by Russ Grayson, 2011
Community gardens seem such a compellingly good idea to many of us. This, unfortunately, is a sentiment not shared by all.
Those who assist community gardens make a start know that the common objections to community gardens made during the community consultation phase frequently stem from a fear of change and a fear of loss of open space. When other types of development have been proposed there have been good grounds for these fears. Now, however, those fears are encountered more and more when local government or community groups propose a community garden on public open space (public open space is a land classification used by local government for land that is owned or controlled by councils and that is accessible to the public).
Common objections to establishing community gardens include the fear that the garden will attract rodents, vandals and undersirables, become a source of unpleasant odour and noise, deprive locals of parking space and look untidy. All of these objections can be dealt with through design and training. What cannot be dealt with so easily is the other objection: that community gardens alienate public land and that the herbs, vegetables and fruit they produce are for the exclusive benefit of the few who grow it.
Becoming more prominent
Claims of alienation of public land by community gardens is figuring more frequently among objections to proposals for new gardens. This I have learned through my work. People fear they will be excluded from open space they may have visited as it is taken over by garden beds and people they do not know and who might not live in close proximity. Proximity to a garden can certainly figure in some objections; in one case gardeners living only a few streets away were seen not to be locals.
That the space objectors fear losing access to is a resource-consuming lawn monoculture, or even an area of degraded lawn, does not matter. It's the space, not what grows there, that they fear losing. Land access is seen as more important than land use even when objectors might not use the open space very often. Their resistance is a symptom of the lack of open space in our cities, cities that are to become more densely settled as we accommodate an expanding population. More people, less open space-it's a recipe for competition for access to public land that is likely to become more acute.
Charges of alienating land should be seen in the context of public land use because other facilities thatlocal government makes available to the public also alienate land, some more than community gardens might. Bowling clubs are an exclusive use of local government land as are sporting fields when in use and sometimes even when not in use, when they might be gated. These things, like community gardens, are recreational opportunities of value to the physical and mental health of citizens and are all part of modern cities that people expect local government to provide.
Gardener attitude to visitors is critical
Some community gardeners don't help alleviate the fear of alienation of public open space when they become possessive and exclusionary about the land their garden occupies. They view suspiciously any stranger entering the garden and hurry over to find out their business, and the tone they adopt at times can be less than helpful. This possessive mentality merely feeds the accusation sometimes made against community gardens that they are extensions of gardeners' backyards and are exclusive enclaves on public land.
A similar impression can be gained when community gardens are surrounded by high chainlink fences. Sometimes, it's councils that insist on the erection of high fences; sometimes, they are erected for good reasons such as to deter vandals that have repeatedly damaged the garden. Whatever the reason, in areas where there is limited public open space and where population is denser, high fences can create the impression of exclusion. The unfortunate point about this is that there may be little support for the community garden among local non-gardeners; were the existence of the garden to be threatened, then support for it from non-gardening locals might be scarce.
One garden in a densely populated area with little public open space nearby, and that has a high fence around it, has been the subject of complaints. Local people say that it is open only on one weekend day and only for a very short period. Many like the idea of community gardens but feel that they are excluded from this one because of its limited hours and because the gardeners do not make people feel welcome when it is open. Being locked behind a high fence, the space is not available to local families at times other than those when gardeners are present. It is seen as the exclusive facility for the few. Were the land that garden is built upon to be resumed for a different use, then support from local people for the garden's continuance would probably be quite limited.
Ownership of food is another issue that is starting to appear among objections about community gardens. There is a notion, still held by only a few, that food grown on public land should be available to all. This is a 'gleaners' attitude that is probably fed by the popularity of guerrilla gardening where food plants are established on public or private lands without permission and become a resource available to all who know about them. Gleaning is the harvesting of food that would otherwise go to waste. It can be seen where gleaners make arrangements with householders to harvest the unwanted fruit on their trees, or in the harvesting of bushfood fruits in public parks.
Another likely contributor to the anyone-can-take attitude are edible plants such as fruit trees planted on street verges where they are available to passers-by, often the intention of those who plant them. It is likely that people do not distinguish between verge plantings and unfenced community gardens on public land.
Where it has come up, community gardeners who grow the food and put in the hours and the funds, say that what they produce is for those who make the contribution to growing it. They say those who would take it without contributing are free to join the community garden and to grow what they would take.
People often ask who gets the food in community gardens, but this is usually a question about how the produce is divided among gardeners and they do not insist that it is a resource available for all. So far, the assertion that food in community gardens on public land should be food for all, including those who do not help to grow it, is heard only occasionally. That it has been heard infrequently but increasingly more recently may signify that it could come to figure in discussions around new community gardens.
Gardeners at Alexandria Community Garden in Sydney had to put up a sign to explain that people are free to walk around and look at the plants, but if they want to take them then please join the community garden and help grow them. The community garden occupies the end of a soccer field in the grounds of a school and is unfenced.
The case for gleaning gardens on public land in the US has been explored in the book Public Produce (2009, Nordahl D; Island Press, USA.). The author's attitude is akin to that of those who say that community gardens are a private use of public land and he proposes community gardens as gleaners gardens, though he does not adequately address the issue of those who would take the food helping to grow it.
For most involved in urban agriculture, there is a clear distinction between food grown in community gardens for the benefit of community gardeners and the gleaning of wild foods or of unused backyard produce.
Searching for solutions
A small number of community gardens maintain a gleaning patch accessible to passers-by at the front of their gardens. These are usually herbs and low-maintenance vegetables. Doing this is valuable in terms of maintaining good public relations.
Where community gardens are surrounded by high fences, welcoming visitors into the garden during opening hours and stating on a sign that people are welcome to visit is a positive way to create good relations. Some gardens set up a role especially to do this, to show visitors around and answer their questions. Inviting them to wander through the garden to look at plants is another way to improve relations with local people. Doing these things should be seen as part of the cost of growing food on public land.
A trend among local government is to grant to community gardening teams a non-exclusive licence to use the land. Licences might state that the public is free to enter the community garden for purposes compatible with gardening. Most people just want to take a look at what's going on and to look at the plants. This gets away from accusations of exclusivity in the use of land. Both Randwick City Council and City of Sydney outline this arrangement in their policies on community gardening and in the licences they provide to community garden teams.
Granting non-exclusive access to public land for community gardening, and gardeners welcoming visitors into fenced gardens during opening times, are positive moves to counter accusations of exclusive use and of alienating public land.
Public landuse - right of privilege?
You can spend hours debating whether accessing public land for special purposes is a citizen's right or a privilege. Whichever it might be, and it's probably a bit of both, when it comes to establishing community gardens on public land, proponents should anticipate those common objections mentioned above as well as that of alienating public open space. Pointing out that other uses of public land could be seen to alienate it, and that those who want the community garden are as much part of the public as those objecting to it and thus should have access to use the land for their purposes, might be a start.
But the real challenge is to manage the community garden as public land. That means applying environmental management approaches in regard to soil and quality of rainwater runoff. It also means recognising that the community garden team has been granted management of public land and that it should continue to be managed as such, including welcoming visitors onto the site.
For more local governments, such as those granting non-exclusive licences to make use of public land for community gardening, community gardens are special purpose uses of public land; they are special use installations in city parks and should be managed as such.