Big cities offer access to better public transportation and pedestrian areas. But the density of urban areas also brings negatives, like a lack of green space and limited access to fresh, local food. It’s so bad that researchers have started referring to these areas as “food desserts,” a phenomenon that accelerates obesity and illness in already-underserved populations.
So what’s the antidote to a severe lack of plants, healthy food and community culture in urban areas? Gardening, of course!
The past decade has seen a resurgence in home and community gardens. Around the country, people are turning lawns, vacant lots and rooftops into miniature farms. For a fraction of the price of store-bought produce, we’re growing our own fruits, vegetables and herbs, reestablishing vital community networks in the process. Thanks to online yard sharing tools and communities, even those that don’t have space for growing food can participate in and benefit from the process. In a time of corporately-controlled, toxin-filled food system, gardening has become a powerful and revolutionary act.
But not every city is garden-friendly. Outdated laws have led to more than a few conflicts with residents who want to grow food instead of grass.
Wonder where your city stands? We’ve rounded up five of the best U.S. cities for urban gardening, as well as a few that are behind the times.
Best U.S. Cities For Urban Gardening
Seattle’s P-Patch Program oversees 78 urban gardens distributed throughout the city on 44.5 acres of land. Community gardeners grow food on 13.5 acres of the land and steward for the public an additional total of 31 acres. Food growing acres directly serve 4,400 gardeners. All P-Patch Community Gardens are open to the public to enjoy and are used as restorative spaces, learning/idea incubators, and places to gather and visit. The gardens also provide a way to give back to the community: gardeners contributed over 28,000 hours in 2012 (equivalent to 13 full time workers) and show their concern for the value of organic vegetables and community by supplying fresh produce to Seattle food banks and feeding programs.
The Portland Community Gardens project is increasing community gardening opportunities in Portland. A scarcity of community garden space combined with an ongoing interest in food security, self reliance and sustainability led to an Oregon Solutions project to boost the ability for Portlanders to grow their own food. There are 47 community gardens located throughout the city, and the program is currently accepting applications for new plots and projects. Portland is also home to FarmMyYard, a grassroots effort to connect those with yards to those who are looking for a space to cultivate, and is very active on SharingBackyards.
3. St. Louis
Gateway Greening, formerly Gateway to Gardening (GTG), is a non-profit founded in 1984 by Sue Reed and Kitty Hoblitzelle. Their mission is to educate and empower people to strengthen their communities through gardening and urban agriculture. Gateway Greening’s programs include supporting more than 200 community and youth-focused gardens across the St. Louis area through educational opportunities, grants and technical assistance; urban beautification projects that enhance the downtown St. Louis urban landscape; and the City Seeds Urban Farm, a 2.5 acre farm in downtown St. Louis providing therapeutic horticulture and jobs training programs to individuals who are homeless and underserved. The city is also home to the very active St. Louis Urban Farm and Sustainable Development group and UrbanHarvestSTL, a group of volunteers that created St. Louis’ first downtown community garden in the spring of 2011.
Alaska, with its nearly 24-hour-long days filled with sunshine in the summer, grows the largest cool season vegetables. It holds the world record for the world’s largest cabbage, which weighed in at over 125 lbs. with leaves over 5 feet across, according to the Anchorage Daily News. Anchorage also provides access to land, education and other resources necessary for community members to grow food in environmentally sustainable ways as a means to creating a food system where locally produced, affordable, and nutritious foods are available to all. There are six community gardens located throughout the city, each with varying plot sizes available for a rental fee. The city is also home to The Anchorage Food Mosaic, an organization that explores the diverse intersections of food through writing, photography, event planning, community dialogue and connecting to the system through growing, harvesting, cooking, and preserving.
5. New York City
Think the Big Apple is a concrete jungle? Think again. NYC is home to GreenThumb, a program initiated in response to the city’s financial crisis of the 1970s, which resulted in the abandonment of public and private land. Green Thumb provides programming and material support to over 500 community gardens in New York City. Workshops, which are the access point for supplies, are held every month of the year, covering gardening basics to more advanced farming and community organizing topics. The city is also home to GrowNYC, a hands-on non-profit that operates the world famous Union Square Greenmarket, a city-wide school gardens initiative, and multiple community gardens, including Riverpark, the city’s first completely portable urban farm.
>>Up Next: 3 Worst Cities for Urban Gardening
…And Now For The Worst
In late 2012, a neighbor complaint about vegetables being grown in the front yard led the City of Orlando to cite the Helvenston Family for violating section 60.207 of Orlando’s Land Development Code (failure to maintain ground cover on property) and set a deadline of Nov. 7 to comply. The family made national headlines with their pledge to fight the outdated regulation, and they recently won their case with the City Council.
In 2011, resident Denise Morrison saw her extensive edible garden–filled with more than 100 plant varieties–destroyed by authorities while she was awaiting a court date to work out a citation stemming from a complaint. At the time, Morrison was unemployed and the vast garden was her main source of food.
3. Oak Park
After the city of Oak Park, Michigan, tore up Julie Bass’ front yard to replace a sewer line, the homeowner and mother saw an opportunity. Rather than replacing the front yard with dirt and a lawn, she decided to put in a vegetable garden. It’s a decision that almost landed her in jail. All in all, Bass constructed five large planters where her family’s front yard used to be. And those planters violate city code, which calls for all unpaved portions of a front yard to be covered with grass, ground cover or shrubbery or “other suitable live plant material.” The violation carried a sentence of over 90 days in jail. Thankfully, common sense prevailed and after national outcry, the city dropped the charges.
Do you know of a city that belongs among the best (or worst) for urban gardening in the U.S.? Share it in a comment!
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