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buffalo, lansing, new york michigan chicago, illinois Urban Gardens as a Mechanism of Community Development and for Sustainable Living Anna Jolley ES&P Honors Thesis/Geller Research Award, Spring ’06 Advisor: Rob Goble Introduction

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new york




Urban Gardensas a Mechanism of Community Development and for Sustainable Living

Anna Jolley ES&P Honors Thesis/Geller Research Award, Spring ’06 Advisor: Rob Goble


One of the key issues facing us in the 21st century is the future of our food security. Increasingly, we are forced to reevaluate our development strategies in light of dwindling resources, deteriorating soil quality and other natural resources, and decreased space. A key component of this change in strategy is the concept that a return to more localized model for food production and distribution—as opposed to previous mass-production models—will most effectively support small businesses more likely to invest in community initiatives and help create a secure and economically independent food supply chain. The idea behind this research is that communities such as that in Worcester, MA can use knowledge of their local “foodshed” or food supply system to not only secure a reliable, healthy source of food through the develop- ment of urban agriculture and community gardening, but to become economically independent and to be able to use this self sufficiency as a political statement that there is a highly feasible way of living which does not involve reliance on large corporations, genetically modified crops, or companies which do not take ecology into consideration when marketing.

Health Requirements for Sustainable Living

Figure 1 (below): Impacts of various degrees of meat consumption on net primary productivity of plants.

The USDA has outlined a set of dietary guidelines for Americans, which are dependent on age, sex, and level of physical activity, which is available online at, and these guidelines may be used as a baseline for determination of what degree

Research Products

The primary intent of this research was to not only discover some of they key commonalities between successful community garden and green space initiatives already in existence, it was to hopefully provide some advice for people willing to take action on the issue of food security and sustainability. With this in mind, research has been documented in a number of ways in order to make its results more accessible. A website, at, details in brief the main findings of the research project. A booklet entitled, “The sustainable individual: things you can do to eat right and save the earth” as well as a trifold pamphlet detailing some of the most important aspects of the research trip, are also available for distribution.

Website- check it out at

Sections: Introduction to Urban Gardening, Ecological Footprinting, Environmental Risks, Current Applications, On the Road, Geographic Information Systems, What You Can Do, and a blog with forums currently up about organic purchasing and gardening techniques. Featured on the On the Road section is an interview with American Community Gardening Association Director Betsy Johnson.

Pamphlet, packet- Below is a sample of some of the research data and information available

Tips and Tricks for urban gardens

For outdoor plants, bury ceramic pots (the kind with a hole at the bottom for drainage) full of compost or organic fertilizers immediately next to the stem or center of the plant. If soil surrounding the plant is low in nutrients or water is scarce or if soil drainage is poor, watering directly into the pot rather than ordinary soil next to the plant will cause water to absorb nutrients in the soil as it makes an easier trip downwards through healthy soil; this nutrient-bearing water then has direct access through the bottom of the pot to the roots of the plant.

Any plant intended for growth in planting zones 6 or 7 which is susceptible to snow or frost (particularly roses and herbs) should be planted in a container and kept in a garage or mudroom during winter months. During this time, these plants should be hydrated not with water, which will freeze in the soil if the air is cold, killing

roots, but rather with snow, which will melt only when the

air temperature is above freezing and at a rate slow enough

not to saturate the soil with water and put it at risk for

future freezing and will remain frozen safely above the

soil if the air is cold.

Use mirrors to reflect light in alleyways or other spaces

with low ambient light to increase the number of hours

in a day that plants have access to sun.

individual consumption is sustainable. In addition to potential changes in the quality of individual consumption which may be considered by inspecting USDA suggestions for healthy diets, we begin to realize that the question of food supply is not only one of obtaining correct amounts of nutritional value but perhaps of substituting lower-impact, lower-cost foods such as coarse grains for foods which require more processing, more soil nutrients, or more fertilizers and packaging for increased production, supply, and greater shelf life and transport distances. For example, the

Research Methods

For the purposes of this research, analysis was performed in three ways: Firstly, a study of current literature on urban agriculture theory and development and current urban agriculture was done to obtain a better idea of current trends across the United States and to look for models which could be emulated in regions where urban agriculture is just now developing. Secondly, an analysis was done of current food requirements based on USDA diet recommendations in order to better understand what nutritional needs can be met when substituting food from sustainable sources while keeping in mind the need for a balanced diet. Along with this research calculations were done to determine the potential impacts of various levels of consumption of meat on environmental resources. Lastly, spatial analysis of the Worcester region was done to determine the accessibility of current urban gardening sites across the city based on public transportation, and to find new sites which had potential for development of new sites in order to extend the existing network.

choice to eat less meat or reduce the number of times meat is served in a week reduces the amount of high-intensity land use which goes into the production of meat and allows more space to be devoted to wheat or other plant products which do not deplete the soil resources of

that region. To determine the relative degree of impact that a given kind of consumption has on the environment, the formula to the left2 has been used to generate a graph which explains these trends (pyramid diagram at top from

As a part of this research, a pamphlet entitled “The sustainable individual: things you can do to eat right and save the earth” has been created to outline a way of determining how sustainable your consumption is. Copies are available at; an excerpt is below

Considering that beef requires roughly 8 times as much energy to produce the same number of consumable Calories from its plant counterparts, we see that there is another dimension to this problem: If even just 1/10th of our caloric intake comes from beef rather than a primary producer (plant), the percent of net primary productivity consumed by humans increases by 70%... take this into consideration when filling out your sustainability chart, as it should play a role in your food purchasing decisions later.

Literature Review And Research Expedition

The best way to learn about gardens and their impacts on communities, then, is to visit them yourself. Thanks in part to a generous grant from the Geller family, I was able to conduct some of my own research firsthand on several leading Northeastern gardens.

Despite the fact that there are some commonalities between community development projects in urban areas, each community being served by these projects, particularly community gardens, is different,each with a distinct set of core priorities and cultural values.

Lansing is the proud home of The Garden Project, coordinated by director Roberta Miller, under whose guidanceLansing’s urban garden network has grown to include not only local residents but Hmong refugees, students in local high schools, and many other groups of diverse age, economic, and social status. One of the main benefits of urban gardens is that they become a public space where community members unite. The Garden Project also organizes volunteers to harvest surpluses of fruits and vegetables from local farms, which is distributed to food pantries, human service organizations, and residents of low-income housing

Buffalo is a beautiful city, full of life. The downtown area

has a farmer’s market, musical performances, and other cultural

community gatherings connected to parks and gardens by with a

farmer’s market network for purchase of local organic produce. While

it is difficult to find space devoted to actual food-producing activities,

groups such as those led by the Buffalo Botanic Gardens offer

a wealth of gardening information.

Chicago is well known for its green approach to urban spaces. Many restaurants produce their own hydroponic vegetables, and schools and city buildings alike arehosts to green rooftops. Even the city park downtown was built off of the rubble of the 1871 fire, a result of the city’s building codes. Adequate planning and local government support and recognition is always a key component of establishing a network of urban green space.

Additional Sites researched:

Overlook Farm in Rutland, MA3demonstrates sustainable technology to the surrounding community, including vermicomposting, biogas production, and other relevant projects; it is a potential source of outside knowledge to Worcester

Urban Garden Resources of Worcester (UGROW)6fosters community partnerships and activism with the creation of channels through which information on safe soil, protection of genetic diversity, soil contamination, organic gardening, composting, organic pest management; it provides information for the community at all levels,, including immigrant families, college students, and local youth, and has a Seed Exchange Network for protecting genetic diversity

City Farmer in Vancouver, Canada444% of people live in households that produce some of their own foods, including not only vegetables but fruit, berries, nuts, and herbs; garden sites are created in homes, public spaces, schools, markets, and on the roofs of businesses, and the group runs workshops for drip-irrigation and water and soil conservation .

Farmer’s Market Systems in Havana, Cuba5over 200,000 hectares defined as “urban” are a part of a plan for organic production of increased food levels through popular participation, which offers technical support to residents to save local fruit trees, among other species, with the overall aim of conserving biodiversity; an active farmer’s market allows daily access to fresh and healthy food

Spatial Analysis: Availability of Current Urban Gardens to Worcester Residents via Public Transportation

One section of research was dedicated to determining how successful the current urban garden network in Worcester is, with particular emphasis on access to the public. One common aspect of community gardens is that Specific criteria for this decision are outlined below.

Figure 2 (left): Worcester bus map of accessibility with inset of two potential problem areas at 42 and 52 Mason Street. Note that when the 330-feet (1 block) buffer is applied, the gardens of interest are not within walking distance of the bus line and are therefore potential sites for expansion of the bus routes.

Figure 3 (below): A more formalized map of Worcester gardens, as well as three new proposed sites for development of urban gardens, based on the criteria outlined in the text.

Fence around one of the community gardens

in Worcester


The first and most important conclusion in my research is that the food we consume can in fact come from local, sustainable sources, and that the infrastructure required in terms of stores, community gardens, and public transportation to allow access to these sources do exist for informed purchasing and decisionmaking by consumers. For a long time it appeared that the biggest challenge facing proponents of spreading urban agriculture, community gardens, and organic and local produce was a lack of institutionalized support for further development of such systems. However, it became apparent as I conducted some of my interviews on the research trip that lack of awareness and motivation are in fact the biggest challenges to organizations or individuals which support this kind of change towards sustainable consumption. Making the lifestyle change towards informed purchasing is not inherently difficult; nor is it costly, when done correctly. However, ecological thinking is not yet mainstream enough for people to not only look for but demand ecologically friendly products. People are more attracted to immediacy and surface pricing rather than long-term health, cultural, and economic benefit. But the infrastructure does exist for people to make the change to more localized economic and food security; there are institutions all over the world offering resources, help, workshops, and funding for people who are interested in making change. It is simply a matter of time and hopefully more education before people change the way they think about food security and green space issues. It is my hope that my research will contribute to those resources which are making a difference.

  • The following criteria have been used to determine the accessibility of existing urban gardens:
  • Within one block walking distance of established bus route
  • In or adjacent to a residential zone
  • Criteria used to determine potential sites for expansion:
  • Away from a railroad (2.5 mile buffer)
  • Near an already established park or area of high pedestrian traffic
  • Imbedded in a residential zone entirely or as nearly as possible (in order to offer equal access from all directions and maximize impact)
  • Other potential considerations in the study of this network could include the location of vacant lots which could be purchased, stores selling organic or local produce or the location of farmer’s markets.
  • Data Sources:
  • //geomas1/Documentation from Clark University’s database of geospatial data
  • Worcester bus route map
  • Previous student research on community gardens

Works Cited

1. Greater Lansing Food Bank. About Us. 12 November, 2005.

2. Harte, John. Consider a Spherical Cow. William Kaufmann, Inc. Los Altos, 1985.

3. Heifer International. Information on Overlook Farm Learning Center. 8 October, 2005.

4. Levenston, Michael. Urban Agriculture Initiatives in the Vancouver Area. City Farmer. Vancouver, August 2004.

5. Pages, Raisa. “Urban Agriculture in Cuba.” Granma International/NY Transfer News Collective.

6. Regional Environmental Council of Central Massachusetts. “Worcester Community Gardening: Grow With Us!” 2nd ed. Sage Creations 2001.

7. United States Department of Food and Agriculture. Food Pyramid Online. 15 October, 2005


I would like to thank Professor Rob Goble for his research and data advice and research assistance and the Geller family for their generous research grant

Maps created using ArcMap© 9.1