Community Development Through Gardening: State and Local Policies Transforming Urban Open Space

By Jan Schukoske
Baltimore, MD (January 1, 2000)- Neglected vacant lots in the modern urban setting pose great hazards to community life. These lots, which host criminal behavior, accumulate trash, and create various health risks, epitomize the frustration and despair nearby residents often feel. A recent study reports that more than one-fifth of all land in American cities is classified as vacant. Despite the prevalence of vacant land and the reality of urban blight, many communities have been successful in transforming these dangerous urban spaces into thriving community gardens.


The development of community gardens has led to the beautification and greening of many neighborhoods and has fostered a spirit of community cooperation. Social policies such as the promotion of health and welfare, economic development, education, youth employment, and tourism are consistent with the operation of community gardens and logically require a degree of continuity of place and participants. Nevertheless, the permanence of community gardens is very much at issue, as illustrated by the recent case New York City Environmental Justice Alliance v. Giuliani. In addition to the issue of permanence, community garden organizations routinely face a number of problems, including both the difficulty of obtaining access to resources and the threat of legal liability. It is this article’s contention that designing and implementing effective statutes could solve many of the problems that confront community gardens, thereby enhancing gardening as a tool for community development.
Part I of this article discusses the stark reality of urban blight, emphasizing the success of community gardening as a means of addressing the problems associated with vacant lots.5 It also explores the diverse values involved in a community’s effort to transform unused land into productive gardens. Part II examines the current issues facing urban gardens and the institutions that have evolved to address them, such as land trusts and other nonprofit organizations. Part III of the article presents an in-depth analysis of current state, District of Columbia, and local ordinances governing community gardens. The article concludes by proposing core elements of a model community gardening ordinance that, when adapted to local needs, can encourage and protect community gardening efforts.
This article addresses the beneficial influence that that gardens can have in curbing the problems associated with vacant lots and urban blight. It also highlights the other social benefits that can be reaped from establishing a community garden. Further, this article has examined the state and local laws that govern community gardens as well as the role of intermediary organizations such as land trusts.
Related Resources:
Community Development Through Gardening: State and Local Policies Transforming Urban Open Space
University of Baltimore School of Law Community Development Clinic