounds of food in one year) [40]. Today, the US is still facing food-related challenges. 14.5% of households in the US suffered from food insecurity in 2010 [41], and food deserts abound. Community gardens are once again taking up some of the slack. There are over 600 documented community private instagram viewer reddit gardens and green spaces in the City of Chicago, with many more potentially undocumented [42]. For a detailed map of the location of these gardens, visit

Concluding remarks

I have visited two of the many community gardens located in the Hyde Park area, and am beginning to understand the love that people have for them. At the 65th and Woodlawn garden, I helped turn this 

into this.

The main part of the garden was inside a fence (not locked, just to separate the green space from the road). There is a small portion, however, that is outside the fence, and this is where I helped out. Anyone can claim one of these plots, prepare the soil, and plant. These plots are different than the regular gardeners’ plots; anyone passing by can harvest the produce. It is expected that people take what they need, and leave some for others. It is this kind of community oriented spirit of sharing what you have that these gardens seem to produce in people.

The garden at 65th and Woodlawn is far from perfect, and signs of its very urban setting are everywhere. In order to prepare the plot we had to remove lots of wrappers and broken glass from the soil. The feeling of creating something good from all that trash and dirt was incredible. That feeling made it quite understandable to me that green spaces should have a positive psychological effect.

The other location I visited was the community garden at 62ndt and Dorchester. This is the ‘replacement garden’ for the site that now holds the University of Chicago Theological Seminary. After all the debate, the protestations and the passion, the garden at 62nd Street and Dorchester Avenue saw its final season in 2009. The University helped the gardeners to find a new site, and even offered to pay to move the topsoil to the new site [2]. Although I never had the chance to see the old site, to me this new garden seemed like everything a community garden should be. As I walked into the garden, it seemed as if I left the city and its associated troubles behind. With the sun shining, friends hard at work over their small but fruitful plots, and the red leaf spinach ready to harvest; I could not imagine anything better.


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  24. Kuo. 2001. 555.
  25. “Digit Span Backwards is a standardized neurocognitive measure and is used in the measurement of attentional fatigue and in the clinical measurement of attention. DSB is particularly useful for field settings because it is easy to administer: The administrator reads aloud a series of digits (e.g., “2, 5, 1”), and participants are asked to repeat back the series in reverse order (e.g., “1, 5, 2”). Series are administered in increasing length; if a participant fails a series of a given length, a second series of equal length is administered. Scoring was based on the longest series performed correctly within two attempts.”
  26. “To elicit reports of aggressive behavior, participants are asked to think of situations in which they had a disagreement or were angry with a specified family member and to indicate how often they used each of 18 conflict tactics, beginning with socially acceptable tactics (e.g., reasoning) and ending with violent tactics.”
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