Urban Ag as Resilience to Persistent Social Inequity

When I wrote City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America (University of California Press, 2005), my underlying goal was permanent community gardens and urban farms as part of our urban and suburban fabric.  Through a historical account of the critical phases of garden programs, I showed the persistent, if episodic, support community gardens received as a means to address a range of social and economic concerns. Since the 1890s, I argued, we’ve promoted community gardens as a means to address local food access, community engagement, education, and empowerment in times of war, economic downturn, and social unrest. By showing that we’ve successfully done this over and over, I made the case for not reinventing the wheel but instead sustaining productive landscapes as part of our public infrastructure, similar to our attitude and investment in parks, playgrounds, and schools.

I was wrong. Or at least my perspective was misleading. This was not intentional and probably due in part to my scholarly training that focused on documentation and proof from reliable sources. As a scholar, I used the materials at hand – archived documents from libraries and collections that included advocacy materials produced by federal, state, and local governments, non-profit organizations, philanthropic groups, and popular magazine and news articles. Within these documents were second-hand references to gardeners’ lived experiences, but more often it was experts stating the need and providing advice and guidance to get people to garden. Let me teach you how to grow food so that you can help yourself and your community. It was the gardening version of the proverb, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”

Twenty years of scholarship later, I acknowledge that it has taken me far too long to see what was in front of my eyes and being told to me time and again by contemporary gardeners and urban farmers – that individuals find value in urban gardening and farming and do it, regardless of the support and advocacy out there. 

What I missed was that the experts were already relying on existing practices. Many people – particularly recent immigrants from rural communities in and out of the US were already gardening.  They had to – it was not only part of their way of life but also a skill that was necessary to support self and family.  

In other words, community gardens and urban agriculture are persistent because they are valuable to individuals. Period. Support from government, philanthropy, and others may rise during times of crisis because gardening is seen as a means to many ends, and this support helps but can rarely be relied upon. Over and over again, supports diminish after the crises end. Experts shift back to other duties, land reverts to previous uses.  And while gardeners enjoy their harvest, their sweat equity in the land, their work building soil fertility, and the social capital that grows out of cooperative gardening are not honored as permanent investments.

Why does this matter? It matters when we think of structural inequalities inherent in US communities that made exceptions to allow gardening and farming during crises but ignored the sustained need for this resource. The worked land is an investment that needs to be recognized.  It is also important because it gives agency to the gardeners who have always made things grow, made gardens thrive.

For me, our work with Cultivating Justice is about shifting the focus toward the many leaders in African American communities that sustained the skill and ability to grow food, whether in rural contexts, towns, suburbs, or cities.  This connection between African American experiences in rural farming and urban community gardening is another aspect of the Great Migration that still needs to be told.

In the coming weeks, we are asking some community garden activists to share their stories as part of this blog. The stories often have connections to rural farming, but also to aspirations of what urban communities can become.

Image: Arlington, Virginia. FSA (Farm Security Administration) trailer camp project for Negroes. Project occupant tending his victory garden. Photograph by Marjory Collins. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress) . Call number: LC-USF34- 100030-E [P&P] LOT 204 (corresponding photographic print).

Published by laurajlawson

Laura Lawson is a Professor of Landscape Architecture at Rutgers University. She is author of City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) and co-author of Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity (Washington DC: Island Press, 2017), Greening Cities, Growing Communities: Urban Community Gardens in Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009), as well as of numerous publications in academic journals, edited books, and popular media. She is co-founder of the Urban Ag Lab, which supports academic and outreach efforts that connect urban and suburban communities with agriculture and open space in order to enhance the economy, landscape, and culture of New Jersey.

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