Could Neighborhood Gardens Lead to More Sustainable Food?

Central Pennsylavania’s Centre Daily Times has become a hotbed for discussion of food and sustainability recently. Today, Penn State human ecologist Christopher Uhl offers an idea that promotes both sustainable food and stronger community ties: a network of neighborhood “farms.” Uhl’s doesn’t spring merely from his deep thoughts, but from his recent arrangement with a neighbor:

I’ll be gardening in Mrs. Felice’s side yard. She’s my neighbor, an elder in town. She and her husband, Tony, moved into their place in 1950. In the early years, the garden spot served as a play field for the neighborhood kids.

Later, Tony put a vegetable garden there, and Mrs. Felice canned the harvest. After Tony passed on, the garden lay fallow for a long time.

That’s changed now. Last year, when I moved in next to Mrs. Felice, she agreed to let me grow vegetables there.

On the surface, this is just a story of neighborliness. I grow vegetables on Mrs. Felice’s land and share the produce with her. Deeper down within the soil of imagination, though, lies the seed of an idea that has to do with food, community, health and sustainability.

From this mutually beneficial arrangement with his elderly neighbor, Uhl extrapolates into a broader system of neighborhood food production:

Now, let’s scale up. Here in central Pennsylvania, we have a lot of land in our front yards, backyards, church grounds, school grounds, business parks that could be used for the growing of food.

At present, we spend a good bit of time and money maintaining our largely sterile lawnscapes. Many of us even hire gardeners to care for our grounds. As an alternative, why not allow a young person, anxious to get a start in agriculture but without the means to buy land, to start a neighborhood “farm” by knitting together land parcels in your neighborhood, thereby creating a patchwork farm. Those of you in the suburbs, with half acre and acre lots, could be heroes as you transform your subdivisions into diverse, productive patchwork farms.

Think of the advantages: You’d get fresh veggies, make deeper connections with your neighbors, give your kids the chance to live in the midst of something real and vital, and have the satisfaction of knowing that the surplus food from your land was going to be offered to others through local and regional farmers’ markets.

It’s “just an idea” whose time may have come ….

When placed in the context of our current unsustainable system of food production (which Uhl details), this sure seems preferable in so many ways: not only do we end up with healthier food with a much light footprint, but also strenthen ties with our neighborhoods and communities (something sorely missing in the US). I’d think that such a concept would catch on better in urban, as opposed to suburban areas, but perhaps I’m underestimating suburbia… Interestingly, Uhl never mentions organics or permaculture, but I’d think these concepts would almost naturally spring from such relationships: how neighborly is it to throw chemicals on a shared plot of land…

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  1. Thomas Ellis

    Right on, Christopher!

    For a long time, I’ve felt that Relocalization of the Food economy (which is, after all, the basis of any real economy)must be an integral part of any attempt to design a Gaian (i.e. sustainable) future for humanity.

    Here is what I would suggest: How about a model that involves combining neighborhood gardening cooperatives (as he suggests) with Community Supported Agriculture programs?

    Here is how it might work: A neighborhood organization might contract with local organic farmers in the surrounding region to create a CSA program, in which members of the organization would pay a flat fee annually that would purchase them a subscription in the CSA with these farmers. In return, once a week, the farmers would send a truck around to all participating neighborhoods–or to an agreed-upon dropoff point (if easier) to deliver each subscriber’s weekly quota of freshly harvested organic veggies, as they come into season. The locus of the pick-up could also, then, be the locus of a weekly neighborhood Gardener’s Market, where local backyard gardeners could bring their week’s harvest from their veggie plots to trade and/or sell to their neighbors, as they all gather to collect their boxes of veggies from the CSA farm.

    I think this is a workable model, for it would greatly diversify the range of produce available week-to-week–not only what everyone is producing in back gardens, but also whatever the participating farmer(s) have to sell as well. It would have the side benefits of greatly increasing a shared sense of community and cooperation within neighborhoods, as well as a greater awareness of the agricultural potential of their local bioregions. Many CSAs also provide opportunities for volunteer workers to contribute part of their subscription in the form of volunteer farm work, rather than money–which would also help forge urban-rural partnerships, and give teenagers something to do in the summer besides watching TV and chatting on Cell Phones!

    I look forward to any further comments or suggestions…

    Best wishes,


  2. Amelia Meister

    Wonderful to hear that these ideas are spreading. I believe that there are lots of solutions for turning our lawns into food growing options. In our community, members are encouraged to offer their lawns to be gardened by community gardeners. I think that we could go a little further by putting in policy that offers incentives to people who are growing food on their property and people who offer their property to be gardened. In this time of “food shortages” it seems criminal to me to walk down streets lined with grass filled 1/2 acre lots! With all the wonderful methods of food production available to us, like permaculture, we could turn these lots into such abundance for all!

    Thanks for writing!

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