Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Back to the Garden: Parks and Gardens Build Better Communities

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Back to the Garden: Parks and Gardens Build Better Communities

Article excerpt

Utilizing public lands and parks as the source of locally produced foods is a prairie fire of an idea sweeping across America. It's a trend that will come to dominate thinking about how parks are used by the public and for the public in the coming years. Policy, budget, and management of parks and public lands will all be influenced.

It is a simple truth that in most communities local food sources have been driven out of town. In hindsight, the causes are easy to trace. Rising land prices, low cost transportation, economies of mass production, and many other factors had the net effect of moving local food sources out of cities and neighborhoods and on to large-scale industrial and production farms far from population centers. And lost with their disappearance is the age-old connection to local food sources. Left is a legacy of ignorance--many kids to day have little understanding that the fast food comprising the bulk of their daily diet comes from the land.

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Suddenly, though, community leaders, elected officials, and citizens are declaring, "We have no sources of fresh food, and we want them now!" Across the country, communities are looking at developing community gardens for every neighborhood, creating farmers markets in public spaces, and working to create local, sustainable food systems. And nowhere is there greater opportunity and potential to contribute to this vision than in public parks.

Something Old, Something New

The history of using public land for food production is certainly not new. Public gardens can be traced to independent origins in ancient Mesopotamia, China, Egypt, and Greece, among other places. In modern times, the idea of planting vegetable gardens in public parks for food production had its best expression in the Victory Gardens that were planted in every part of the country in World Wars I and II. More than 20 million gardens thrived on public and private land during the wars, producing an astonishing 40 percent of all vegetables grown in the United States during World War II. Nor is that memory of public gardening entirely lost today, according to Steve Coleman, executive director of the nonprofit group Washington Parks and People.

"Many seniors in the DC area participating in gardening programs today still remember as young people the public gardens and orchards in DC parks, such as Glover Archibald Park and Fort Dupont Park," Coleman says.

Victory Gardens remain in some cities, including the Fenway Victory Gardens in Boston and the Dowling Community Garden in Minneapolis.

For the most part, however, gardening in public parks is considered more a recreational activity than a social service or a movement in support of larger societal goals. Park and recreation agencies often acquired farms or other suitably cultivated land for parks and then set aside some of it for the rental of individual garden plots. In most park systems today, park employees plow and till the soil, before renting individual plots to as many residents as can be accommodated.

A Changing Model

In some urban park systems, however, a different model is used. In New York City, for example, plots are only available to community service organizations. It is often the park and recreation agency that is able to cut through red tape to ensure safe soils, a reliable water supply, and support for the management of the garden. Increasingly, social and community service departments of local government are becoming involved with community gardening, although land ownership often remains with park agencies.

Community garden managers increasingly are addressing issues surrounding the sale of produce from community garden plots. Plots traditionally have been viewed as a service to residents, rather than something "commercial" in nature. In fact, some park and recreation systems prohibit the sale of produce from community gardens. …

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