Updated Nov 1, 2022
City life certainly has its perks, but when it comes to starting a garden, urbanites often feel like they’ve drawn the short end of the stick. There’s plenty of opportunity for city dwellers to nurture a green thumb, from urban gardening at home to joining a community garden.
Sure, you might not have the space to grow rows of produce in your backyard, but don’t let this stop you from planting some tomatoes on your rooftop, growing herbs in a windowsill, or getting involved in a neighborhood community garden. After all, growing your own food in a city can be a great way to foster community and build connections with neighbors, support sustainability, promote healthy eating habits, and give back to the community.
Before we get too deep, let’s discuss the terms urban agriculture (gardening) and community gardening.
Urban agriculture includes any form of growing plants and raising animals in a city environment. This could be anything from a large sprawling rooftop farm such as Brooklyn Grange in New York City, to a windowsill container garden or some backyard chickens.
Community gardening is similar, but varies in that a community garden involves neighbors getting together to nurture and grow on a plot of land somewhere in their region. Some community gardens are run by an organization, whereas others are managed by an individual or group in the community. People might collectively manage and maintain the entire garden, or each person may have their own plot of land to grow on as they please.
Community gardens are common in cities throughout the United States, from Raleigh City Farm in Raleigh, North Carolina, to La Finca del Sur in New York City. Most are committed in some way to using food as a way to foster healthy neighborhoods, empower people in the community, and educate individuals on gardening and nutrition. Community gardens are also a way of working toward food justice—the right to grow, sell, and eat healthy food—especially in low-income neighborhoods with poor access to healthy and nutritious foods.
Raleigh City Farm is a nonprofit urban farm that connects locals with sustainable urban agriculture by selling produce grown on site, hosting events and workshops on topics like food preservation and gardening, and taking on volunteers for work days, farm tours, and “wine and weeds” Wednesdays, where people can stop by the farm for a glass of wine and join their neighbors for some weeding.
“Today, most people, especially those in urban environments, are so removed from where their food grows and who grows that food,” says Rebekah Beck, general manager of Raleigh City Farm. “It’s important for city-dwellers to have access to seasonal, local produce for their health and well-being as well as from an environmental perspective.”
The closer our food sources, the more sustainable our environment and food systems will be.”
With participation open to anyone, Raleigh City Farm uses its one-acre farm to help locals get closer to the land and “inspire our community to think about how they can best support those growing our food locally using responsible growing methods, enabling greater well-being, the preservation of our environment, and improved quality of life,” Rebekah says.
At La Finca del Sur, which was developed on an empty and unkempt lot in New York’s South Bronx in 2009, a group of individuals created a community farm as a way to increase food access and environmental justice and empower women of color and their allies in the community. The farm is run by a five-member, majority female board, most of whom are black and Latina, along with members and volunteers who are regularly involved with the farm and more sporadic volunteers and visitors.
The farm is open to anyone, allowing people a chance to reconnect with the earth and learn more about various aspects of food and farming. Members are able to manage their own plots of land for the season, while produce grown in the farm’s communal beds is sold at a local farmers market, once again benefiting the community at large.
One of the biggest contributions of urban and community gardening is the ability to gain more power over the foods you eat. When you grow your own food, you can control how it’s produced and become less reliant on chain markets. You’re able to say goodbye to the numerous questions that flood your brain every time you pick up a piece of produce in the supermarket, like how something was grown, if chemicals were used in the growing process, and how far it traveled to get to the market.
“Urban agriculture projects, community gardens, and home gardens give everyone the chance to have some small control over their food supply,” says LaManda Joy, founder of Peterson Garden Project.
And in this process to empowerment, of course, comes education. Located in Chicago, Peterson Garden Project is a food education program that transforms unused urban land into a space that can be used to teach people how to grow their own food. Participants come away with lifelong skills for producing food and engaging with their communities—and get to experience an important and powerful connection with the natural world.
“Since everybody eats, it seems like a good idea that everyone has at least a basic understanding of where food comes from and how it is grown,” LaManda says. “Urban dwellers are often far removed from traditional agricultural spaces, so having the opportunity to see food growing and, ideally, participate in that growth creates a meaningful experience on many levels.”
And Peterson’s effects are far reaching. Many who have participated in Peterson Garden Project programs have gone on to start community and school gardens, become urban farmers, and grow their own food.
Other socially forward community gardens and agriculture nonprofits can be found throughout the country.
Having the opportunity to see food growing and, ideally, participate in that growth creates a meaningful experience on many levels.”
The Carolina Campus Community Garden (CCCG), located in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, allows UNC-Chapel Hill students, faculty, staff, and local residents to volunteer and provide free, local, and sustainably grown produce to the university’s lower wage employees. Born out of a North Carolina Botanical Garden program, the CCCG also serves as a learning community for the development of gardening skills, healthy living, social responsibility, and interdisciplinary academic pursuits.
Some of the UNC-Chapel Hill courses affiliated with the garden include Food Politics, Communications and Non-Profits, Agriculture and the Environment, Political Ecology, and Sustainable Local Food Systems.
In Durham, North Carolina, SEEDS uses a two-acre teaching garden and classroom as a means of empowering youth through growing, cooking, and sharing food. The organization uses its farm and kitchen classrooms to teach students how the food system, environment, and people impact one another, along with how to make equitable and healthy food choices. Students who participate in the programs often have the chance to bring home food to their families, says Lara Goodrich Ezor, operations and communications manager at SEEDS.
The Michigan Urban Farming initiative (MUFI) is a volunteer-run nonprofit operating in Detroit’s North End that uses agriculture as a way of empowering the community, promoting sustainability, and reducing socioeconomic disparities. Most of their work happens within a two-square-block area the organization is redeveloping and using as space to teach sustainable agriculture methods and increase access to local and organic produce. The food access element is important, given that the nearest grocery store sits more than a mile away.
Spanning about two-acres, the farm produces around 20,000 pounds of produce each year, which is free to anyone, with priority given to neighborhood residents. Typically, more than 2,000 households, churches, businesses, and food pantries receive produce from MUFI.
The farm is home to Detroit’s only high-density fruit orchard—including more than 200 trees—and has implemented innovative ideas such as converting a blighted home into a cistern that’s used for irrigation. Ideas like this improve the neighborhood by removing abandoned buildings and replacing them with something that benefits the community.
In Oakland, California, Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project uses urban farming to challenge oppressive dynamics and environments in the low-income inner city area of East Oakland where it’s located. The nonprofit teaches community youth and their families about nutrition, healthy living, and food production in a safe outdoor space that encourages creativity and looks to deepen their connection to the community and the land.
Beyond offering opportunities to grow food and take cooking and nutrition classes, Acta Non Verba hosts community building events, youth-oriented childcare camps, and offers various access points to fresh produce through a CSA, farm stand, and food pantry. After planting and harvesting food, local youth have the opportunity to sell produce at the farm stand, with profits going toward educational savings accounts for the participants.
In a community of primarily low-income African American and Latino residents where most students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch, and pollution, crime, and urban blight are high, the organization provides a way for community members to develop a deeper connection to the earth, something many of them are often not exposed to.
Urban Farming is an organization that encourages transforming unused land into urban community gardens as a way of inspiring, educating, and uplifting communities and making them healthier. Their “Urban Farming 100 million families and friends global campaign” encourages people to establish and register community gardens as part of something they call the “Urban Farming global food chain”, which seeks to use urban gardening as a way to improve food and financial security for those involved.
With urban and community gardens in such abundance these days, most urbanites will be able to find a local community garden without too much trouble. Google, of course is a great resource to find a garden nearby. And many cities also have searchable databases that are extremely helpful for clueing you in to nearby gardens.
In New York, for example, you can use GreenThumb NYC‘s community garden map or GrowNYC’s Oasis Community Garden Mapping Project database, among plenty of other resources. And the American Community Garden Association offers a database that covers many US cities.
You can also reach out to some of the organizations we’ve mentioned if you live in the area, or talk to people in your neighborhood or city to find out if they know of any local community gardens. As long as you’re open to learn and chip in wherever a garden might need help, most will be willing to have you on board.
Remember that gardening isn’t just for the skilled. Most community gardens are more than willing to take on volunteers with limited or no gardening or farming experience. And the perks abound—you’ll become closer with your community and the land, gain easier access to fresh foods, become an empowered eater, develop food production skills, and, in most cases, contribute to building a stronger neighborhood or community.
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