In Vancouver, developers discovered that turning their vacant lots into community gardens while they waited for their next project to be ready could save them hundreds of thousands of dollars in city taxes. Putting a garden on a commercially zoned site allows it to be reclassified as public park or garden, resulting in an 80% tax saving — even if it is known that the garden is temporary. In one downtown property where a hotel parking lot was converted to an urban farm, the property owner is saving $132,000 a year in taxes.
Given the realities of real estate land values in cities, this policy at least rewards developers for setting up gardens and managing some of them — however temporarily. For the community gardeners involved, even getting a temporary plot is obviously worth it.
Getting a Permanent Garden Site
The most secure gardens are ones that have made their way onto public lands already protected from development — parks, schools, and rights of way for power lines or sewer access.
Community gardens deliver their biggest added value when they're sited in places that are not already green and protected — places like parking lots and abandoned industrial sites.
The Two-Block Backyard Garden
Two neighbors in Vancouver have put together a new kind of community garden. It's made up of the backyards of residents in two city blocks. It started with a flyer asking neighbors if they had land available for growing food. Thirteen people showed up for a meeting. They started teaming up to plant and weed each other's backyards. That led to potluck dinners, a bee hive, some chicken coops, a shared greenhouse, a neighborhood compost operation, canning parties, and harvests two and three times bigger than they were before.
"We share tools, organize large purchases of seeds, compost and rentals together to lower fees," says Kate Sutherland, one of the organizers. "Each week we go to one person's garden to tackle a large project that would take a single person at least a day or two to do themselves. The results have been quite dramatic, visually and emotionally. We've all been blown away by how simple, effective and fulfilling this has been."
They've even produced a manual, The Two-Block Diet: An Unmanual. It includes the caution that "each neighborhood is different, and only you'll know if things are going to work in your area." (twoblockdiet.blogspot.com)
10 Steps to Starting a Community Garden
- Organize a meeting of interested people. Determine whether a garden is really needed and wanted, what kind it should be (vegetable, flower, both, organic?), who it will involve and who benefits. Invite neighbors, tenants, community organizations, gardening and horticultural societies, building superintendents (if it is at an apartment building) — anyone who is likely to be interested.
- Form a planning committee. These should be people who are committed and have the time to devote to it, at least at this initial stage. Choose a good organizer to be the garden coordinator. Form committees to tackle specific tasks like funding and partnerships, youth activities, construction and communication.
- Identify all your resources. Do a community asset assessment. What skills and resources already exist in the community that can aid in the garden's creation? Contact local municipal planners about possible sites, as well as horticultural societies, community garden networks and other local sources of information and assistance. Look around your community for people with experience in landscaping and gardening.
- Approach a sponsor. Some gardens "self-support" through membership dues, but for many, a sponsor is essential for donations of tools, seeds or money. Churches, schools, private businesses, or parks and recreation departments are all possible supporters. One garden raised money by selling "square inches" at $5 each to hundreds of sponsors.
- Choose a site. Consider the amount of daily sunshine (vegetables need at least six hours a day) and availability of water, and do soil testing for possible pollutants. Find out who owns the land. Can the gardeners get a lease agreement for at least three years? Will public liability insurance be necessary?
- Prepare and develop the site. In most cases, the land will need considerable preparation. Organize volunteer work crews to clean it, gather materials and decide on the design and plot arrangement. Community gardener Velma Johnson, from the 3400 Flournoy Block Club Garden in Chicago, emphasizes the need to have a long-term vision from the outset for the future of the garden.
"You need to look five years or more down the road when designing a community garden, and then work toward that vision. Chances are the garden is going to go through two or three transformations along the way, and it will be easier to work through and manage this change if you know what the garden is going to look like in the future."
- Organize the garden. Decide how many plots are available and how they will be assigned. Allow space for storing tools, making compost and don't forget the pathways between plots. Plant flowers or shrubs around the garden's edges to promote good will with non-gardening neighbors, passersby and municipal authorities.
- Plan for children. Consider creating a special garden just for kids — including them is essential. A separate area set aside for them allows them to explore the garden at their own speed.
- Determine rules and put them in writing. Gardeners are more willing to comply with rules that they have had a hand in creating. Ground rules help gardeners to know what is expected of them. Think of it as a code of behavior. Some examples of issues that are best dealt with by agreed-upon rules are: Dues — how will the money be used? How are plots assigned? Will gardeners share tools, meet regularly, handle basic maintenance?
- Help members keep in touch with each other. Some ways to do this are: form a telephone tree, create an e-mail list, install a rainproof bulletin board in the garden, or have regular celebrations. Community gardens are all about creating and strengthening communities.
Source of the above 10 steps: Adapted from guidelines of the American Community Gardening Association.
Excerpt reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New Society Publishers. http://newsociety.com.
©2011 Peter Ladner. All Rights Reserved.
This article was adapted with permission from the book:
The Urban Food Revolution: Changing the Way We Feed Cities
by Peter Ladner.
The Urban Food Revolution provides a recipe for community food security based on leading innovations across North America. Producing food locally makes people healthier, alleviates poverty, creates jobs, and makes cities safer and more beautiful. The Urban Food Revolution is an essential resource for anyone who has lost confidence in the global industrial food system and wants practical advice on how to join the local food revolution.
About the Author
Peter Ladner is a Fellow at the Simon Fraser University Centre for Dialogue focusing on Planning Cities as if Food Matters. He was first elected to Vancouver City Council in 2002 and re-elected in 2005. In 2005 he was elected Vice Chair of the Metro Vancouver Board. In 2008 he ran for Mayor of Vancouver. Peter is a columnist in the Business in Vancouver Media Group, where he co-founded the award-winning Business in Vancouver weekly newspaper in 1989. He has more than 35 years of journalistic experience in print, radio and television and is a frequent speaker on food, business and community issues. Visit his website at www.peterladner.ca/