By Megan Smith
How many times have you wandered through a community garden and noticed its beautiful smells, creative architecture, stunning colors and abundant produce? Each garden is a wonderful and productive part of our metro area. This summer, one thing that became clear to me is the central importance in the Twin Cities of the land itself, the land on which community gardens are planted and more and more of our food is raised. Without the land, community gardens and urban farms would not be there for us to enjoy.
Right now, the Twin Cities is home to over 200 community gardens and several urban farms. They provide food for families, beautify neighborhoods, protect our water, educate youth, create stable neighborhoods by decreasing crime and increasing social connections, and empower community leaders.
But while community gardens and urban farms are now a growing part of our city, they are a much smaller part than they were in recent history. Take for example the 1940s, when Victory Gardens were tended by city dwellers and occupying everything from vacant lots to school grounds to railroad rights-of-way, and provided as much as 40 percent of the fresh produce consumed locally. There is so much potential in the land we have around us.
I am a member of the Land Stewardship Project, which, in conjunction with Gardening Matters, is working to focus on the importance of securing access to land for community gardening and urban agriculture. Recently, I met with 20 community garden leaders. In these conversations, I heard from gardeners about land access arrangements that work well for them and the benefits that come when they have long term stability.
I have also talked to many gardeners who are at risk of being shut down because of land tenure uncertainty. Questions about future access to a plot of land fractures the relationship between the grower and the soil that is key to a sustainable food system. Struggling to make sure the garden will not be shut down takes valuable energy away from other garden activities.
Yet a significant challenge for community gardens and other types of urban agriculture is gaining long term access to land.
Everything from economics and misperceptions about food production, to outdated or misapplied government policies threaten the permanency of community gardens and urban farms. It is clear to me that gardeners and urban farmers need clear options for gaining long term access to land.
As energy costs rise and our economy shifts, so too will the ways our food system operates—and clearly locally grown is a viable, healthy and popular option. But that requires securing land for urban agriculture—literally transforming our urban landscapes to promote a more sustainable food system.
Long term, stable access to land allows gardeners and farmers to invest their time and talents in the ongoing success of their garden or farm as a vibrant part of the community, local environment and our food system.
When land is available year after year for growing on, gardeners are better able to develop the soil through cover cropping and perennials, host bees and other beneficial insects, and build systems for composting and water collection. When gardeners are able to create permanent spaces for people to gather in, strong relationships are cultivated through familiarity and stability.
When people have long-term access to land, they are able to invite more people into the garden, and people can trust that such community spaces will be there for many years to come.
The Twin Cities is home to a wide range of gardens, farms and markets, and each will need a unique approach that works best for them. Not every garden or farm needs long term access, but those that do require clear strategies to get there.
Community gardens have found secure land access through developing long-term leases with landowners, and through strong relationships with the community that they call home. They have found good partners in neighborhood associations, churches, schools and parks all around the metro area, and these partners are sometimes open to hosting a community garden for many years. Gardening Matters offers training and assistance for developing these vital community relationships.
Developing the many potential pathways for land security requires a collaborative effort. One working group, which includes the Land Stewardship Project and Gardening Matters, as well as several other local organizations, urban gardeners and farmers, has been exploring strategies for long-term access to land.
I want to see the goal of long-term access to land realized for the community gardens and urban farms of the Twin Cities. Reaching this goal will be a key step toward transforming our local food system and our urban landscapes. So, the next time you walk by a community garden, stop in, say hello, and learn more about it, the food it produces and the people who are making it happen!
Megan Smith recently served an internship with the Land Stewardship Project’s Community Based Food and Economic Development Program.