Urban Community Gardens

The ways in which humans interact with the natural environment has drastically changed in the last century.  The majority of the world’s population has shifted from a rural to an urban setting.  Humans have altered and adapted nature with such success that we sometimes find ourselves completely encapsulated by man-made artifacts.  This loss of connection to the natural world is not a new concern.  In the late 1800s, The ‘City Beautiful’ proponents began advocating for public parks as a way to improve public health and combat urban problems.  The desire to have a quick and easy escape from the hectic city has prompted city officials and residents to create urban parks, gardens, and open green spaces throughout much of history.  One of many urban problems that still exists today, although in a different form, is a deterioration of civic society.  Urban life has imposed on its residents a feeling of alienation from both nature and the people around them.  Research suggests that there is much to be gained from the restoration of human relationships to place, in terms of health, social and economic development, and, most of all, sustainability. Our surroundings have a profound impact on the way we construct our realities.  The desires to enjoy a ‘sense of community’ and reconnect with nature are closely intertwined.  This continual concern for the loss of ‘community’ stretches back to the earliest urban investigations.

In order to understand the emerging urban experience, genuine investigations must be used to recognize the ways in which identities and social relations bind with locales to produce structurations of urban power. I believe community gardens can be just such a catalyst. The existing literature shows that community gardens foster both unique identities and social relationships that are attached to a meaningful place where more powerful individuals and communities are built. American urban planner Kevin Lynch, sought to understand how people perceive their environments and how planners and community activists can respond to the deepest human needs. In a similar light, this study aims to understand how a change in an environment effects residents’ perceptions and how a development such as a community garden may cater to some of our deepest human needs.

Increasingly, localities are recognizing community gardening in their open space planning process. Community gardens are open spaces managed and operated by members of the local community for a variety of purposes. Portland, Oregon is just one of a handful of cities that have undertaken extensive inventory of vacant lands for their potential to support community agriculture. In 2004, Portland’s City Council passed a resolution which called for an inventory of properties suitable for urban agriculture. The city enlisted the help of Portland State University’s Urban and Regional Planning graduate students to coordinate and implement the “Diggable City” inventory. They found 289 locations in Portland that would be suitable for the development of gardens and other urban farming.

One way to more fully understand how community gardens can encourage a reconnection between urban residents and the places in which they live is by measuring neighborhood satisfaction.  The body of research on how community gardens affect the residents who live in the surrounding area around a garden is weak at best. This research proposal calls for an analysis of four neighborhoods in Portland, Oregon before and after community gardens are established in each of them.  In-person surveys and qualitative anecdotal data should be collected from residents in order to understand if the introduction of a nearby community garden affects their views towards their neighborhood. This research aims to provide a glimpse into what, if any, social affects the establishment of a community garden has on the surrounding area.

Research Design, Dr. Loren Lutzenhiser, Portland State University, 2009


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