Designing And Growing Community Gardens


Community gardens vary widely throughout the world. And there are as many styles as there are gardeners. It can be a formal foodscape with flowers and food, rented by anyone who wants to garde, or it can be a bare bones functional design meant to feed the community, and without a lot of structure.

In North America, community gardens range from familiar "victory garden" areas where people grow small plots of vegetables, to large "greening" projects to preserve natural areas, to tiny street beautification planters on urban street corners. 

Some grow only flowers, others are nurtured communally and their bounty shared. There are non-profits in many major cities, that offer assistance to low-income families, children groups, and community organizations by helping them develop and grow their own gardens. 

In the UK and the rest of Europe, closely related "allotment gardens" can have dozens of plots, each measuring hundreds of square meters and rented by the same family for generations. In the United Kingdom, community gardening is generally distinct from allotment gardening, though the distinction is sometimes blurred. Allotments are generally plots of land let to individuals for their cultivation by local authorities or other public bodies—the upkeep of the land is usually the responsibility of the individual plot owners. Allotments tend to be situated around the outskirts of built-up areas. Use of allotment areas as open space or play areas is generally discouraged. There are an increasing number of community-managed allotments, which may include allotment plots, and a community garden area, many of them overseen by the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens.

In Japan, rooftops on train stations have been transformed into community gardens and gardens for those who do not have space to grow their own. Plots are rented to local residents. These community gardens have become active open spaces. And they're also geared toward giving stressed-out commuters a place to unwind and meditate. The most well-known is the Machinaka Vegetable Garden-Sorado Farm. There are currently five Sorado farms in operation, the largest of which is on top of the JR Ebisu station in Tokyo. For an annual fee of just under $1,000 per year in the JR Ebisu garden, anyone can rent a plot that measures about 32 square feet. The fee includes gardening supplies. Still sounds pretty pricey to me. Then again, it's in the heart of Tokyo. Repurposing unattractive, unused spaces into food gardens is a great idea for a lot of reasons. As one would expect, the Japanese rooftop community gardens are well-thought out, aesthetically pleasing, and neat as a pin.

In the developing world, commonly held land for small gardens is a familiar part of the landscape, even in urban areas, where they may function as market gardens. They also practice crop rotations with versatile plants.

Community gardens are often used in urban neighborhoods to alleviate the food desert effect. Food accessibility described in urban areas refers to residents who have limited access to fresh produce such as fruits and vegetables. Food deserts often serve lower-income neighborhoods usually in which residents are forced to rely on unhealthy food options such as expensive processed foods from convenience stores, gas stations, and fast-food restaurants. Community gardens provide accessibility for fresh food to be in closer proximity located in local neighborhoods. Community gardens can help expand the realm for ensuring residents’ access to healthy and affordable food in a community.

These gardens are a way for a variety of cultures to come together and create a stronger community. Focusing on creating equitable and respectful spaces where farming knowledge can be shared is crucial to creating a just food system for all community members. Communities hold specific knowledge and expertise about their local environment, and therefore, community members have the power to play a central role in the creation of their local food system. Partnerships between academic researchers, farmers/practitioners, advocates, and community members will filter knowledge of healthy foods and farming techniques throughout the community as a whole. All of these benefits will lead, in researcher Montenegro de Wit's opinion, to "a more egalitarian food system" that "will likely emerge from participation by those traditionally excluded from it.

Community gardens may help alleviate one effect of climate change, which is expected to cause a global decline in agricultural output, making fresh produce increasingly unaffordable.Co mmunity gardens are also an increasingly popular method of changing the built environment in order to promote health and wellness in the face of urbanization. The built environment has a wide range of positive and negative effects on the people who work, live, and play in a given area, including a person's chance of developing obesity Community gardens encourage an urban community's food security, allowing citizens to grow their own food or for others to donate what they have grown. Advocates say locally grown food decreases a community's reliance on fossil fuels for transport of food from large agricultural areas and reduces a society's overall use of fossil fuels to drive in agricultural machinery. 

Health effects of community gardens

These gardens improve users’ health through increased fresh vegetable consumption, and providing a venue for exercise. A fundamental part of good health is a diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, and other plant based foods. Community gardens provide access to such foods for the communities in which they are located. Community gardens are especially important in communities with large concentrations of low socioeconomic populations, as a lack fresh fruit and vegetable availability plagues these communities at disproportionate rates.

Community and school gardens have been shown to have positive health effects on those who participate in the programs, particularly in lower rates of obesity in school children.  Many studies have been performed largely in low-income, Hispanic/Latino communities in the United States. In these programs, gardening lessons were accompanied by nutrition and cooking classes, and optional parent engagement. Successful programs highlighted the necessity of culturally-tailored programming. 

There is some evidence to suggest that community gardens have a similar effect in adults. A study found that community gardeners in Utah had a lower body mass index than their non-gardening siblings and unrelated neighbors. Administrative records were used to compare body mass indexes of community gardeners to that of unrelated neighbors, siblings, and spouses. Gardeners were less likely to be overweight or obese than their neighbors, and gardeners had lower body mass indexes than their siblings. However, there was no difference in body mass index between gardeners and their spouses which may suggest that community gardening creates healthy habits for the entire household.

Participation in a community garden has been shown to increase both availability and consumption of fruits and vegetables in households. A study showed an average increase in availability of 2.55 fruits and 4.3 vegetables with participation in a community garden. It also showed that children in participating households consumed an average of two additional servings per week of fruits and 4.9 additional servings per week of vegetables.

The gardens bring urban dwellers closer to the source of their food, and break down isolation, by creating a social community. Community gardens provide other social benefits, such as the sharing of food production, knowledge of the wider community, and safer living spaces. Active communities experience less crime and vandalism.

Big Bag Bed comes in sizes up to 12 ft. long. Inserts placed internally in the bed aid in keeping raised beds upright. No construction required. The Big Bag also air prunes roots while protecting plants from underground pests Just unfold, fill and plant. They are usually placed on the ground, but i like this wooden enclosure thing better. The built wood frame in this garden keeps the heavy full bag from sagging, keeps the garden level for disabled gardeners, and gardeners who just don't want to keep bending down. Easier to water, weed and fertilize. And easy to harvest your crops. The bag gardens in wood enclosures are a great idea for your own garden. Elevated cedar raised bed gardens cost upwards of $100 each, and are only about 4 ft. long. And they are not even half as deep as these bag gardens.  I use the cedar beds when i find them on sale, because i decorate them with mostly floral plants and fountains. I would opt for these for an intense and space-saving vegetable garden.

The bag-in-a-box idea shown here, keeps weeding chores to a minimum, the community appreciates the neatness, the plants are snug and keeps critters from bothering them. Awesome. I use the smaller (7-10 gallon) sizes as portable large planters when i start shrubs that i don't want to put in the ground yet, until I have a plan. The smaller bags have handles, and i find it way easier to move them around than plastic pots. These are a blessing for all gardeners, but especially those with special gardening needs. You can grow an entire garden in one of the Big Bags, and community gardens can designate a bag for each crop, which makes it more organized. Or an allotment garden can be planned so that each gardener grows their crops in a "rented" bag. At the end of the season, you can leave the soil in. The bags are weatherproof. 

Land for a community garden can be publicly or privately held. One strong tradition in North American community gardening in urban areas is cleaning up abandoned vacant lots and turning them into productive gardens. Alternatively, community gardens can be seen as a health or recreational amenity and included in public parks, similar to ball fields or playgrounds. Historically, community gardens have also served to provide food during wartime or periods of economic depression. Access to land and security of land tenure remains a major challenge for community gardeners and their supporters throughout the world, since in most cases the gardeners themselves do not own or control the land directly.

Types of gardens

There are multiple types of community gardens with distinct varieties in which the community can participate in.

  • Neighborhood gardens are the most common type that is normally defined as a garden where a group of people come together to grow fruits, vegetables and ornamentals. They are identifiable as a parcel of private or public land where individual plots are rented by gardeners at a nominal annual fee.

  • Residential Gardens are typically shared among residents in apartment communities, assisted living, and affordable housing units. These gardens are organized and maintained by residents living on the premise.

  • Institutional Gardens are attached to either public or private organizations and offer numerous beneficial services for residents. Benefits include mental or physical rehabilitation and therapy, as well as teaching a set of skills for job-related placement.

  • Demonstration Gardens are used for educational and recreational purposes in mind. They often offer short seminars or presentations about gardening, and provide the necessary tools to operate a community garden.


Plot size

In Britain, the 1922 Allotment act specifies "an allotment not exceeding 40 [square] poles in extent".  In practice, plot sizes vary; Lewisham offers plots with an "average size" of "125 meters square". In America there is no standardized plot size.

Community gardens may be found in neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, and on residential housing grounds. The location of a community garden is a critical factor in how often the community garden is used and who visits it. 

The site location should also be considered for its soil conditions as well as sun conditions. Solar conditions are of paramount importance, as above ground gardening is always possible. An area with a fair amount of morning sunlight and shade in the afternoon is most ideal. While specifics vary from plant to plant, most do well with 6 to 8 full hours of sunlight.

Plant choice and physical layout

While food production is central to many community and allotment gardens, not all have vegetables as a main focus. Restoration of natural areas and native plant gardens are also popular, as are "art" gardens. Many gardens have several different planting elements, and combine plots with such projects as small orchards, herbs and butterfly gardens. Individual plots can become "virtual" backyards.

Regardless of plant choice, planning out the garden layout beforehand will help avoid problems down the line. According to the Arizona Master Gardener Manual, taking measurements of the garden size, sunlight locations and planted crops vs. yield quantity, will ensure a detailed record that helps when making decisions for the coming years. Other consideration to garden layout would be efficient use of space by using trellises for climbing crops, being mindful of taller plants blocking sunlight to shorter plants and plants that have similar life cycles close together

Gardeners may form a grassroots group to initiate the garden, such as the Green Guerrillas of New York City, or a garden may be organized "top down" by a municipal agency. 

community garden built in an abandoned railway station.





It is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain leases from landowners without public liability insurance. Garden insurance is a new thing for many insurance carriers and their underwriters are reluctant to cover community gardens. If working with city properties, I would try to have the city or local government insure the land and garden they're donating or leasing. If you're purchasing the land, your organization will have to find liability insurance carriers willing to insure a community garden, at a fair price.


In order to offer a high quality community garden program, good management techniques are essential. Having written rules is very important with older groups as well as new gardens, since they spell out exactly what is expected of a gardener. They also make it much easier to eliminate dead wood should the need arise. Guidelines and Rules are less formal than Bylaws, and are often adequate enough for a garden group that has no intention of incorporating.

Deterring Vandalism

Unfortunately, vandalism is common in many areas. It's why we can't have nice things.

A few methods to deter vandalism:

Note: I would add an area where extra food and bumper crops grown in the gardens may be packaged and designated free, especially in hard-hit urban areas that have less access to a fresh food supply, or possibly have an end-of-season giveaway of bumber crops to neighbors...although that doesn't stop vandals from intentionally destroying or stealing during the season.

People Problems

Angry neighbors and bad gardeners pose problems for a community garden. Usually the two are related. Neighbors complain to municipal governments about messy, unkempt gardens or rowdy behavior; most gardens can ill afford poor relations with neighbors, local politicians or potential sponsors. Therefore, choose rules or bylaws carefully, so that you have procedures to follow when members fail to keep their plots clean and up to code. 
A well-organized garden with strong leadership and committed members can overcome almost any obstacle.

Article compiled using original details, articles on Wikepedia, 
online gardening magazines, university documents, and the USDA
Photos courtesy of Wikemedia Commons

If you live in Pittsburgh, there are several Community Gardens, and your community group can develop one, too.
The following resources will help you plan a Community or Urban garden, share or sell your food in Pittsburgh.

Read about the original Victory Gardens, and wartime food rationing here--->

Read more about Designing and Growing your own urban garden here--->

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