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Community Gardens: The Scarlett Letter of Neighbourhood Prosperity?

By Keith E. Hernandez
November 15, 2010

Many communities throughout the country have been struggling with the problems caused by the burst of the housing bubble in 2008. Some neighborhoods that were already saddled with blighted housing now had the burden of additional housing that was vacated due to bank foreclosures. With Federal assistance being provided in the form of Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) funds, communities could acquire foreclosed homes and demolish some of the more challenged structures.

In the early part of the 2000s, prior to the crisis of 2008, cities such as Detroit, Michigan had been dealing with a rapidly decreasing population with an aging, neglected housing stock for years. One of the ideas that had been considered by the Detroit city planners was that of “urban villages”, a way to increase density by grouping new and rehabilitated houses in close proximity to each other, eliminating poor housing stock through demolition, and using plantings to create “greenbelts” in sections of the city that would be mothballed until situations were made right for redevelopment. It was an idea that was effectively a way of saving the salvageable and working to make things better for the future. The idea was shelved by policymakers who criticized it as a sign of surrender.

The idea has been re-introduced in Detroit and a number of other cities through the urban gardening movement. Urban gardeners are working to create places where central city residents can have access to healthy, locally grown foods by starting community gardens in newly created vacant lots, due to the use of NSP demolition dollars, in their neighborhoods. Conceptually, two issues that plague low income areas would be addressed with a single solution: fresh food access and an aesthetic solution to the lack of development in these areas. Planners and gardeners are working hand in hand to identify suitable locations and get community associations involved in cultivation, crop selection, and plot maintenance. The underlying issues of fresh food access and blight are still in effect, but the solution is a clever way to begin to address them. However, the prospect of the proliferation of urban gardens has not been completely embraced by community leaders.

There is still no satisfactory answer to who will ultimately control the land on which the gardens grow. Is it the city itself, the gardeners or the neighborhood associations? If they revert back to the city when the time comes to redevelop, what is the city’s role in filling the void in healthy food access? If the gardeners are the new owners, would they readily relinquish to developers if the communities become desirable locations for new housing? What is the commitment to re-establishing a residential tax base from the gardeners and associations if they are satisfied with the gardens that have replaced the housing?

One major issue that has been overlooked for the most part is the role that gardens play in highlighting a neighborhood’s shortcomings. Ostensibly, the more gardens on city controlled land that a neighborhood has, the more tangible evidence in its recent past has been a less desirable neighborhood in which to live. Each garden replaces a blighted structure or a place where there was an opportunity to build. In a sense, each garden stands to represent an outward failure of the neighborhood to perform its function: to house residents and provide desirable communal opportunities. Planners must take care to spread gardening opportunities on city controlled land as equitably as possible or take the risk of experiencing resistance from neighborhood associations that fear being stigmatized.