Rooted in Our Neighborhoods
A Sustainable Future For Boston's Community Gardens
Boston Natural Areas Network: Community Gardening in Boston
"Boston Natural Areas Network helps coordinate activities related to all of the Boston area's 250 community and school gardens, involving over 10,000 individuals and families, many of them low-income." Posted October 10, 2003
Garden Futures is now incorporated into the Boston Natural Areas Network
Assessing the Resources
Garden Futures, beginning in l995, set out to inventory the resources of Boston's non-profit owned community gardens, document their needs, understand their structures and capabilities, and identify areas for intervention. We set out to answer specific questions, grouped in four areas:
- capital and maintenance
- organization and governance
- training, education, and leadership development
- public awareness.
The information we uncovered was synthesized into a series of findings and recommendations. A more complete version of this report, including numerous reference materials, the methodology, reference sources, is available from Garden Futures.
Capital and Maintenance
Most of Boston's gardens are run on shoestring budgets, with well-cared for but often inadequate infrastructure. In many cases, the gardens must make do with short-run repairs. We wanted to document exactly what it would take to bring Boston's gardens to an acceptable base standard of construction, and one that is productive as a garden and as a good neighbor for the long term.
We looked at the current condition of 60 non-profit owned gardens, and determined the scope and costs of the interventions needed to create safe, quality gardening and maximize the investments being made. We were able to:
- Identify those gardens, and garden elements common to all the gardens, and most in need of attention
- Project the costs for upgrading capital elements, as well as for recurring costs of repairs and maintenance
- Identify any urgent health and safety needs
- Prepare a plan for bringing the gardens up to a similar, viable level of condition
- Identify areas of collaboration for efficient provision of goods and services (both capital and maintenance) to the gardens by the four collaborative members
- Provide gardeners with a Maintenance Activities chart of 110 activities that should be done daily, weekly, monthly or yearly so the overall appearance of the gardens can be kept up.
We surveyed and compared overall conditions of the gardens at a specific period in time, and developed a methodology to make this study objective. [This methodology can now be applied to the balance of Boston's community gardens.] Second, our analysis of survey information provides garden owners with a tool to use when setting priorities for capital and maintenance projects, both within each garden as well as among all of the gardens. Third, our cost analysis will aid in setting realistic budgets for operations, maintenance, and capital improvements of gardens. We recommended, to start, nearly $1.6 million is needed to bring the 60 gardens to the minimum baseline condition.
Organization and Governance
Human relationships and cooperation are like sunshine and warmth and are as important as working water systems and good soil. Without them gardens simply wither away. Our research reinforces this point, and numerous conversations with gardeners and coordinators underscore the need for active, effective people in the garden and for a workable organizational structure.
To flesh out this understanding, we wanted to know exactly how internal garden management affects a garden's health, including its internal and external social relations, overall appearance, and the demand for garden space. We wanted a general understanding of how community gardens are run and to collect information about each garden specifically. Since some community gardens are parks, instead of just gardening spaces, we wanted to know how they might differ or be the same organizationally. With this in mind, the study team tried to answer a number of questions, including:
- How are urban community gardens organized and governed?
- How does this impact the overall health and sustainability of a garden?
- To whom is garden governance important, and for what reasons?
We developed a profile of all the gardens through a written survey and interviews with coordinators, owners, gardeners, and neighbors. We intensively studied five gardens through a case study process which included observation as well as comprehensive interviews. Using the data we gathered, we defined and identified what works well and what doesn't in community gardens although because no two gardens are alike, there is a range. Considering this, we developed a set of guidelines and standards for governance and operation and an user friendly guide for gardeners and coordinators to use as an aid in setting up an effective governance structure.
We recommended that there be more opportunities for coordinators to share ideas about how to get tasks done within the garden. This could be through forming neighborhood coordinator associations or a citywide network. We also recommended that a resource clearinghouse be established and that specific instruction be offered to increase organization and leadership capacity in individual gardens.
Training and Education
Not surprisingly, the people in community gardens have a host of skills and capabilities. However, with so many different backgrounds, gardeners and coordinators often need education opportunities to build upon their existing bases of horticultural, governance, organizing, and garden maintenance skills. Further, many people surveyed for the study identified the need to develop the capacity for local initiative and self-reliance at the garden level, so that gardeners can more easily manage and sustain their gardens in partnership with the non-profit members of Garden Futures.
To uncover what kind of education and training program would fit the needs and desires of community gardeners and also capitalize on existing resources (both in Boston and the community garden world), we:
- Interviewed the participating organizations and others with common programmatic areas to identify potential resources and partnerships.
- Surveyed print and fact sheet guides, videos, and training programs available nationally.
- Interviewed other community gardening organizations nationwide, looking for information on existing training programs, experiments, successes, and failures-finding that the US Department of Agriculture's long-standing Master, Gardener Program with its graduates committed to contributing hours of service in return was a sound model, but in need of adaptation to the urban and community garden environment.
- Designed a survey for community gardeners and conducted a series of focus groups to test the level of interest in a training program and also identify programmatic areas of most interest.
- Met with potential funders and partners to test the sustainability of the program, given the projected costs.
We found a host of opportunities for training and skills sharing programs, and great eagerness both for benefiting from and contributing to these efforts. We recommended using the "learn and serve model of USDA's program to develop an urban, community garden-focused City Gardener Certificate program.
Most gardens have waiting lists, so broad publicity aimed at recruiting gardeners is not a priority. Therefore, improving accessibility and public education remain important objectives for community gardens, but with a view towards increasing general community support, not increasing the number of gardeners. If the overall public awareness campaign is successful, community gardening will have enough additional resources so new demand can be met.
To find out more about the current scenario, we conducted interviews with gardeners and garden coordinators and secondary research to understand the values and benefits attributable to community gardening in Boston; researched the available material on community gardens in general, and Boston in specific; and interviewed representatives of key publics, or those groups from whom Garden Futures may need assistance, to identify their concerns and attitudes.
We looked at:
- the key messages that can be communicated about community gardening in Boston
- the key publics that need to be influenced to achieve the goals of the task
- the recommended mixes of messages and delivery methods most effective in influencing the key publics
- a schedule for implementing the plan.
We identified the key publics as:
- Neighborhood activists/organizations
- Local businesses/business groups
- Real estate firms
- Corporate sponsors
- Other non-profits
- Elected officials
- Appointed officials (city departments)
We learned that gardens provide a mix of personal and public values, ranging from exercise to fresh vegetables to a reduction in crime due to increased neighborhood cohesiveness and street presence. Key publics generally have a neutral to positive attitude towards gardens. Sheer awareness is reasonably high, but actual knowledge of Boston's community gardens is not extensive.
From this information, we synthesized a campaign for meeting the public awareness goals of Garden Futures. We recommended broadening the support for community gardening, starting first at the neighborhood level. Get it on more people's and organization's agendas by raising the level of awareness among key publics of the existence of community gardening and its benefits. Have Garden Futures support the participating organizations with coordinating public and government relations.
Based on the findings and recommendations of the Garden Futures Tasks, the Garden Futures collaborative of BNAF, BUG, DGPDC, and SELROSLT have begun a three-year effort to jointly increase resources for all of Boston's community gardens by increasing the skills of gardeners and by attracting new financial support.
Building the Capacity of Volunteers
- Develop a City Gardener Certificate Education and Training Program
- Initiate a Community Garden Service Corps
- Expand access to resource's, developing a Community Gardening Clearinghouse
- Support the organization of Neighborhood Coordinator Associations and a Citywide Network of Gardeners
Building Fund-raising and Resource Acquisition Capacities
- Raise the Public Profile through a neighborhood-focused public awareness and a government relations effort that is directed at broadening the support for community gardening
- Initiate a Development for the Twenty-first Century program responding to the nearly $1.6 million dollars of outstanding capital needs of the gardens.