Tuesday, April 20, 2010

No Community for This Garden

[Note: My laptop, recently on life support, has now expired - may she RIP. :( I have managed to get regular access to another laptop while I wait to get a new one, so WILL be posting more frequently.]

Over the last few years, dozens of articles have appeared in the media describing the development of community gardening projects across the country. But not every neighborhood welcomes a community garden. Google “opposition community garden” and you’ll find plenty of stories about resistance to community gardens in different areas across the country.

So, why do community gardens emerge and blossom in some neighborhoods and not others? Is it possible for community gardens to be established through the efforts of just a few dedicated volunteers, or is wider community support required to get the project going?

These are questions I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. Back in January, I wrote about an opportunity neighborhoods in our city were offered by the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation to establish urban orchards. I posted an email to our neighborhood list (which includes only about a third of households in the neighborhood) and was thrilled to get a group of 20+ volunteers willing to be trained to care for the trees and help maintain them, if our neighborhood was selected for the grant.

Ultimately, we did not get selected; neighborhoods with established garden projects were given preference. At the time, I thought that was a little unfair. How could new garden projects get started if preference is given to those with established projects?

Now I’m beginning to think that was a wise choice on the part of those determining which neighborhoods would be selected to apply for the grant. The interest I thought we had for an urban orchard quickly waned. After my initial disappointment that we were not selected to apply for the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation grant, I decided to use the list of volunteers I’d collected to pursue other grants, either for an urban orchard or community garden.

I emailed the group and set up a meeting, but attendance was low. Of those who initially expressed enthusiasm for an urban orchard, only four in addition to Rick and me showed up. Nobody else emailed (even after follow-up reminder emails from me) to say they wanted to be involved, but just couldn’t make that date and time. So I could only conclude that very few were interested.

Our tiny group of six decided to do a survey. The survey had two purposes:

1) to reach out to the two-thirds of the neighborhood not on the email list and perhaps enlarge the group of those interested in a garden project; and,

2) to fulfill a requirement for a local new garden grant.

The response rate to the survey was anemic – around 3% of households. (For comparison, among social researchers, a 33% response rate is considered “good” for a snail mail survey.) Responses were low even among the original group who volunteered for the urban orchard opportunity. Only about a quarter of that group responded to the survey.

So what’s going on with our neighborhood? I think it’s no accident that Detroit has a thriving community garden network while our (upper?) middle class neighborhood of university professors, lawyers, judges and other professionals is largely disinterested. People in areas hard hit by the economic downturn (impending collapse, some would say) have had to struggle to meet basic needs; i.e., food, shelter, and clothing – and in the process, learn about the importance of food security. Whereas many people in our affluent neighborhood do not seem to understand the value of growing your own food in your own neighborhood, when you can, as one person told me, "just go to the Farmer’s market or grocery store and buy it."

To be fair, one woman in our neighborhood is getting a children’s garden started at an elementary school. Unbeknownst to each other, she was trying to get a children’s garden going at the same time that I was pursuing the urban orchard. They are slated to break ground for the children’s garden this month.

The children’s garden has the advantage of having the land problem solved: they can plant it on school grounds. Whereas the location of an urban orchard or community garden will likely be contentious. The neighborhood association Board of Directors successfully resisted a past effort by the city to move a community garden to one of the two parks in our neighborhood. The Board argued that the park should be for all the residents of the neighborhood, and not just the few who would be gardening there.

When the Board was notified by a well-meaning neighbor that I was holding a meeting to discuss a potential urban orchard or community garden, the president fired off an email to me reiterating their opposition to use of a park for that purpose. I’d always thought their reasoning was ludicrous on its face: There are plenty of facilities at parks that not everyone uses – like the softball pitch that only softball teams use or the playground that only children use.

Besides, some people enjoy a garden even if they are not working in it themselves. Several elderly neighbors who responded to the survey indicated they would like to see a garden project in the neighborhood, but noted they would be unable to participate due to age or disability.

Moreover, the argument that a community garden should not be in a park because the park is for everyone, not just the few who garden, sounds like the kind of thing people say when they want to cover less worthy motives with something that sounds a little more high-minded.

The woman who initiated the children’s garden project advocated for it using educational research on children and learning. So far as I know, she has not encountered any opposition. I’m guessing that’s probably because it’s hard to oppose something that’s “for the children,” that has a foundation in research on education, that utilizes land nobody else is using, and that involves only people who live in the neighborhood.

It may be that I took the wrong approach to advocate an orchard or community garden. Not wanting to scare off my neighbors with talk of “peak oil,” the problems with industrial farming, climate change, predicted food security concerns, and the like, I instead wrote about my experience of a mini neighborhood orchard back in New Mexico.

I began my article for the quarterly neighborhood newsletter by describing the pecan trees that were planted in our New Mexico neighborhood as part of a Depression-era jobs creation program. I related how much our neighborhood enjoyed those pecans and that I had the opportunity to meet the guy who had been paid thirty-odd cents per tree to plant them.

Then I went on to talk about the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, how we were not selected for the grant, and noted that those selected already had established gardens and organizations to run them. My (not so subtle?) goals were to describe the non-controversial benefits of producing food in the neighborhood and to suggest that we were missing out on opportunities enjoyed by other neighborhoods who had already gotten started on their gardens. I urged everyone to make their “voice heard” by responding to the survey.

I was disheartened by the anemic response – but not too surprised. I’ll write in more detail about the survey results in my next post, but just leave you with this question. Of 998 households, only 32 (counting our own) responded. Two were opposed to any garden project, two opposed an orchard, and several preferred ornamental gardens like prairie gardens or rainwater gardens. Just 12 indicated they would be willing to help with an effort to get a garden project started. I had hoped to get a core group of at least twice that number. Given that 25 volunteers to help with an urban orchard quickly dwindled to six, (two of whom are Rick and me), my feeling is that 12 may be too few.

Or maybe I’m just lazy. I take that back. I don’t mind doing a lot of heavy lifting, as I already have done to solicit volunteers for the first grant opportunity for trees, research other grant opportunities, write the newsletter article and survey, recruit volunteers to hand deliver a quarter of the surveys (as our Board president funded postage only to those households who had paid their association dues) and now analyzing the survey results and writing a report.

But I can’t do everything, and feel I need a truly dedicated core group to work with to make it happen - especially as I have reason to believe there is more opposition than the survey indicates. What do you think? Anybody out there have experience with establishing a community garden in a relatively affluent neighborhood?

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