Across the United States, community gardens have gained attention as sites for local food production and as avenues to connect with nature. These benefits are even more evident due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as many turned to green spaces, including public parks and agricultural areas, during this time of pronounced social isolation.
In a cross-sectional study of participants from the United Kingdom, Hannah Burnett and her colleagues found that green space visits increased from 49% to 68% between April 2020 and April 2021. The presence of green space and the built environment are key social determinants of health, but community gardens are a unique form of this because of the ways they integrate social connectedness with nature. As community gardens continue to gain traction in both academic and popular discourse, understanding their role in shaping our social and natural environments is critical to wielding them as tools for positive, long-lasting change.
Globally, health benefits are associated with community garden participation regardless of various demographic characteristics Community gardening is thought to be associated with improved health via increased physical activity, but also because gardeners generally eat fruits and vegetables more frequently than their non-gardening counterparts. While community gardens are often discussed in relation to food security, the association between the two is inconsistent. Several studies have reported positive correlations between food access and community garden participation, while others do not find significant relationships between these variables. Interestingly, several studies note that community garden participation is associated with reduced fast-food consumption and increased diversity in fruits and vegetables consumed. Food safety concerns over contaminants are important to consider as well, especially when empty lots are converted to community gardens. An Ohio study found their test soils to be contaminated with heavy metals, though levels of polyaromatic hydrocarbons were below detectable levels, and foodborne pathogens were not found; implementation of soil testing can help ensure that produce from community gardens is safe to eat.
When discussing the role of community gardens, mental health benefits are also particularly salient. Community gardeners appear to have greater neighborhood attachment and more social interaction, regardless of whether this was their initial motivation to join their garden or not They also have greater perceived social support and life satisfaction, as well as lower perceived stress. One study of allotment gardeners in the UK describes significantly improved mood and self-esteem after only a brief period of gardening, highlighting the potential for gardening to serve as a preventative public health measure. Community gardens can also support the mental health of refugees and recent immigrants from agricultural areas, as they provide spaces to engage in traditional farming techniques, as well as avenues to grow and access culturally significant foods.
Community gardens are also touted as sites to facilitate sustainability education, as Danjan Datta notes regarding water-saving strategies practiced by children in these environments. Kean Roberts also highlights the methods through which community gardens can foster place-based learning about environment-society relationships, principles of nature (like pollination and the process of decomposition), and sustainable strategies for agriculture These results signal the importance of community gardens in fostering appreciation of nature. Hopefully, the early ages at which many children in these studies learn about environmental concepts will parlay into a lifelong commitment to sustainability and environmentalism.
When considering these findings, we must keep in mind the social and local contexts in which community gardeners are established, as this may alter the benefits derived from them. Much of the current literature on community gardens is confined to industrialized areas of the United States, limiting the scope of knowledge we have on their effects. Expanding research to encompass non-English speaking gardens and those outside the United States, as well as assessing the impact of community gardens on local biodiversity, are prudent next steps. Additionally, conducting longitudinal research (especially after the emergence of COVID-19) will help elucidate their true influence on health and the environment.
To promote the wellbeing of all populations, it is critical that we support the development of local, state, and national policies that increase equitable access to green space, bolster food security, and increase social cohesion. To fight climate change, policies must support renewable technologies, encourage sustainable lifestyle changes, and promote environmental education in just ways. Community gardens can support these efforts by reducing barriers to participation, implementing nature education through both formal and informal avenues, and encouraging community food-sharing amongst gardeners and non-gardeners alike. Building community gardens in historically disinvested areas can improve physical and mental health indicators when thoughtfully crafted with local buy-in and the needs of the neighborhood in mind. However, it is important to remember that community gardens are not a silver bullet. While they certainly have their place in the battle for safer and more sustainable spaces, additional solutions are necessary to address the underlying institutional factors that contribute to the environmental and health injustices so pervasive today.
— Anila Narayana
RCC Fellow Anila Narayana is a senior at the University of Colorado Boulder majoring in Geography. She is passionate about the intersections between health equity and environmental justice, particularly involving subjects like access to green space. Anila hopes to eventually become a physician while contributing to research and programming on health-environment interactions.
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