What Good is Community Greening - Community Gardening


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What Good is Community Greening - Community Gardening

  1. 1. What good is community greening? DAVID MALAKOFF • CGR 1995YOU’VE SPENT AN HOUR tending your tomato vines, but Powerpoint presentation and her charts and graphs, andnow it’s time to go to that meeting about the garden. They “proves” how your garden is more “valuable” to the com-are threatening to take the garden away, to bulldoze the lot munity with a concrete slab and 10 tons of machineryand erect an electric power substation where flowers now slapped on top of it.dance in the breeze and the neighbors gather to admire old “Look,” she says in her best this-is-between-you-and-Bill’s pumpkins. me voice, “What good is that little patch of weeds and At the meeting, everyone is polite and proper until carrots anyway?”. . . until that dour-faced junior executive rises with her Now, you’re angry. You jump to your feet and start toPhoto • Gardener Elvin Collins, Denver, Colorado (Colorado State Coop Extension photo, CGR 1992) speak. “What good is our garden?” You ask in disbelief. “I’ll16 2004-2005 SPECIAL EDITION
  2. 2. tell you what good it is . . . ” But after you’ve had your say reams of data to demonstrate the social and economic– after you’ve talked about quality-of-life, commented on benefits of their projects, greeners are often armed withthe pride and tranquility that has come from coaxing new little more than heart-warming anecdotes about cabbageslife from the soil, and told the story of how the neighbor- sprouting amidst urban squalor.hood really turned around after that trash-filled lot was The lack of hard data on greening “can create the im-transformed into a garden – the junior executive only pression among decision-makers that there is an absencelooks at you blankly. of tangible, credible evidence regarding the benefits,” say “Those are nice stories,” she says. Then, gesturing to Roger S. Ulrich and Russ Parsons of Texas A&M University.her charts and graphs, she asks: “But where are your facts “Unfortunately, intuitive arguments in favor of plants usu-and figures . . . where is your proof?” proof ally make little impression on financially-pressed local or What good is community greening? And how do you state governments, or on developers concerned with theprove it? bottom line. Politicians, faced with urgent problems such The answers to these basic questions are obvious to as homelessness or drugs, may dismiss plants as unwar-most community greeners, whether they are gardeners, ranted luxuries.”tree planters, or open-space advocates. They know from Greeners got a painful reminder of this fact of life intheir own experience that plants are good for people and 1993, when Congress essentially eliminated funding fortheir communities. Proof? They’ve seen it with their own the US Department of Agriculture’s Urban Gardeningeyes. Program, which helped over 150,000 low-income gar- But, these days, speaking from experience often isn’t deners in 23 of the nation’s cities.enough to convince people that spending time and moneyon plants and green space is a good idea. Increasingly, poli- MODERN RESEARCHticians, developers, and taxpayers demand evidence, factsand figures showing that greening is a good investment. Luckily, today there is more evidence than ever before Luckily for community greeners, researchers have made of the benefits of greening. Diane Relf, a horticulturesome remarkable discoveries in recent years that power- professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, who studiesfully demonstrate the benefits of greening. The discoveries “people-plant interactions”, says people-plant researchcome from a dizzying array of disciplines, ranging from generally falls into one of several broad categories.psychology and economics to sociology and medicine. One category is the study of “background theories”They confirm that people, even in this technological age, which try to explain the underlying reasons why peopleneed plants for more than just food, and need green space have positive responses to plants and green spaces. Ulrichfor more than just pleasure. and Parsons, for example, theorize that people are over- In the words of University of Michigan psychologist whelmed by the noise, movement, and visual complexityStephen Kaplan, the studies prove that “Nature is not just of the modern world, and that quieter, less chaotic plant‘nice’ . . . It is a vital ingredient in healthy human func- environments such as a gardens reduce stress. Research bytioning.” Ulrich and others suggests that human evolutionary history While highway builders and developers can produce may help to explain why we like plants and green spaces. ACGA COMMUNIT Y GREENIN G REVIEW GREENING 17
  3. 3. Our ancestors living on the broad African plains may have that even patients with excellent medical prospects reportedlearned to associate trees and plants with food and water, a severe inability to focus and had difficulty managingcreating positive feelings that we still carry today. Eminent their lives after leaving the hospital. Patients who agreedHarvard biologist Edward O. Wilson and Yale professor to regularly participate in restorative activities such as gar-Stephen Kellert assert in The Biophilia Hypothesis (Island dening, however, rapidly improved. They also returned toPress, 1993) that human evolutionary history makes a work and to their normal lives more quickly than patientshuman connection with nature a necessity, not a luxury. who did not participate in restorative activities. A second type of research into people-plant interactionshas focused on how individuals respond to plants and PEOPLE-PLANT INTERACTIONSgreen spaces. Among the many remarkable results of this re-search are findings by Ulrich and his colleagues that simply A third category of research into people-plant interactions,looking at a plant can reduce stress, fear, and anger; and the category that has attracted the most interest from com-lower blood pressure and muscle tension. Other studies munity greeners, involves the role that plants play in thehave found that prison inmates in cells with windows development of healthy human communities.overlooking greenery need less medical care and report According to Relf, researchers have found that plantsfewer symptoms of stress, such as headaches, than other and greening activities play at least three distinct roles ininmates. community development. Plants, gardens and greening: Other researchers, such as Mary Honeyman of the • Provide a more livable environment by controllingUniversity of Illinois, have documented that people shown physical factors such as temperature, noise, and pollu-urban scenes with some vegetation recover more quickly tion.from stress than people exposed to urban scenes without • Help create a community image that both residentsvegetation. In a conclusion likely to seem wildly under- and outsiders view as positive.stated to most community greeners, Honeyman concluded • Create opportunities for people to work together tothat “the introduction of green vegetation into the urban improve communities.landscape may be of important psychological benefit to Relf and others note that these three factors translatehumans.” directly into tangible economic and social benefits, such Stephen and Rachel Kaplan have also extensively as reduced crime, higher property values in greened areas,studied how individuals respond to natural settings, es- nutritious food from community gardens, and increasedpecially the role nature plays in reducing mental fatigue; business activity in attractive green neighborhoods.improving ability to focus attention on important tasks, Anyone who has retreated from the hot asphalt of asuch as managing work; and easing the stress of day-to-day city street to the shade of a nearby tree understands thelife. The Kaplans believe that nature provides the fatigued importance that plants play in regulating environmentalhuman mind with a “restorative” change of pace. A visit conditions. Energy-saving shade is not the only benefit thatto even a small garden, for example, gives a person the plants offer, as a landmark 1994 study of Chicago’s urbanfeeling of “being away” from a stressful setting (such as forest found. They also play a valuable role in reducing airwork). Vegetated landscapes appear to offer “fascination” pollution, controlling climate, and saving energy.stimulus that evokes seemingly effortless mental activity, as Such physical benefits help explain why a variety ofopposed to the strenuous, focused mental activity required psychological studies suggest that plants help foster posi-for work tasks. tive community images. In a 1985 study of apartment Stephen Kaplan says that a 1990 study by Bernadine dwellers, Stephen Kaplan found that “the most importantE. Cimprich highlights the restorative value of nature. factors in neighborhood satisfaction” were the availabilityCimprich, a nurse working with cancer patients, noticed of nearby trees, well-landscaped grounds, places for taking18 2004-2005 SPECIAL EDITION
  4. 4. a walk, and opportunities to grow plants. All “A community ac-these “were significantly related to the sense tivity such as gardeningof community.” can be used to break In light of these findings, is it any sur- the isolation, creating aprise that people are willing to pay more sense of neighborliness– sometimes a lot more – to have plants in among residents. Untiltheir surroundings? this happens, there is no community, but rather separate people who happen BUILDING COMMUNITIES to live in the same place.”Researchers admit that it is hard to prove the theory thatgardens and greening create a friendlier and more cohesive “GREENLINING”community, better able to tackle the many problems ofmodern life, because evidence is often anecdotal, incom- Research by Marti Ross Bjornson, a graduate student atplete, or tantalizingly subtle. Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, suggests “How exactly do you put a dollar value on a person’s that these initial conversations eventually lead to biggerself-esteem or the fact that someone feels better about things, an empowerment process she calls “greenlining.”driving through your neighborhood?” asks Diane Relf. Bjornson decided to look for greening-induced em- Nonetheless, she and others say there is plenty of evi- powerment in inner-city neighborhoods, where, in Lewis’sdence that greening can help residents pull together and words, “Just as the light of a candle can be seen more clearlyimprove their community. in a darkened room, so can the human benefits of plants Mark Francis, a professor at the University of California be seen more easily in communities lacking in economicat Davis (and past Board member of the ACGA) has done and social opportunity.”extensive studies of the community benefits and percep- After studying community gardening projects in inner-tions of parks and gardens. He found that gardens built city Chicago, Bjornson coined the term “greenlining” toand maintained by community residents have “unique provide a stark contrast to “redlining,’ the term used tosocial and economic benefits.” describe how banks and insurance agents often withhold “The spaces provide opportunities for neighborhood services to low-income neighborhoods (the term literallyresidents to develop and control part of their neighbor- comes from the bright red lines bankers drew on maps tohood, an advantage not afforded by traditional parks,” he outline neighborhoods where they would not offer loans).concluded after a 1987 study of park and garden users in Bjornson notes that while redlining isolates residentsSacramento, California. “Gardens are active places that of these communities from services provided by businesspeople make themselves, use for work and socializing, and and government, greenlining provides a new access route.can “love”.” By working together with greening advocates and their Research by Jill Roper, a graduate student at Rutgers neighbors, “these formerly marginalized urban residentsUniversity, confirms the theory that community gardens can gain access to public policy, economic resources andget people talking to each other. Roper’s interviews with social interaction.”participants in the New Brunswick Community Gardening These pathways to power, Bjornson says, can be rela-Program in New Jersey reveals that having a garden signifi- tively modest. Simply attending a community meeting oncantly increased the frequency of interaction among the a garden project, for example, can introduce residents togardeners, even outside of the gardening season. nonprofit and government officials they might never have As Charles Lewis says: known about, and vice versa. ACGA COMMUNIT Y GREENIN G REVIEW GREENING 19
  5. 5. “The process opens eyes on both sides,” she says. “The stories people tell about the benefits of greening speak forsimple act of starting a garden can teach previously pow- themselves. They have a strong impact. That often makeserless people how to get access to City Hall, and it can the difference with decision-makers. It isn’t always factschange the perception of the people with power who are – politicians resonate with more than just data.”looking into the community for the first time.” Greenlining brings together two groups that mightonce have passed in the night – political activists and gar-deners. “There are people who have political savvy, but don’tsee gardening as a valuable forum for social change,”Bjornson explains. “Then, there are gardeners who don’treally see a need for political activism until their gardenis threatened.” She tells the story of a Hispanic womanwho became a community leader after she got involved inworking out a complex land swap designed to protect hercommunity garden. Bjornson concludes that “the simple human neighborlyprocess of community gardening is ultimately a politicalactivity.” She believes greenlining can provide communi-ties with “greater understanding and success than othermore costly, more displacing and more abrasive forms ofcommunity political action.” While researchers have discovered much about thebenefits of community greening over the last few decades,there is still much to learn. Finding time and money is nosmall challenge for interested researchers. An academic panel coordinated by the PPC’s Relf SO, WHAT GOOD IS COMMUNITY GREENING?came up with an imposing list of research questions. The You and your community gardening allies were ready withpanel noted that the benefits of community gardening and answers when the power company went before the citygreening “have not been documented scientifically, perhaps council to ask for its permit to bulldoze the garden. You hadbecause research in this area is complex and potentially graphs demonstrating the economic and social benefits ofcostly.” Relf, for one, reports she is getting more inquiries the garden. You had testimony from a psychologist on thefrom graduate students around the nation interested in important mental-health benefits of the garden. You weredoing research in the field. Mattson and other professors even able to show that the garden provided tax benefits tosay they have graduate students ready, willing, and able the city by elevating nearby property values – benefits thatto take on some of the mind-numbing work needed to would be lost because property values would plummet ifproduce hard data. the power station were built. You could tell the facts and Mark Francis believes that “rigorously collected anec- figures were having an impact, but you really knew youdotes can be seen as hard data – you need both qualitative had won when the gardeners and neighbors rose to speakand quantitative information. The real trick is to translate from their hearts about their garden. One by one, the citywhat we already know into public support. Let’s let the council members leaned back in their chairs and nodded.Illustration • The creation of plants, from Coverdale’s Biblia, 1535. The final vote wasn’t even close.20 2004-2005 SPECIAL EDITION