Community Gardens Rejuvenate Concrete Jungles

As urban areas grow bigger and hotter, more people are picking up seeds and shovels to join community gardens, which improves lives and strengthens neighborhoods.
A wide shot of Locust Point community garden, with raised garden beds full of green foliage, flowers, and veggies. A man walks in the background, investigating the vines.
Source: Photographer

“People often ask me what one thing I would recommend to restore the relationship between land and people. My answer is almost always, ‘Plant a garden…its power goes far beyond the gate.’”

Community gardens are public spaces for community events, activism, and learning. Like-minded people across the country have transformed neglected public and private spaces into gardens for a sense of belonging and health and encourage others to do the same.

Putting Community in Community Garden

Neighborhoods around the country are discovering the power of Wall Kimmerer’s advice—that when a garden blooms, so does its community. In northwest Washington, DC, the Glover Park Community Garden is tucked away between tall apartment buildings and a wooded park.

Walking beneath the archway, crunchy woodchips and light chatter greet every visitor. Plots are filled with gardeners lamenting hungry rabbits, discussing their days, and harvesting.

Tired of supermarket vegetables, Kaitlyn Hay first joined the garden to avoid eating industrial farm chemicals. A year of gardening changed her reasons for staying.

“It’s the people that come to the garden, it has that value to build community,” Hay says. “The communal knowledge that’s shared is awesome.”

Four miles east resides Columbia Heights Green, a community garden supported by a close-knit neighborhood.

Formerly used as an unofficial dump, the area is now an open-plan community garden that often hosts cookouts, educational seminars, and busy Saturday workdays.

Manager of collections, education, and access at Smithsonian Gardens in Washington, DC, Cindy Brown, says community gardens help reshape neighborhoods facing environmental injustice and economic recession.

“What you get out of that garden, like food, may not be as important as the strength that you build within that community to help each other out,” Brown says.

The University of California, Davis, published a survey in 2022 about the effect of gardening during the pandemic. Respondents wrote that what began as a solitary endeavor quickly became a shared hobby between neighbors, a safe space to socialize and engage with the community.

Yet community gardens are increasingly threatened by developers. Brown believes they only stay because of initiative taken by community members.

Athletics giant Under Armour (UA) owns several green spaces in its hometown of Baltimore, Maryland. In the neighborhood of Locust Point, UA donated land to the neighborhood, creating the Locust Point Community Garden. Though the garden is now a neighborhood hub, as UA prepares to move its headquarters to Port Convington, Baltimore, it is selling the land the garden is on.

Green America’s executive co-director for consumer & corporate engagement Todd Larsen and food campaigns manager Emma Kriss, in a collective effort with community members, sought to raise the garden’s profile by writing an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun. The op-ed urged UA to protect the important community asset.

“Community gardens like Under Armour’s provide safe spaces for neighbors—in this case nearly 100 households, including Under Armour’s own employees—to take charge of their health by growing nutritious vegetables and fruits that are more accessible to community members,” Larsen and Kriss wrote.

Larsen and Kriss end with a reminder for UA. As one of Baltimore’s largest local businesses, it has the opportunity to sustain those ties by preserving the garden either by continuing the lease or donating the space to the Baltimore Greenspace, a land trust.

Physical and Emotional Benefits

Steve Coleman is a gardener and executive director of Washington Parks and People, a nonprofit that manages the Columbia Heights Green and other community harvest spaces in DC. Coleman believes communities like the Green provide deep mental and emotional benefits.

“The places we put our money and our time are mostly indoor places,” Coleman says. “We’ve increasingly forgotten about the outdoors. We talk about it, but we spend less and less time outside.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirms that Americans, on average, spend 90% of their time indoors.

Yet, many urban environments force people to spend time indoors. Replacing greenery with concrete and asphalt to build cities creates urban heat islands, increasing daytime temperatures from one to seven degrees hotter than rural areas, and keeps it warmer at night too, according to the Climate Science Special Report.

The EPA says urban heat islands contribute to higher rates of heat-related deaths and illnesses, and that the addition of urban forestry and vegetation can lower temperatures by two to nine degrees.

Coleman believes the covid-19 quarantine left people desperate for connection—with others and the outdoors.

“Nature affects us on a very profound level,” Coleman says. “During the pandemic, suddenly, people rediscovered how much they needed, wanted, and valued being outside together with nature and each other.”

In 2020, Reuters reported that home gardening blossomed during the global lockdown. The article reveals that US seed company W. Atlee Burpee & Co sold more seeds in March 2020 than any time in its 144 years of existence. The same survey from UC Davis says gardening played a positive role in anxiety relief during the pandemic.

Under Coleman’s direction, the Green remained open during the pandemic, becoming a class and recreational space for students.

When gardeners care for the land, the earth reciprocates—with food, but also the unique opportunity to know yourself, the land, and neighbors.

Getting Your Hands Dirty

Community gardens aren’t accessible to everyone; a first step for many urban dwellers is to cultivate plants indoors or on porches. Brooke Bennett, Green America campaigns associate, thought gardening at home was going to be easy and instead found it to be a new level of learning to trust herself.

“I felt very confident in my work until I took a trip out of town and came back to almost all of my plants dead,” Bennett says. “It is a learning process, and I can start over anytime I want to.”

At some point, all gardeners were beginners intimidated by the prospect of plant survival. Luckily, gardening is an area where mistakes are common and expected.

“I’ve killed more plants than anyone around,” Smithsonian’s Brown says. “Except for the people that have gardened longer than I have.”

There are hundreds of reliable resources for beginner and seasoned gardeners. Green America’s Climate Victory Garden campaign reveals dozens of international community gardens to join; the American Horticulture Society gives regional-specific gardening advice; and other local guides at public libraries and each state’s land grant university reference Indigenous land knowledge.

Breathing in bird songs and soil, educating and providing nourishment, the community garden serves a key role for many as a roundtable for community gathering.

“When we come together in a collaborative such as this, the pooled wisdom is vastly greater than any one person,” Coleman says. “There’s a real power in that.”

Ready to Get Gardening?

Green America’s Climate Victory Gardens program has tons of resources, whether you’ve never bought seeds, or whether you’ve ripped up your whole lawn to start growing food.

From Green American Magazine Issue