By: Fariha Rashid
You’ve just finished a rough day of classes, filled with lectures and problem sets and awkward social interactions with your fellow students. You’re tired and hungry, and right as you step up in the buffet line of your college’s servery, you notice that the meal of the hour is not only unappetizing, but also probably unhealthy, since cooking healthy meals for thousands of students is a difficult feat and therefore not confronted. What I need, you think bitterly to yourself, is easy access to healthy foods. Rather than being a far-fetched dream of the student suffering from Freshman 15, this can actually be a reality through the increased and systematic implementation of community gardens, which have numerous health, educational, and ecological benefits.
A community garden, or as they are known in Europe, an allotment plot, is a piece of urban or suburban land expressly reserved for the public to grow fruits, vegetables, flowers, and other non-commercial goods. Individuals or families each own or rent a plot, and several plots form an allotment site. As shown in a case study conducted by Jürgen Breuste, Professor at the University of Salzburg, and Martina Artmann, PhD Candidate, in Salzburg, Austria, allotment plots have a variety of benefits for those who utilize them, including saving money, avoiding chemical additives in food, reducing their carbon footprint (growing your food locally reduces the number of miles that same food would have travelled if grown elsewhere), doing light exercise, and experiencing a sense of community. In the same case study, which analyzed over 500 individual allotment sites, surveys showed that almost 50% of those who used the allotments reached the area using a bicycle, highlighting the easy accessibility and continued environmental benefits of these gardens.
From an ecological perspective, community gardens also experience an improvement in soil quality. This comes as a result of people using self-produced organic fertilizer, planting trees and shrubs, and cultivating the fruit and vegetables. Animals are prevalent in allotments, with birds, small mammals, and amphibians regularly observed. Significantly, according to Martina Artmann (contacted in Salzburg via e-mail), allotment plots aid the conservation movement by providing areas in which endangered species can be maintained or even expanded. For example, in Lithuania native endangered woody and herbaceous plant species can be satisfactorily grown in urban plots that match the light, humidity, and other living requirements. Many endangered plant species are grown in allotments to provide fruits, herbs, and medicinal plants.
The concept of a community garden is not new, and according to Artmann, they are quite popular in Europe, especially Germany and Austria. They are considered “very cool and trendy” amongst the younger generation, who typify the community garden as a form of political expression. In the United States, the largest community garden in the country is located in Denton, Texas, which is near the Dallas-Fort Worth area. According to an article in The Dallas Morning News, the Shiloh Field Community Garden is 14.5 acres large and provides fruits and vegetables for low-income and single parent families, as well as non-profit organizations. In 2013, nearly 24,000 pounds of produce was harvested, and the number reached over 30,000 pounds for 2014.
Some may argue that community gardens require too much space, and therefore can only be restricted to suburban or open country spaces. However, as shown by the Salzburg case study and the general European example, space is not an issue. Urban community gardens not only thrive, but have the added bonus of providing easy access to public transportation to and from the gardens, minimizing the use of personal vehicles. Also, to counteract limited space in urban settings, plots called “sky gardens” can be constructed on the roofs of buildings, as currently done in parts of Hong Kong. According to Artmann, the primary variable that could impede the spread of community gardens is urban policy. To protect the gardens from urbanization, they need to be given more priority on local policymakers’ agendas.
Not only would community gardens save me from the dreary regularity of college dormitory food, but they would also provide me with a place to give back to those in the city that need the most help. The gardens would act as key zones of conservation activity and environmental benefit.
“Allotment Gardens Case Study.” Message to Martina Artmann. 13 Sept. 2015. E-mail.
Breuste, Jürgen H., and Martina Artmann. “Allotment Gardens Contribute to Urban Ecosystem Service: Case Study Salzburg, Austria.” J. Urban Plann. Dev. Journal of Urban Planning and Development 141.3 (2015): n. pag. Web of Science. Web. 13 Sept. 2015. <http://ascelibrary.org.ezproxy.rice.edu/doi/pdf/10.1061/%28ASCE%29UP.1943-5444.0000264>.
Wylie, Melissa. “Largest Community Garden in U.S. Feeds the Hungry in Denton.” The Dallas Morning News. 4 Apr. 2014: n. pag. Print.