Green is in. I'm not talking about environmental activism in America, but the literal "greening" of our country. The greening movement is happening most visibly in urban areas and its success reaches beyond beautification. From New York to Chicago to Seattle, gardens in the city provide food and serenity, build stronger neighborhoods, and help clean up the environment. Gardening is not just a "feel good" activity any more. More and more city officials and community groups are recognizing that gardens reduce crime, increase citizen involvement, increase property values, empower residents to build stronger ties to their neighborhoods, and provide nutritious food in areas where it may not be readily available. During National Garden Month we encourage everyone to support their local community gardens.
Greening often starts in cities in the form of a community garden. The ingredients are simple. Take a vacant lot, a few passionate neighbors, help from local officials and community groups, and add a little old fashioned hard work, and the lot is transformed into a garden filled with food, flowers, trees, and shrubs.
But what ultimately grows there extends beyond the transformation of one city lot. Time after time, community gardens start a domino effect of positive actions in the wider community.
A typical example is the Latino community of Norris Square. In the 1980s this North Philadelphia neighborhood was plagued with crime, drugs, trash, and vacant, rundown buildings. Then a group of neighborhood women decided to take action, reclaiming a vacant lot and creating the Las Parcelas Community Garden. It became a place for community residents to grow vegetables, flowers, and herbs. They also created an outdoor kitchen, a colorful La Casita ("the little house") to represent life in Puerto Rico in the 1940's, and colorful murals about rural Puerto Rican life.
With help from the city and Philadelphia Green (a program of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society) the renewal spread. Soon neighbors were fixing up their houses, planting flowers in containers and window boxes, and cleaning up graffiti. People started taking pride in their neighborhood. Gardening classes for kids replaced drug deals. New street trees replaced abandoned cars, and community festivals replaced street fights. "This community went from being one of the most drug- and crime-plagued locations in the city where people were afraid to even leave their homes, to a beautiful, safe neighborhood filled with trees, gardens, playgrounds, cultural events, and pride," says Eileen Gallagher, project manager for Philadelphia Green.
Gardens not only build pride and involvement among neighbors, but they make communities safer as well. Researchers at Texas A & M University evaluated the correlation between crime levels throughout the city of Austin, Texas and the amount of green vegetation in the city. The results were eye opening.
Using a satellite system (GIS), researchers mapped the amount of greenery in Austin and came up with an average percentage of greenery for the city. While many crime prevention officials believe vegetation offers more opportunities for crime, rates were actually lower in areas with above-average amounts of greenery and higher in areas that had less than the average amount of greenery. Interestingly, there wasn't a correlation between the amount of vegetation at the crime site and the income level of the area. Wealthy and poor areas both benefited from lower crime rates if they had above-average amounts of greenery.
In another study, researchers at the University of Illinois compared crime rates at 98 apartments in public housing developments in Chicago. They categorized apartments by the level of greenery around them. They found buildings with high levels of greenery had one-half as many crimes compared to buildings with low levels of greenery. Their research supports previous work that shows people who live in green surroundings experience less graffiti and littering as well.
It's so clear that parks and community gardens aren't just about beauty and food, but are tangible foundations for building prosperity, literally from the ground up.
During National Garden Month, we are encouraging everyone to garden. If don't have green space of your own, there are resources available to help you get started. To find a community garden in your city or town, or learn how to start one, contact the American Community Gardening Association, at www.communitygarden.org.
If you feel compelled to do more, check out National Gardening Association's Adopt a Community Garden Program where you can lend support to a specific community garden in your area (www.garden.org/asg).