Celebrating the crucial role of community gardens

3rd April 2024

This week the team at Outerspace celebrate community garden week.  Community gardens are widely recognised for their ability to provide green infrastructure in urban areas, create localised food networks, and support community development and cohesion. In recent years as a response to rapid urbanisation and climate change, community gardens have seen a resurgence in popularity.  This increased demand has been linked to growing desires among people trying to reconnect with nature and community, as well as concerns regarding food security within the context of the cost-of-living crisis.

A little bit of history

The origins of the current community garden movement in the UK can be linked back to the allotment movement established in the 20th century through the Small Holdings and Allotments Act of 1908 with the demand for allotments being significantly propelled nationwide, due to various historic moments of social upheaval.

A demand for local food production arose through the First World War, with the need to avert a hunger crisis arising again with the economic depression of the 1930s, as well as the necessity to provide a medium to mitigate social unrest due to mass unemployment.  However, the most notable origin of the UK community garden movement remains the commencement of the Second World War resulting in the pivotal Dig for Victory campaign (Acton, 2011).

In recent years a renewed interest in the economic and, most significantly, environmental and social benefits attributed to community gardens has emerged with a growing body of research demonstrating the holistic positive impact that these spaces provide for humans and nature.

A haven for humans and nature

A wide majority of research conducted on community gardens primarily note the broad variety of social benefits generated through the existence of these spaces.  Among these are a wide array of benefits for both community and individual wellbeing, encompassing improvements in physical and mental health as well as social learning advantages.

A key mental health benefit observed within community gardens involves improved attention performance in both adults and children.  This has been linked to the Attention Restoration Theory (ART), asserting that natural environments can relieve mental fatigue, which implies that access to nature provides a buffer to stress from day-to-day life.  Consequently, as landscape architects, we are able to advocate and contribute to enhancing the opportunities for such spaces within our ever-growing urban environments, allowing for natural spaces of reprieve for humans to reconnect with the natural environment.

Further wellbeing benefits associated with community gardens encompass relieved stress, relaxation, achieving a sense of involvement, accomplishment and self-worth, empowerment, increased satisfaction and motivation, mood improvements, absorption of negativity, as well as provision of hope and a place of retreat.

Despite the numerous individual wellbeing benefits observed within bodies of research, community gardens are primarily recognised for their ability to contribute towards community wellbeing and social cohesion.  This is achieved by the gardens facilitating opportunities for community organising and empowerment.  These spaces are also able to generate social capital through people coming together for a common purpose, creating a meeting place which enables people to interact with each other, as well as facilitating communal activities, and forming links with institutions and authorities (Firth et al., 2011).

In essence, these benefits associated with community gardens can aid with numerous concerns that impact community wellbeing, such as the increasing loss of third places and the resulting upsurge in social isolation and loneliness observed by the World Health Organization.

In addition to benefiting humans, community gardens encompass numerous environmental gains profiting nature.  A few examples include their promotion of sustainable waste management systems such as composting and recycling, and facilitating reduced carbon footprints through sustainable food production and their local distribution, resulting in minimal packaging and processing.

However, research primarily identifies the key environmental benefits of community gardens as their provision of habitats for wildlife and pollinators by establishing green infrastructure in urban environments.  Most significantly, community gardens offer valuable opportunities for environmental learning and education, through promoting sustainable lifestyles and allowing humans to foster connections with nature.  Consequently, they can be crucial spaces of opportunity to expand awareness of general environmental issues within our urban environment and encourage people to create positive, sustainable lifestyle changes by “introducing science to the streets” (Guitart et al., 2012).

Empowering communities

To conclude, evidence demonstrates that community gardens offer numerous benefits for both humans and nature, particularly in enabling community empowerment. Consequently, it is crucial to consider incorporating these spaces, especially within the development of high-density residential areas, which are frequently associated with disenfranchising existing communities.

Community gardens provide an opportunity to mitigate such concerns by fostering community empowerment through community organising. Incorporating these spaces into developments enables individuals to contribute to their environment, resulting in a sense of fulfilment, satisfaction and motivation, which is essential to address the “social, cultural, political and economic determinants that underpin health” (WHO, 2021).

Community engagement in practice

At Outerspace we believe in enabling communities in landscape and urban design through engaging them to achieve their vision with our ‘Design through Dialogue’ approach. This is underpinned by our Human-Nature philosophy, which forms the heart of our ethos and design approach to create places that promote connectivity of humans with humans, humans with nature, and nature with nature – all of which can be achieved through community gardens.

For more insight on our process of community engagement, see our journal post “Landscape Lead Consultation”.

Written by Charlotte Tomlinson, Landscape Architect