On Tuesday, NPR’s All Things Considered aired a story by Dan Charles on community gardens. Most people, including myself, have strongly positive associations with community gardens and Charles’s take on them was surprisingly downbeat.
In particular, he focused on the decision that community gardens make between communally managing plots or allocating plots to individuals for their personal use. In indicting the communal management model, a George Mason professor cited the failure of a similar model to produce banner yields for the Soviet Union, while a veteran community gardener cited personal experience: “Our experience is, it’s an unequal participation, and an unequal sharing.”
The importance of clearly defined responsibilities in the garden is something that we’ve learned first-hand at Farmscape. Ambiguity inevitably produced headaches. After some trial and error, we’ve settled on a pretty straight-forward relationship with our members: we are in charge of everything except for harvesting of highly perishable greens and herbs.
Of course, there is something wonderful about the communal experience and the role that community gardens play in providing access to arable land to those who could not otherwise afford it. The question, then, is how to capture these benefits while avoiding the downsides cited in Charles’s reporting.
While the story draws a dichotomy between communal management and individualized plots, I think there is a third option that merits consideration. What if these plots were expertly managed for the benefit of the community? After all, cities have expert staff maintain their parks, streets and sidewalks. Why not their community gardens as well? And if food security is one of the primary ends of such gardens, is there any doubt that expert management would boost yields significantly?
Such expert management would have to be graceful. Many food gardeners derive significant enjoyment from managing their own plots, and it would be a mistake to rob them of this experience. Others though are more interested in the food and communal aspects of a garden, and would probably welcome the assistance. Keeping their plots healthy would then benefit the more engaged gardeners, as pests and disease are kept in check.
I’m not aware of an existing community garden that uses this model, but with proper government funding and support, it seems very feasible. What would such a model look like in practice? Farmscape is currently exploring ways to make it work. Let us know if you have any good ideas. Community Garden Image from Flickr User Parker Yo! Creative Commons