In 1996 American Community Gardening Association conducted a survey of members to try and determine the number of community gardens (CGs) in the U.S. The survey accounted for public housing as well. According to the returned surveys, out of 6020 gardens 983 were located on public housing sites. As home&community inc began working with low-income residents to bring community gardens and other local food resources to their neighborhoods, we learned a lot about CG’s and how to set them up via land trusts, or through leases, purchases and new zoning ordinances. But, we wondered what has happened on public housing land in the 14 years since the ACGA survey.
We began by reviewing the areas where we have network contacts, talking to residents and researching housing authorities. In the process, we also talked to people about steps to get a community garden set up on public housing property.
Most housing authority directors and staff are open to the idea of community gardens. We are finding — from scholarly and news articles and directors themselves — that they believe CGs encourage community interaction and reduce blight and crime. Residents are interested in starting their own gardens. The key has been to get a large cross-section of residents involved in or at least benefitting from what is produced – so that the garden is sustaining and continues beyond the first season. It was a natural progression to bring our policy organizing methods to CG development. A community garden addresses social equity issues of community food security, healthy food choices and food deserts. The challenges at public housing sites seem to have been resources, expertise and space. Quite simply:
- Resources have been addressed by third-party non-profits and other local, community/volunteer groups. These include design and materials.
- Expertise has been addressed by those same non-profits, in addition to university Extension programs that offer Master Gardeners and other gardening organizations/associations.
- Space is usually identified by residents and they seek permission from the housing authority (and often approval from the resident council) to use it. Then, residents tend the gardens and housing authority staff monitors the activity.
In New York City, there are 572 community gardens on public housing sites according to NYCHA. This is down from the stated number of 834 by ACGA in 1996. We wondered what accounts for the large discrepancy. Is it due to different definitions of community garden? NYCHA has three categories: flowers, vegetable, children’s. But even that doesn’t explain how or why the numbers went down. Is it that respondents in 1996 mistook parcels as existing on housing authority land, when it was really on city or private land? Did NYCHA reduce the number of CGs? So, it is statistics like these that we are reviewing in order to come up with a clear number for all sites.
As part of our overall mapping of food sources in particular cities, we want to conduct a census of CGs on public housing sites, similar to what the folks at Neighborhood Farm Initiative did to determine all community gardens in Washington, D.C. To begin, we are looking at housing authorities in the following 18 states and D.C.: Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, Washington, D.C., West Virginia and Wisconsin. So far, our sources reveal over 700 community gardens in public housing, in just these states!
As you can see, we’re expecting to well-exceed the 983 CGs in the 1996 ACGA survey. We’ll keep you updated!