Garden Helps Community Grow, Flower

As Prescott inches closer to realizing the longstanding aim of creating a bona fide community garden, there are a number of aspects to the story that merit additional attention. In particular, aside from the obvious benefits of growing food and displaying civic pride, such an initiative can be an important tool of community building, peacemaking and economic self-sufficiency.

The American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) observes that a community garden “improves people's quality of life by providing a catalyst for neighborhood and community development, stimulating social interaction, encouraging self-reliance, beautifying neighborhoods, producing nutritious food, reducing family food budgets, conserving resources and creating opportunities for recreation, exercise, therapy and education.” A recent ACGA survey suggests that in the US alone there may be more than 5,000 community gardens today.

In the World War II era, myriad backyards and parks were turned into “victory gardens.” In addition to producing food for public consumption during lean times, these gardens also were seen as important morale boosters and community empowerment projects. At their height, the US Department of Agriculture estimates that Americans planted more than 20 million victory gardens, yielding approximately 40 percent of all produce consumed in the nation.

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More recently, community gardens have become associated with emerging social movements sometimes gathered under the headings of “food justice,” “food sovereignty,” and “food security.” The basic notion in these formulations is that growing food for ourselves, our families, and our communities is an important step toward reclaiming power that we have steadily ceded to remote agribusinesses, and likewise that genuine security comes through the capacity to produce essentials like food without being beholden to outside interests.

Beyond food production, another critical aspect of security is the cultivation of strong community ties. When people work in concert to acquire, restore, and cultivate land for both nutritional and aesthetic purposes, they begin to develop mutual respect, bonds of trust, cooperative instincts, and the sense of a shared future. By doing this through the medium of environmental engagement, an additional notion of being part of something larger than oneself can steadily emerge.

All of this fits squarely within the framework of what is sometimes referred to as “environmental peacemaking,” where diverse (and even at times warring) parties can literally find “common ground” by building ties through a mutually-beneficial ecological undertaking. Sometimes strife-ridden regions will cooperate to protect sensitive watersheds, collaborate on old-growth forest preservation, or establish shared “peace parks” that cross national borders.

What is most surprising in this field is that joint environmental projects can serve as a key point of conflict resolution, even when the underlying conflict is about something else altogether.

In this spirit, community gardens bring people together across race, class, and other lines in ways that serve to promote solidarity and forestall conflicts. A number of community gardens donate produce to local food banks and other charitable organizations. One project in Grand Junction, Colorado, was designed specifically for homeless people to acquire small plots of garden space to grow food, learn new skills, and develop greater self-esteem.

All of this is merely to illustrate the many layers of positive potential that can grow out of a community garden. It's still a bit of a well-kept secret, but Prescott is actually known in certain circles as a cutting-edge locale for small-scale food movement activities, including the Farmer's Market, Community Supported Agriculture, and the decentralized Karma Farm project.

With the addition of a city-endorsed community garden, Prescott can take another important step in becoming a model of food self-sufficiency and the cultivation of a healthy community.