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


A Pattern Language For Community Gardens

by Andrew Walter
(Under the Direction of Richard Westmacott)
A Thesis Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of The University of Georgia in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree
Master Of Landscape Architecture
Athens, Georgia, 2003

Below we have extracted the Abstract, Introduction and Conclusion to the complete paper (text only) which can be found here: A Pattern Language For Community Gardens (25,000 words) (Word doc. 208K)


This thesis examines seven community gardens in the southeastern United States to determine if there are certain physical and aesthetic aspects of community gardens that help create a sense of community. After a description of the seven gardens, common themes found within the gardens are identified. These themes are used for the creation of a series of design vignettes, or 'patterns,' that reflect the vernacular design tradition in southeastern community gardens.

Table of Contents

Family Housing Community Garden
Support for Atlanta Community Gardens
Capitol View Community Garden
Carver Community Garden
Ashview Community Garden
Scott Park Community Garden
Oakhurst Community Garden
SEEDS Community Garden
Community building
Garden as neighborhood gathering space
Sense of ownership
Collective ownership
Public face/ entrance
Children's programs
Bed allocation
Infrastructure and provided materials
Pattern 1: A grid of rectangular beds within a more organic garden

Pattern 2: A mixture of personal and communal beds
Pattern 3: A participatory and changing aesthetic
Pattern 4:  A shaded seating area with a view of the garden

Pattern 5: A mixture of large and small beds
Pattern 6: A children's garden
Pattern 7: Educational garden meetings
Pattern 8: An attractive public face
Pattern 9: Garden parties

Chapter 1 - Introduction

It's late afternoon on the first day of summer vacation. Village at Carver, a housing project in Atlanta, is bustling with young children excited about their first day off. They are all over the street and the lawn, chasing each other, yelling, and riding bikes. But one eight year-old boy is not with them. He is sitting on the edge of his garden plot patiently explaining to me what he's planted and when he's going to eat it. He's got cabbage planted up one edge that is just weeks away from being dinner, and tomatoes and squash that he won't be eating for some time yet. When I tell him his garden looks good, a smile spreads across his face, and he tells me with pride that it should look good, that he's out here almost every day pulling weeds, squashing bugs, and making sure it stays watered. And where did he learn how to garden, I ask. From his great aunt, he tells me, and the other ladies out here, and he nods at two older women sitting a few yards away in lawn chairs in the shade of a water oak.

This scene is reenacted every day in any of the thousands of community gardens across the country. They exist in virtually every city, in every type of urban neighborhood, and their numbers are still growing, as they have been for the last thirty years.

What exactly is a community garden? Von Hassell defines 'community garden' as an "umbrella term to describe all urban gardens that involve a certain degree of community involvement" (2002, 57). Given the limited scope of this thesis, discussion will focus specifically on urban gardens on non-residential land in which multiple gardeners participate in growing vegetables and other plants. Commonly, gardeners each have control of a small bed within the larger garden, which they can plant however they choose. In this way, a community garden is both a collective and individual effort.

The social benefits of community gardens are touted by many. The restauranteur and community garden proponent Alice Waters speaks of the transformative effect of community gardens on school children: "There is something essential about the physical undertaking of taking care of plants, harvesting and bringing them into the kitchen and cooking them, and then offering them to your schoolmates. I believe that such learning can transform people and communities" (quoted in Ives 1999, 30).

Sylvia Simmons, a gardener at a San Francisco community garden, explains how the garden benefits her:

I'm in a community where there are a lot of hurting people. The garden will be one of the most positive things going on here, a meeting place for people to come together in a different role. I look at gardening as a healing process-letting the Lord just breathe down on you, and realizing that you don't have to focus on all that negativity that may be going on at home. (quoted in Thompson, 1993).

Part of the role of community gardens is purely functional. They are places of production where landless people can engage in one of the oldest human activities: growing their food. Perhaps more significantly though, they are sites around which community is centered. This thesis arose from a question posed to me by a friend who was starting a community garden. She asked how we could design a community garden that, by its very layout and appearance, engenders a sense of community. While community is not built upon layout and appearance alone, her question led me to ask a larger one. Are there certain physical aspects of community gardens that help create a sense of community, while maintaining a productive environment? To find this answer, I chose to examine existing community gardens to see what can be learned from them.

I began this investigation with a thorough review of the literature on community gardens. Many of the studies look at community gardens as responses to symptoms of urban congestion and decay. Consequently, there is much examination of the social benefits, organizational structures, implications for city planners, and political aspects of community gardens. The literature review I conducted revealed very little information specific to design or aesthetics of community gardens.

One of the main themes established by research is that community gardens act as a catalyst for community building. The combination of the public and participatory nature of community gardens increases social contact between people, and thus helps build a sense of community (Landman 1993; Jamison 1985; Spirn 1998). As Patel notes, "Gardening promotes a community atmosphere and gives people an opportunity to meet others, share concerns, and solve a few problems together"(1991, 8). Jamison quotes an unnamed municipal agency director on this subject: Across this country...different ethnic, racial, and economic groups [are gardening] side-by-side oblivious to any differences. It is of little concern whether they are rich or poor, black or white...They are sharing in the same experience of watching things grow, of producing their own food. They view each other as equals, as partners (1985, 479).

Economic and health benefits for the gardeners are also written about. Access to land for food production by landless urban dweller is an extremely important aspect of community gardening. For financially strapped people, savings from food production can be substantial (Patel 1991; Warner 1987). Community gardens are often mentioned as part of the solution to problems of urban food security. These issues, namely hunger; poor access to fresh, affordable produce in inner city neighborhoods, and health problems associated with poor nutrition in urban diets are discussed by USDA (2003) and Brown (2002).

Other studies link gardens and the sense of community they create to positive effects on the surrounding neighborhood. Hynes (1996) describes gardening projects in four cities- New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia- that were integral parts of urban revitalization movements in these cities. Citizen involvement in the neighborhoods in her study increased, opening the door to beautification and economic improvement.

Sara Ferguson (1999), writing about community gardening in the Bronx in the 1970's states that the gardens touched off a wave of grass-roots community development. She quotes Amos Taylor, a gardening activist, "Once people succeeded with gardens, they went on to other things like fixing up the schools, housing, creating jobs, whatever was needed" (quoted in Ferguson 1999, 85) Von Hassell (2002), in her recent book Struggle for Eden, explores the cultural dynamics within New York community gardens. She is most interested in community gardening as part of a self-empowerment movement, and the creation of a radical political culture which spills out of the gardens to affect the politics of the larger community. Will Atwater, a former staff member at SEEDS, a community garden in this study, remarked to me on the effect of the garden on the neighborhood:

A lot of new businesses have moved into the neighborhood in the last couple years, there are a lot of renovation projects going on, so a lot of us feel that the SEEDS garden was a catalyst for all this stuff, because for a while that neighborhood was this unsightly, sketchy, dangerous place to go, if you didn't have any reason to stop, as you're moving from A to B, you wouldn't. But over the years, SEEDS has been able to bring a lot of people to that neighborhood.

Much of the theory behind why these gardens are catalysts for community building is based on ideas of "community ownership" or "symbolic ownership." Symbolic ownership, as defined by Hester, arises from a combination of three factors: a sense of jurisdiction over a space, a perception of value of objects or activities on site, and the perception that the space meets the users special needs (1975, 57-61).

Hough (1984) and Jamison (1985) both discuss the benefits of community gardening arising from a sense of ownership, though without looking too closely at the specific manifestations of that ownership. Hough attributes this largely to ownership through participation.

This sense of ownership becomes more visible when community gardens are compared with more traditional parks and green spaces. For example, Francis suggests that traditional open spaces are often over designed, but under maintained and underused (1984, 5-7). Hester argues that the most common cause of park failure, including disuse and vandalism, is lack of community input and "symbolic ownership" (1975, 3-35).

Hough notes that since the days of Olmstead there have been two distinct urban landscape traditions. The first, which he terms the "pedigreed landscape," is "what we see in public parks, recreation areas, civic spaces, landscaped industrial estates and shopping centers." It is typified by "mown turf, selected trees, and specified shrub borders," and is built almost exclusively for aesthetic and recreational intent. The "vernacular landscape," however, is "a product of spontaneous cultural forces," (1983, 54-55). The vernacular landscape is the product of the desires of the users, and as such, is far more responsive to their needs-aesthetically and functionally. Spontaneous vernacular urban landscapes or landscapes designed with a high degree of public input are far more likely to engender a sense of ownership, increase involvement, and strengthen a sense of community (Von Hassell 2002, 65-68).

Community gardens fall within the vernacular landscape tradition. The contrast between community gardens and more traditional parks and greenspace is readily apparent in terms of both activities and aesthetics. Most have no formal design, but are the result of an organic process of contribution by various members. In the instances where design assistance is offered, the designer should, according to landscape architect and community activist Karl Linn, play the role of facilitator (Thompson 2000, 54-55).

There are several resources available to individuals interested in setting up community gardens. The American Association of Community Gardens is a national non-profit organization that "works to promote and support all aspects of community food and ornamental gardening, urban forestry, preservation and management of open space, and integrated planning and management of developing urban and rural lands"(ACGA, 2003) They provide information on their website ( and an assortment of publications. Another organization, Foodshare Metro Toronto, publishes a book, How Does Our Garden Grow (Berman 1997), detailing necessary steps in setting up a community garden. The majority of the information in this book relates to site acquisition, funding, organization, and gardening advice. Little space is devoted to design or aesthetics in either one of these publications.

Vernacular Design-a Contradiction?

On the surface, the idea of offering design assistance for what are inherently vernacular landscapes, products of "spontaneous cultural forces" (Hough 1983, 54-55), seems like a contradiction. Yet, there is some merit to this proposal.

Christopher Alexander developed an architectural approach outlined in two books, The Timeless Way of Building, and A Pattern Language, that is built upon the vernacular building traditions. He believed strongly in the vernacular, which he refers to as "the timeless way," and wrote about it in an almost mystical tone.

A building or a town will only be alive to the extent that it is governed by the timeless way…This quality in buildings and in towns cannot be made, but only generated, indirectly, by the ordinary actions of the people, just as a flower cannot be made, but only generated from the seed (Alexander et. al. 1979, ix-xi). Without the help of architects or planners, if you are working in the timeless way, a town will grow under your hands, as steady as the flowers in your garden (Alexander et. al. 1979, 8).

Of major importance to Alexander is the role of community in the vernacular tradition. Much of his work is centered around the principle that: Every family and every person is part of society [and] requires bonds of association with other people-in short, requires a place in society, in which there are relationships with others, (Alexander et al.1985, 24).

Alexander believed that professional advice is not necessary for good design. He did believe, however, that it is possible to identify themes that emerge from the "ordinary actions of the people," themes that typify the vernacular tradition. In his book A Pattern Language, he attempts to capture the wisdom of the western vernacular design tradition and collect it in a concise form that others can draw upon. He defines a design vocabulary made up of discrete 'patterns,' design vignettes ranging from macro to micro, from "The Distribution of Towns" to "Half-Inch Trim" (Alexander et. al. 1977).

In this thesis, I use Alexander's approach to study community gardens. Using several community gardens as case studies, I identify common themes, and use these to define "patterns" that help engender a sense of community while maintaining a productive environment.  


Much of the work on community gardens examines social and organizational aspects without looking at physical and aesthetic ones. I propose that there are commonalities to community gardens that help forge a sense of community. In this thesis I present seven existing community gardens and identify common themes. These are primarily physical and aesthetic themes, though it is impossible not to include certain social aspects that are more directly tied to the physical sides of the gardens. I recognize that these themes reflect the needs of the gardeners for both productive spaces and community, as well as any explicit missions of the gardens. While organizational structures are included to a minor degree in this study, they were found to have less effect on the garden than initially believed.

After identifying themes in the community gardens, I will propose the beginnings of a design vocabulary for community gardens, consisting of discrete patterns distilled from the common themes found in this study. It hardly needs to be pointed out that my conclusions are only a beginning. The community gardens I studied represent only a small, regional sample of the thousands of gardens throughout the country. There are most likely many regional and cultural expressions of community gardens that would differ from those found here, but the scope of this thesis has been limited due to considerations of time and concision.


My research focuses on seven community gardens in the southeastern United States. The case studies were chosen using the snowball sampling technique. Snowball sampling relies on referrals from initial subjects to generate additional subjects. All gardens are in urban areas and have been in existence for at least four years. All but one of the gardens are within easy travel distance of Athens, allowing me to make repeated visits. The seven case studies were selected to sample a diversity of gardens, specifically a diversity of garden missions, land ownership, and gardener demographics.

Once the case studies were chosen, all gardens were visited on several occasions. All gardens were mapped, and physical observations were recorded. Multiple visits were made to each garden for the purpose of conducting interviews. A questionnaire was used to structure discussions about the gardens (appendix A). The first interview was always of a garden organizer and concerned the history, infrastructure and organization of the garden. In addition, an average of three to four gardeners were interviewed at each garden. Gardeners were interviewed about a range of topics including gardening technique and food production, community and social aspects of the garden, aesthetics, and organization. Most interviews were tape recorded, though a few gardeners declined to be recorded and detailed notes were taken instead.


Chapter 2 contains a brief overview of the history of community gardening in the United Stated. In Chapter 3, I detail histories and descriptions of the community gardens chosen as case studies. Chapter 4 contains the results of my investigations, identifying common themes found in the community gardens that help engender a sense of community while maintaining a productive garden. In Chapter 5, I translate, or distill, the themes identified in chapter 4 into discrete 'patterns,' or designs ideas, for use in community gardens. Chapter 6 contains some closing thoughts on the application of these findings to community gardens.

Chapter 6 - Conclusion

Community gardens are a powerful phenomenon in America today. They represent one way for citizens to satisfy, of their own accord, the need for meaningful community. Based on my experiences visiting seven gardens and talking to dozens of gardeners, I would testify to the success of these gardens in fulfilling these needs.

I am not alone in this belief. The number of gardens in existence today is truly astounding. In a 1998 study, the American Community Gardening Association estimated the number of community gardens in America to be 6020, with over 2 million participants (Goodman, 2000). The desire for these gardens is clearly evident, and their numbers are growing.

What I have presented in this thesis is an attempt to see how people are actually building these community gardens in a way that satisfies their needs for community within a productive garden. According to Alexander, people have an innate sense of what they need and how they should build their environments to satisfy those needs. Yet our experiences are often limited, and seeing the approach of others addressing problems similar to ours can trigger our own creativity.

When I began this research, my goal was to identify physical and aesthetic elements that enhance the creation of community. I found these elements, but also found that in many cases they are integrally tied to social elements. The patterns I presented in the last chapter are starting points intended to expand the horizon of possibilities for community gardeners. They are design ideas that encompass physical, aesthetic, and related social elements to help answer the question, "How do we design for community in community gardens?" They are solutions, as Alexander describes in the Pattern Language, "in a very general and abstract way-so that you can solve the problem for yourself, in your own way, by adapting [them] to your preferences, and the local conditions at the place where you are making it," (Alexander et. al. 1977, xiii).

This study is a starting point in another sense. It presents a sample of approaches for a cross section of gardens in the southeast. There are regional traditions and ethnic traditions that this thesis cannot and does not address. I would be pleased to hear that others have found this subject as fascinating as me, and are conducting similar research in other regions, at other gardens.

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Revised Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture