Community gardens and food

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With modern cities taking up only three percent of the world’s land surface, their ecological footprints actually cover the entire globe. In recent decades urban solutions are moving from Sustainable Cities to Regenerative Cities[1][2][3]. A factor in this shift seeks to reduce energy use in food transport by increasing urban agriculture, thereby cutting fossil fuel dependance and misuse while building community resilience.[4]

This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.

General introduction to approach

Community gardens and other aspects of food production, together with their related spaces and processes, are seen as important loci that can lead to various types of urban transformation in cities. Some examples of approaches that relate to this theme include: ‘Edible City Solutions’, community-based urban farms and gardens, aquaponics, and community gardens for social reintegration. While our examples here are mostly based in Europe, some have had a global outreach with city partners based in Central America, Africa and East Asia. The systemic use of urban landscapes for food production is a major step towards more sustainable, livable and healthier cities. Many approaches are seen to empower local communities to overcome social problems by their inclusive and participatory dynamics. Others have also created dynamics for new green businesses and jobs, such as selling locally produced honey[5], thereby generating local economic growth and fostering social cohesion.

Shapes, sizes and applications

EdiCitNet is the Edible Cities Network Integrating Edible City Solutions for social resilient and sustainably productive cities[6]. It started in 2018, expected to run until 2023.[7] EdiCitNet focuses around Edible City Solutions (ECS), including different forms of urban farming combined with closed loop systems for sustainable water, nutrient, and waste management[8]. It examined case studies in Rotterdam (The Netherlands), Andernach (Germany), Oslo (Norway), Heidelberg (Germany), and Havana (Cuba), and found that while the implementation of Nature-based solutions (NBS)has increased in the last decade, they have not been able to significantly increase social cohesion as they mostly invite users to ‘stay and use’ passively but not to become actively involved on-site, in an ongoing fashion. According to findings from the EdiCitNet, around the world and across all socioeconomic groups, cultural and generational differences ECS are booming and demonstrate a high potential for a participatory development of social cohesion.

The ProGIreg[9] (Productive Green Infrastructure for post-industrial urban regeneration) project began in 2018 and is active in post-industrial urban areas that suffer from social and economic disadvantages, inequality and related crime and security problems. See also Regeneration of disused urban land. Its approach is based on the use of Living labs[10] with local communities in order to affect change using eight interconnected NBS based on food production. This Community-based urban farms and gardens[11] approach will turn unused urban land into productive community gardens, contributing to improved mental and physical health through exposure to nature and healthy sources of food and a community feeling. Additionally an aquaponics[12] approach will be tried in 4 cities. Aquaponics is a combination of raising fish (aquaculture) in tanks, together with soilless cultivation of plants (hydroponics) in a symbiotic environment, whereby the fish waste water provides the nutrients needed to feed the plants. This approach is easy to operate and ideal for promoting local food production in areas with contaminated or poor quality soil, and has the potential of creating green job opportunities.

Another approach implemented through the CITISPYCE project[13] (Combating inequalities through innovative social practices of, and for, young people in cities across Europe, 2013-2015) worked with young people in Elefsina, Athens, and used a Municipal Vegetable Garden as a private initiative[14]. Originating from an NGO called EPEKA, it aimed at the social reintegration of people facing financial difficulties through their active engagement with the vegetable garden. It successfully resulted in 3 young people (up to 30 years old) finding employment.

Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, sustainability, and justice

Urban gardens have come to symbolize a proximate and locally driven way of improving life in cities, not only in terms of food provision and greening but also as inclusive community hubs that promote sustainability. In all their diversity, urban gardens are not only responses from below to the socio-economic crisis and its associated precariousness, but have also increasingly become part of urban planning and policy.

Food justice activists defend urban agriculture as an important tool for urban food security and sovereignty[15], especially so in the context of food deserts and unhealthy foodscapes. Gardening work holds individual healing and other health benefits for socially vulnerable residents and can help them recover from trauma.

Regarding sustainability issues, EdiCitNet´s ECS conceptional framework explores how urban farming combined with closed loop systems for sustainable water, nutrient, and waste management can create more resilient cities. Both ProGIreg and EdiCitNet explore many aspects of sustainability to a very deep degree, seeking to identify and improve areas in cities through NBS including: biodiversity, the carbon cycle, soil consumption and use of natural resources in urban environments, citizen involvement, education and empowerment. Citizen science and active citizen participation also include sustainable education and nature appreciation.

Narrative of change

With modern cities possessing such large ecological footprints, being dominated by grey infrastructure and automobile use, with often serious health damaging effects (air pollution, heatstress, little opportunity and space for recreation and sport) the systemic use of urban landscapes for food production can act as a major step towards more sustainable, liveable and healthier cities.First, urban agriculture more generally, and related NBS that have been proposed based on this idea, act as a means to lowering energy dependence by increasing local food distribution and markets, thereby reducing global carbon emissions and increasing urban resilience. Second, growing food in community gardens promotes physical exercise and cultivates healthier eating habits. Their health effects expand to mental health benefits through socialization and engagement with natural processes, as well as because they provide greener, more quiet and more pleasant, proximate urban environments.

Beyond their potential for food security and health, community gardens serve also social empowerment and broader political engagement goals, as they become places of exchange and sharing; a place of urban commoning. The transformative potential of local food production zones more generally has been located in their potential of empowering local communities to collectively alleviate social problems, through their inclusive and participatory dynamics. Some initiatives can create new green businesses and jobs, thereby generating local economic growth and fostering social cohesion. An example of such urban transition based around food systems was Cuba’s market gardens (including rooftops) during the countries “special period” when the 1990s US trade blockade and fuel shortages led to an agricultural and partial economic restructuring. The 2006 film by Community Solutions[16][17] and research by UK based Bohn & Viljoen Architects[18] explored this period and helped inspire their Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes (CPUL) urban proposal[19] and subsequent food art project DOTT 07[20] in Middlesbrough in 2007 which culminated with a moment "where up to 8,000 people shared meals from the food that had been grown"[21]. Some further interesting examples include: 1) Sharecity[22] has a big data base with more than 4000 initiatives 2) Fundació Espigoladors[23] in Barcelona is a non-profit organization which fights against food waste and losses, while empowering people at risk of social exclusion from a transformative, participative, inclusive and sustainable way. 3) The Open food network[24] in Australia 4) Community-supported agriculture[25] (through coops).

  • Further opportunities and challenges

Some further opportunities identified include: 1) Connect culture and food metabolism/sustainability issues 2) Resistance to current food systems 3) There might be a business opportunity edge to some of the initiatives 4) Food initiatives and urban/peri-urban agriculture can be the link of urban and rural areas 5) Social food practices can move beyond the stigma of “donating” food 6) An opening trend which can be seen as an opportunity for future urban development planning is for these initiatives to foster and promote “food sensitive urban planning”, allowing for integration of food growing within urbanization 7) Change power relations in current food systems. Some further challenges identified include: 1) How to make food initiatives/urban gardens places of social cohesion and not of gentrification? 2) How to move from a hobby/leisure activity to a more conscious challenging of the agri-business culture? 3) Temporality of land use and land ownership is a challenge for urban gardens, and other types of food initiatives 4) Food movements in cities can be disempowered by the fact that the quality of soil is not adequate for growing food. 5) There is great hybridity and variety of social food movements and urban gardening, with different motivations, objectives and outcomes in terms of transformative potential, so we must be careful in characterizing them all as having such potential. 6) Some social food related practices (like informal food stals in rural areas, or community kitchens) are criminalized.

Transformative potential

Some projects offered high degrees of Transformative potential, ProGIreg and EdiCitNet both seeked to make urban transformation work with and for local communities, where citizens become active participants in the construction and upkeep of community projects and spaces in their communities, as opposed to being just passive ‘stay and use’ users. The growth of such community decision making processes could lead to wider aspects of future neighbourhood design being driven by community-led initiatives[26]. Growing food locally and with sustainability principles also creates more awareness towards the health and environmental consequences of industrial chemical-based agriculture, challenging in this way powerful market interests that build on everyday food choices. However, it should be noted, urban community gardens rarely provide autonomy in food consumption, but they do alter the way people experience food and affect their thereafter food behaviors.The growth of such community decision making processes and the more intense and frequent interaction between beighbors that such initiatives cultivate, have potential of increasing grassroots/neighborhood action in other aspects of urban design and policy.


The PATHWAYS project focused on key objectives of (2016) EU sustainability policy[27] (moving towards a sustainable, resource-efficient, low-carbon and climate-resilient Europe). This was intrinsically linked to the success of two key transitions: 1) the energy transition and 2) the land-use transition. The Transition Case Study Database includes examples from the second section relating to the approach of “Community Gardens”.[28][29]

  • Rosa Rose – more than just a Berlin garden

The initiative “Rosa Rose"[30] is one of the community garden projects in Berlin. The initiative started in 2004, when a group of neighbours in the Berlin district of Friedrichshain began turning a 2000m² brownfield into a garden to create their own little oasis. The idea was to grow vegetables, some fruits and herbs and create a green space and dog area that would also be open to passers-by. But unfortunately the oasis had to be abandoned a few years later, due to a planned construction. In May 2010 they could start to develop their new site, a green public area right next to their original location proposed by the district of Friedrichshain. Since then, a contract with the district office ensures a free usage of the area for at least five years, provided that the group maintains the space.

  • Casale Podere Rosa

In the north-east of Rome there is an old country side building where more then 20 years ago a bunch of willing and motivated people decided to take up an abandoned area to develop an entire microcosm of activities. Over the years this has grown to include a solidarity purchasing group, an educational botanic garden, urban gardens, a farmer market twice a months, an organic restaurant, the management of a library dedicated to the ecological culture, the energy production through solar panels and more. Today the Casale Podere Rosa[31] is a fully developed association around which revolve a community of 500 people, more than 100 families. A piece of neighbourhood benefitting from and contributing to the drive to shape the current identity and quality of the surrounding area. Its achievements, quite unique in the urban scenario where the initiative is settled, are the results of a careful management of the relationships with the local institution and of ability in taking advantage of the peculiarities of the neighbourhood, which has a history of social and environmental struggles.


  1. Herbert Girardet; World Future Council; (2010). Regenerative Cities. Written for the World Future Council and HafenCity University Hamburg (HCU) Commission on Cities and Climate Change
  2. Herbert Girardet (2014): Creating Regenerative Cities
  3. Daniel Wahl & Marilyn Hamilton (2020): Integral Cities & Bioregional Regeneration. reGeneration Rising: Conversations about regenerative practice (Episode 3)
  4. Megan Quinn (2006) The power of community: How Cuba survived peak oil
  5. Pollinator biodiversity
  6. Accessed April 6th 2020.
  8. Säumel, Ina; Reddy, Suhana E; & Wachtel, Thomas: Edible City Solutions—One Step Further to Foster Social Resilience through Enhanced Socio-Cultural Ecosystem Services in Cities. Published in Sustainability, February 2019
  11. ProGIreg NBS #3: Community-based urban farms and gardens approach
  12. ProGIreg NBS #4: Aquaponics
  14. CITISPYCE Repository of Case Studies I: Athens - Topeko (Case Studies I: Local Actions for social integration of vulnerable groups in the Municipality of Elefsina (TOPEKO)
  15. Anguelovski, Isabelle (2014) Alternative food provision conflicts in cities: Contesting food privilege, injustice, and whiteness in Jamaica Plain, Boston
  16. Film: The Power of Community. How Cuba Survived Peak Oil
  17. Wikipedia: The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil
  18. Bohn&Viljoen Architects (2012). Scarcity and Abundance: Urban Agriculture in Cuba and the US
  19. CPULs – Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes – Andre Viljoen (2006)
  20. Middlesbrough Urban Farming Project
  21. Early, Catherine (2008) In; Guardian, UK: Urban jungle
  22. Sharecity
  23. Fundació Espigoladors
  24. Open food network
  25. Community-supported agriculture
  26. ECOLISE (2019): Report reveals compelling evidence of the effectiveness of community-led responses to climate and ecological breakdown
  27. EU Commission Communication: A sustainable Europe for a better world: A European strategy for Sustainable Development
  28. Transition case study database: Rosa Rose – more than just a Berlin garden
  29. Transition case study database: Casale Podere Rosa
  30. Rosa Rose
  31. Casale Podere Rosa