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HOW COMMUNITY GARDENS CAN ADDRESS FOOD, SUSTAINABILITY, AND CONNECTION CHALLENGES

Updated: Jun 12

By Grace Okubo


Community gardens have become ubiquitous features of urban landscapes. Initially conceived to combat food insecurity, they continue to fulfill that role today. From Japan's "machi-niwa" to Brazil's "hortas comunitárias," these gardens vary widely in their scope and function across countries and regions. 


Rooted in history, modern iterations emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, evolving to address a spectrum of social and environmental challenges. Today, community gardens serve as multifaceted assets, functioning as social hubs, centers of education and environmental stewardship, cultural repositories, and agents of urban renewal and biodiversity conservation. They are particularly vital in low-income and marginalized communities, where they provide employment and income, and enhance community resilience. 


Community gardens often originate as grassroots initiatives driven by residents, community organizations, or non-profits. They take advantage of vacant lots, abandoned spaces, or underutilized areas. Over time, their value becomes evident, prompting city planners and policymakers to incorporate them into urban development strategies. However, external factors such as climate, socio-economic conditions, politics, technology, and legal issues can positively or negatively affect these gardens.


Society's focus on economic benefits over social and environmental ones, inadequate awareness, and cultural perceptions contribute to the underappreciation of many community gardens. In some cities, zoning regulations and land-use policies do not support the establishment of community gardens. The lack of data showing the quantifiable value that community gardens add to the urban landscape and the challenge of engaging volunteers to maintain them, also pose a serious challenge to their development. Not all cities have equal access to resources or opportunities to establish and maintain community gardens resulting in disparities in recognition and support. Therefore, the need for stakeholders to apply foresight to preserve their impact has become pertinent.


IMPORTANCE OF APPLYING STRATEGIC FORESIGHT TO COMMUNITY GARDENS

Foresight in planning community gardens is crucial for ensuring their long-term sustainability. It can help community leaders anticipate challenges such as climate change, resource availability, and population growth, enabling communities to design resilient systems. Involving community members fosters ownership and inclusivity, adapting to shifting needs and preferences, economic fluctuations, and urban development. Moreover, foresight can help educate communities about environmental issues and local food systems, empowering them to make informed decisions.


Case studies such as the Detroit Future City Strategic Framework, Vancouver Food Strategy, Food and Trees for Africa (FTFA), and the Capital Growth Initiative of the United Kingdom demonstrate how foresight, strategic planning, and community engagement can come together to inform the development of community garden projects. These initiatives engage stakeholders in planning for urban agriculture goals, including urban revitalization, land access, food security, environmental sustainability, and social cohesion. Recognizing the contributions of community gardens, they integrate them into strategic plans to enhance local food systems and communities.


TRENDS IMPACTING COMMUNITY GARDENS

The landscape of community gardening is rapidly evolving, driven by trends reshaping urban green spaces. One notable trend is the rise of vertical and rooftop gardens, popular in densely populated cities where land is scarce. These methods utilize vertical surfaces and rooftops to cultivate crops, maximizing urban space while enhancing aesthetics and sustainability.


Advancements in aquaponics and hydroponics are revolutionizing community gardening, especially in areas with limited arable land or water resources. These techniques use nutrient-rich water to grow plants, often alongside fish farming. By leveraging these methods, community gardens yield high-quality produce using minimal space and resources, enhancing urban agriculture's efficiency and sustainability.


Community-supported agriculture (CSA) models strengthen connections between urban residents and local farmers. Through CSA programs, individuals directly support small-scale farmers by subscribing to produce boxes sourced from nearby gardens and farms. This approach ensures access to fresh, locally grown food while fostering community bonds and sustainable food systems. Integration of smart technologies such as robotics and AI can streamline garden management, optimizing growth and resource use. 


Underlying these trends are larger and more significant drivers. Technological innovations in robotics and artificial intelligence are increasingly being integrated into community gardening, reflecting the desire for automation and increased efficiency in managing these farms. More community gardens utilizing innovative business models demonstrate the need to ensure their economic viability and financial security. Finally, the integration of urban agriculture infrastructure into urban architecture demonstrates a shift towards urban sustainability and resilience.


Fig 1.1 Three Horizon Scan of Community Gardening Landscape

SCENARIO OF THE FUTURE

Extrapolating from the trends described above, one can anticipate possible scenarios of what the future of community gardens could look like to stakeholders. In a world where community gardens are highly digital operations, are operated on innovative business models, and are deliberate components of the urban infrastructure, the way they will serve their primary functions will evolve. Social interaction, education, environmental stewardship, and urban renewal will take on new forms in the face of these drivers. It also will mean that the forms of employment these gardens will provide and how they serve low-income and marginalized residents may look different from today.


Using the Manoa Method, a critical look at the interplay of three of these major changes shows major implications of what a transformation scenario in community gardens could look like. Foresight practitioners may be interested in exploring other scenarios for risk planning, but for inspiring action, sharing a transformation scenario with stakeholders is the best motivator. 


Fig 1.2 Manoa Future Wheel: Innovative Business Models Transforming Community Gardens into Profitable Ventures, Community Gardens as Catalysts for Social and Environmental Change and The Rise of Vertical and Rooftop Gardens, Aquaponics, Hydroponics, Igloo Greenhouses, and Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA)

EMBRACING TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCEMENTS FOR SUSTAINABLE URBAN AGRICULTURE

In this envisioned future, community gardens transform into dedicated spaces for cultivation, social interaction, and celebrating diversity. Beyond mere food provision, they become vital tools for communities to adapt to the challenges of climate change and serve as innovative hubs for collective problem-solving. These gardens will be seamlessly integrated into urban landscapes, embracing advanced technologies such as aeroponic and hydroponic systems, ensuring efficient and sustainable food production. Maintenance staff will receive comprehensive training and licensure to operate these automated gardens, overseen by regional regulatory bodies to maintain quality standards.


Recognized as public utilities, community gardens will be funded by taxes and government grants, with residents actively participating in their management. Access to these gardens will be considered a fundamental right, promoting food security and inclusivity. Marginalized communities will be mandated to participate in garden governance to ensure diversity, with access cards issued to residents for participation. Regional regulatory bodies will ensure equitable access to technology and support for all gardens, regardless of their gardening methods.


Additionally, the proliferation of public and private Permaculture Estates will support communities interested in preserving traditional farming practices while providing necessary technological support. Governed by existing urban planning authorities, these estates will serve as bastions of sustainable agriculture in urban environments. This future envisions a harmonious blend of technological advancement and traditional wisdom, ensuring equitable access to food and fostering community resilience.



Fig 1.3 Cross-Impact Matrix Examining Possible Results of an Interplay of Future Events

EXPLORING THE HOLISTIC IMPACT OF FUTURE COMMUNITY GARDEN SCENARIOS


The scenario outlined above holds significant implications for stakeholders in community gardens, emphasizing the importance of strategic foresight and proactive planning. 


Community gardens have emerged as multifaceted entities, serving not only as sources of fresh produce but also as hubs for social cohesion, environmental stewardship, and cultural preservation. As such, stakeholders ranging from residents to policymakers and urban planners should take heed of the potential impacts of evolving trends on these vital community spaces. With the landscape of community gardening rapidly evolving, driven by factors such as technological innovation, changing demographics, and environmental pressures, it becomes imperative for stakeholders to apply foresight to anticipate and address future challenges and opportunities. By doing so, they can ensure the long-term sustainability and effectiveness of community gardens in meeting the diverse needs of urban populations.


While the envisioned future of community gardens as vibrant hubs of sustainability and inclusivity holds promise, several barriers may impede its realization. These include:


  • Securing sufficient funding and resources to support the transition of these gardens into advanced, technology-driven spaces. Overcoming this hurdle requires concerted efforts from both governmental and non-governmental sectors to allocate adequate budgets and provide training programs for maintenance staff.

  • Ensuring equitable access to these gardens, especially for marginalized communities, demands proactive measures to address socioeconomic disparities and institutional barriers. Community engagement and education initiatives are crucial for fostering ownership and participation among residents, while regulatory frameworks must prioritize inclusivity and diversity in garden governance. 

  • Integrating traditional farming practices into modern urban landscapes necessitates collaboration between urban planners and local communities to navigate zoning regulations and ensure the preservation of cultural heritage. By addressing these barriers through collaborative action and strategic planning, stakeholders can pave the way for the realization of a future where community gardens thrive as resilient, inclusive, and sustainable spaces for all.



FUTURISTS’ VITAL ROLE IN SHAPING SUSTAINABLE URBAN LANDSCAPES THROUGH COMMUNITY GARDENS

The integration of themes such as technological advancement, equitable access, and community empowerment underscores why the future of community gardens should matter to futurists. As agents of change and innovation, futurists play a crucial role in envisioning and shaping sustainable urban landscapes. By analyzing current trends and projecting potential future scenarios, futurists can help stakeholders navigate complex challenges and capitalize on emerging opportunities within the realm of community gardening.


Moreover, the scenario outlined earlier in this article exemplifies how foresight methodologies such as the Manoa Method can facilitate transformative change by envisioning alternative futures and guiding strategic decision-making. Ultimately, the future of community gardens intersects with broader societal aspirations for resilience, equity, and environmental stewardship, making it a compelling area of study and intervention for futurists seeking to create positive futures for urban communities.


In conclusion, the outlined scenario emphasizes the importance of strategic foresight among stakeholders in community gardens, urging them to adopt innovative approaches for sustained relevance and sustainability. By anticipating and addressing future challenges, these stakeholders can leverage the transformative power of community gardens to cultivate resilient, inclusive, and environmentally sustainable communities. 


Furthermore, this scenario underscores the crucial role of futurists in shaping the direction of urban agriculture and advancing societal objectives of equity, resilience, and environmental stewardship. As we navigate an uncertain future, community gardens can emerge as symbols of hope and resilience, offering concrete avenues toward a more sustainable and equitable urban landscape.


 

Grace Okubo is a user experience designer, boasting over a decade of experience in crafting user-centered products and leading the design and development of software products across various sectors such as real estate, fintech, and e-commerce. Based in Lagos, Nigeria, her expertise lies in seamlessly blending Design Thinking and Agile Methodologies. At the same time, her role as an educator has seen her impart essential skills to a global audience in design and product management. Trained in Ethics in Design, Design Thinking, and Foresight Methodologies, Grace consistently proposes innovative solutions to complex challenges, driven by her goal of promoting equity, inclusivity, and sustainability.

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