Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


The Economic Rationale Behind Community Garden Bylaws

Benjamin J. Oxley
May 5, 2003
Property Theory

Below we have extracted the Abstract, Introduction and Conclusion to the complete paper which can be found here: The Economic Rationale Behind Community Garden Bylaws (Word doc. 250K)


This paper examines the economic rationale for the distribution of rights and responsibilities present in the bylaws of a wide variety of "community gardens." Community gardens present a unique area for analysis because their very existence is somewhat paradoxical, and difficult to explain. Community gardens often thrive in areas where other development fails. This paper will attempt to identify how the organizations responsible for community gardens overcome the transaction costs that others cannot, and how this is reflected in the governing policies of these organizations.

I. Introduction

In this paper I examine the economic rationale for the distribution of rights and responsibilities present in the bylaws of a variety of "community gardens." Community gardens are "tract[s] of land available for use by local citizens for use as garden plots to raise fresh produce and flowers." Community gardens vary widely in size, shape, and management, but to assist the reader's understanding as to how a community garden might be arranged, Appendix A presents two schematics which illustrate the way in which the community gardens are laid out. These schematics are from the Jefferson St. Community Garden , and the plans for the Community Gardens at Levy Park, in Houston, TX , but a variety of churches, neighborhood associations, non-profit organizations, community agencies, clubs, private landowners, and municipalities run community gardens, and their sizes and shapes vary widely.

Community gardens present a unique area for analysis because their very existence is somewhat paradoxical, and difficult to explain. Often, they survive or thrive in urban areas where land is at a premium. Despite this, they provide fertile soil for gardeners, rather than developers. Even allowing for increased costs of development, it seems odd that such areas would remain undeveloped in such densely populated locales as New York City, Philadelphia, Oakland, and Washington, DC. Community gardens are more prevalent in urban communities because in addition to the fact that land itself is at a premium, the practicalities of dense urban populations precludes many people from having access to any "land" whatsoever. They may possess a lease on a property or even own property of their own, but often this property is entirely concrete, steel, and wood, and does not include any access to earth, in which a person could garden. Obviously, populations in less-densely populated areas have less need for community gardens, because access to land is easier to obtain, as is real property itself. Although there may be a number of reasons why the sections of land that end up being used as a community gardens are not developed , these factors are not the focus of this paper. This paper focuses instead on the process by which the gardens are governed after creation, and attempts to discover the economic rationales behind the bylaws that govern the gardens.

In order to aid in the identification of the economic rationales present in the governance of community gardening, the paper considers attributes of common ownership identified as important by Dean Lueck in "Contracting Into the Commons," and attempts to determine the impact of these characteristics on the bylaws. Before this analysis can proceed, more specific analysis of the term "community garden" must be undertaken, including why community gardens should be analyzed as "commons."

V. Summary and Conclusion

Although the specific predictions made above encountered varying degrees of validation, the core components of the proposed thesis have been upheld. Examination of the contracts made among members of a commons has yielded another example of a situation where common property can be a rational alternative to that of private ownership. The factors identified by Lueck that lead to such a situation are: "a contractual arrangement that economizes on costs of monitoring variable input usage, on costs of excluding nonmembers, and on costs of dividing output." The above analysis has proven that CGO's have two of these characteristics rather conclusively, and has made an arguably affirmative showing for the third. Nowhere in the contracts examined did CGO's attempt to monitor "variable input usage" or attempt to "divide output" - why? A number of the CGO's mandate a standard input: a membership fee plus mandatory attendance at a "gardening" or "working" "party." The CGO is providing a very baseline product: arable soil. Some maintenance is required, but this work is not nearly as labor intensive (and constant) as caring for a garden. Inputs do not need to be monitored, and neither do outputs. Outputs are "monitored" simply by geometric design, and assignment of plots to specific owners. This is very similar to the assignment of territories that works so well in Maine, for the lobster gangs. Once assigned to a member, that member bears all rights and responsibilities for the area. There is no waste incurred from racing, or early harvest. There is incentive to "nurture" the territory, in whatever fashion appropriate.

Although the results of the "emphasis on exclusion of outsiders" were mixed, this may be because CGO's are uncomfortable (or constitutionally prohibited from) expressing such an idea. The fact is that community gardens benefit from the fact that stakeholders are widely dispersed, and likely to utilize the resource at different times. This dispersion minimizes monitoring costs, and the need for security beyond what is provided by the beneficiaries themselves. This is an economy of scale that a single landowner would not enjoy.

Similarly, a single owner would not be able to access land as cheaply as a CGO may access land. CGO's are often able to extract low cost leases from the municipalities that control the land, due to the fact that they are not-for-profit (which may explain the selling rule) and because they are composed of many voters. To some degree, CGO's are better able to extract rents from municipalities and perhaps even landowners, because of the nobility of their mission, and the transient nature of their projects. Generally, these gardens are not difficult to construct, or deconstruct. Although there is a potential public relations backlash, cities or businesses who indulge CGO's can rapidly convert the property from a community garden to something else, should the business environment change, and development become profitable. A single owner is not as likely to make an investment in such a property, because their investment will be borne only by themselves, and there will be no reprieve available based on pleas to public officials.

For all of the above reasons, this paper is confident in its assertion that Community Gardens are an example of a successful contracting into the commons, in which enough control is asserted to create, rather than disperse wealth, a situation where the fruits of contracting are literal, and CGO's allow people to reap what they sow.

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Revised August 24, 2007

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture