Okay, so confessions first: I do not enjoy gardening. There is no part of crawling around on the ground with my hands in the dirt that I enjoy. I do enjoy the product of food gardens, but not enough to make me take up gardening. With that out of the way, I will say that I wish I was into gardening. Local community gardens seem such a great way to meet neighbours, build relationships, and establish at least some small amount of food security. And I assume eating vegetables out of my own garden would be cheaper than buying them from someone else.
Community gardens are becoming more and more common, as a result the amount of research on these projects has also increased. There are two main styles of community garden. Either, they consist of a series of plots in an area that are each managed by individuals, single families, or small groups, or they are one large plot that is managed as a whole by members of a community. They are developed through community up initiatives, although there does typically need to be municipal support through things like zoning allowances, and the local residents are involved in the leadership, planning, and active care of the projects. This has led to them being referred to in research as socio-ecological spaces (Tidball & Krasy, 2007 as cited in Okvat & Zautra, 2011). These are spaces that bring people together within a physical environment and the physical environment in this case provides an alternative to the largely urban spaces where they are located.
Okvat and Zautra (2011) provide a pretty detailed review of the literature in a number of areas relating to the benefits of nature so I’ll just provide a summary here but I will say that I read many of the papers they mention during my thesis work for my Master’s degree. One thing that I do take from this is how lucky I have been to grow up in a city that has significant green spaces (Edmonton’s river valley is the longest urban greenbelt in North America), and today the flip side of that is recognizing how many people even within Edmonton don’t have access to green largely through socioeconomic stratification.
Okay, so now onto the summary of the benefits of nature exposure:
- Cognitive benefits – improved attention for both so-called regular individuals and individuals who have ADHD, improved or delay of dementia symptoms
- Affective – reduced recovery time from surgery, improved job satisfaction, potential resilience mechanism, improved mood, connections to cultural background, and cultural sharing
- Improved community pride and connections between residents
- Increased community empowerment and decreased crime rates
- Improved nutrition and increased physical activity
- Economic benefits – reduced spending on food but also jobs and training opportunities. There is also often an increase in housing prices but this can obviously have a negative effect of displacing lower income residents
- Environmental benefits – plant and animal diversity will typically increase (this is sometimes a concern if non-local plants are able to invade surrounding ecosystems), potential decrease in food transportation and the subsequent greenhouse gas emissions, the authors also discuss the role of soils and plants in sequestering (storing) carbon dioxide, however they also admit this is pretty hard to quantify
- Reconnecting to nature and expanding a view of community to include non human components which could have significant impacts on how humans view their own actions and responsibilities
While some of this research was specifically focused on community gardens a lot of it is connected more generally to natural elements with urban environments. However, it is hard not to look at the many benefits and not want to participate in nature in some way. So be supportive of your local community gardens regardless of whether you want to garden yourself. I’m going to continue spending time outside not gardening and continue to hope that somebody will start a project where they interact with local homeowners to garden their yards and share the yields (I’ve heard of these projects existing so it isn’t entirely a far-fetched dream).