The Plot Thickens

00deadmalls-ss-slide-1QVO-jumboSo whether it’s redeveloping dying malls or re-inhabiting dead big-box stores or reconstructing wetlands out of parking lots, I think the fact is the growing number of empty and under-performing, especially retail, sites throughout suburbia gives us actually a tremendous opportunity to take our least-sustainable landscapes right now and convert them into more sustainable places.”

~ Ellen Dunham-Jones

Over time, we’re learning that home and urban gardens do more than just provide fresh tomatoes to the gardener. Studies show that these gardens enhance environmental benefits of greenery in urban areas (air and water quality, noise), reduce greenhouse gasses, provide fresh food to the community (often to the underserved), and help create and support community.

The opportunity comes with the shifts in urban and suburban communities. Inner city areas are increasingly subject to decay, leading them to blight — or redevelopment and gentrification. Suburban malls and commercial areas are slowly dying, leaving sad, empty parking lots to decay idly over time. Some groups are taking advantage of these changes to introduce greater greenery and the attendant ‘environmental’ benefits into these areas.

Jake Bullinger says, “Some eco-minded groups that traditionally focus on rural conservation are turning their attention to urban areas, in an effort to combat inequality and sprawl … the priority has shifted to helping residents acquire those properties and to bring more green space to city neighborhoods that lack tree cover.” And he quotes Sarah Dooling, “The challenge is, how can we think in multiplicity? It’s not people or nature. I think these organizations are trying to emphasize the interrelatability, the codependency between people and nature.”

One aspect of increased ‘greening’ of our urban areas is the addition of urban gardens that provide local produce to the community. Devita Davison has studied the redevelopment of some of Detroit’s blighted areas into urban farms, “Urban agriculture in Detroit is all about community, because we grow together. So these spaces are spaces of conviviality. These spaces are places where we’re building social cohesion as well as providing healthy, fresh food to our friends, our families and our neighbors.”

A study by David Cleveland and others concluded, “A transition away from food systems dependent on conventionally grown, distributed, and purchased vegetables toward one with a significant proportion of home-grown vegetables could benefit regions attempting to decrease greenhouse gas emissions … would require no new technology or infrastructure, and could have major positive externalities in improved nutrition and health.

It may be hard in underserved urban areas to find a store that sells fresh produce affordably, but neighborhood farmer’s markets are much more accessible. Encouraging both home and local community gardens expands options for these areas.

In a TEDTalk, Ellen Dunham-Jones reported that the younger generation —more attracted to the urban lifestyle — are becoming interested in home gardens and community farms, “Sort of victory gardens meets the Internet”. David Cleveland’s study noted the challenge of “motivating household and community members to create and maintain the gardens, and to eat the vegetables they produce.” He cites the 18 million victory gardens — 12 million in cities and 6 million on farms — that produced one-third of the vegetables in the United States during WWI and WWII, observing that this was driven by a sense of crisis. Many urban areas are in crisis; however, interest in community and urban gardens has also benefitted from the proliferation of farmer’s markets in urban areas, and the local demand may provide impetus for more.

It may take community support to abandoned box stores or residential deserts with something better than a vacant lot, but outside interests are getting involved and can tip the scales in some places.

Meanwhile, take a look around your community. What would it take to get those empty relics or overgrown lots converted into something useful, even if it wouldn’t be dollars and cents profitable? Talk to your neighbors, city staff, local politicians, developers, and non-profit groups to see what resources may be available.

Who knows, maybe you could celebrate your success in your own Victory Garden.

Additional information:

Jake Bullinger, Land Conservancies Enter Unfamiliar Territory: the City, Mar 21, 2018, City Lab

David Cleveland, Noelle Phares, Krista D. Nightingale, Robyn L. Weatherby, William Radis, Jane Ballard, Madia Campagna, Devin Kurtz, The Potential for Urban Household Vegetable Gardens to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions, January 2017, Landscape and Urban Planning, Vol 157

Devita Davison, How Urban Agriculture is Transforming Detroit, April 2017, TEDTalks

Ellen Dunham-Jones, Architect, Retrofitting Suburbia, TedTalks, January 2010

Dan Nosowitz, Are Backyard Gardens a Weapon Against Climate Change? October 3, 2016, Modern Farmer

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