Cities face immense challenges when creating attractive green spaces for their inhabitants, striving to create beautiful, engaging public space while also walking the narrow tightrope of budget and resource allocation. Formerly, city landscaping meant well-tended flowerbeds and the immaculately manicured sprawling green lawn which has become a symbol of wealth and luxury. This type of public green space is attractive, but the truth is that it’s also incredibly wasteful. And yet, a relatively new trend is taking root again — urban gardening in the form of cities being turned into micro food producers. But before we take a look at this movement, lets take a look at how wasteful the current landscaping status-quo is.
- Statistics for municipal water use are tough to track down, but the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans use 9 billion gallons of water each and every day, simply to keep their personal outdoor landscapes looking green.
- Add municipal water use to this already absurd number and we’re looking at a lot of water going to grow something just so we can cut in a week.
It’s not just the waste of these aesthetic landscapes, it’s also the financial cost borne by taxpayers. It can seem downright frivolous sometimes, prioritizing the installation and maintenance of giant expanses of grass or ornamental flower baskets instead of directing those funds toward improving the health and welfare of its citizens, instead. For ages it’s seemed like an either/or proposition, but a new trend in city planning may have found a way to elegantly balance both.
Urban gardening takes root
Urban agriculture is a unique way for cities to prioritize food over flowers, and a growing number of cities are embracing this concept wholeheartedly. Urban gardening seeks to reclaim unused or ill-used public spaces and transform them into productive edible gardens which are open to the public or designed to benefit specific social service or non profit groups. Some forms of urban gardening look to replace cement or vacant lots with vibrant growth while others try to reframe gardens from just looking good, to tasting good, too.
Wondering what these rich urban gardening projects look like? They truly are as diverse and unique as the vegetable varieties they grow — here are three great examples of urban gardening projects taking root in Europe and North America.
The Edible City
Andernach, Germany, is known as The Edible City, due to their commitment to planting fruits and vegetables on city land, rather than flowers. This initiative officially began in 2010, and has worked to transform over 86,000 square feet of city property into lush vegetable gardens filled with nutrient-rich fruits and vegetable. This urban gardening initiative has met with resounding success, due in large part to incredible community support and involvement. The creative minds behind the project keep community members engaged and interested by continually reinventing the program to feature different plants — planting hundreds of heirloom varieties of tomatoes one year for example, so the public could see and taste the differences between plant types — and constantly innovating and explaining the program.
This creative rethinking of public space wasn’t without its challenges, but an unexpected stumbling block described in an article about The Edible City was that the public was initially quite reluctant to pick the fruits and vegetables as they began to ripen.
The notion of private space and ownership is so deeply ingrained in our modern society that signs had to be put up encouraging people to help themselves to the bounty. In doing so, The Edible City is changing the urban landscape of Andernach but also reframing how its inhabitants think about and use public space.
The Edible Bus Stop
London, too, is seeking to transform public spaces through urban gardening with a collective called The Edible Bus Stop. Made up of landscape architects, garden designers, horticulturists, artists and activists, this group believes that “a brutal landscape makes for a brutal outlook, and that by taking responsibility for our urban environment, we can improve upon the experience of inner city living”. As anyone who’s spent any significant amount of time within a major city can attest, this idea of a physical environment both reflecting and affecting one’s emotional state is absolutely spot on.
This group works to change drab, dull, and depressing urban spaces with bursts of color and fresh fruit and veggies. As the name would suggest, one of their first projects was to transform three bus stops along the number 322 bus route in London into edible gardens.
It began with one small patch and one bus stop, but the effort quickly bloomed to other spaces as well. The Edible Bus stop group has now expanded their efforts into art installations (check out this fantastic “Roll Out the Barrows” installation, featuring colorful wheelbarrows filled with plants) and pocket gardens which add glimpses of rich green life in the most unexpected spaces.
In another urban gardening success story, Victoria, British Columbia has taken advantage of its location in one of Canada’s most encouraging growing climates to transform part of a public square into a food-producing space. A post on the city’s website explains the initiative, stating,
For the third consecutive year, the City of Victoria is partnering with Our Place Society, whose staff, family members and volunteers will plant, maintain and harvest vegetables and herbs to make meals for its lunch program. Seedlings will be provided by the City and will include oregano, kale, rainbow chard, broccoli, basil, dill, red cabbage, cucumbers and tomatoes. Sunflowers will be planted to provide color and food in the garden. Existing plants in the edible garden include large artichoke, fig trees, goumi berries, chives, and thyme.
This is urban gardening with a cause — all the produce will be harvested and donated to the Our Place Society, an organization which serves the poor, disadvantaged and homeless population of the city. Veggies will be featured in their lunch program and meals will be seasoned with herbs from the garden as well. Participants in the program can assist with gardening and harvesting the herbs and vegetables, as well as enjoy the delicious (and nutritious) fruits and vegetables of their labors. The program is designed to connect community members through natural spaces while also raising awareness of food issues.
These initiatives featured in Andenach, London, and Victoria are only three of thousands of urban gardening projects growing around the globe. As issues of food scarcity, resource allocation, responsible water use and how to build vibrant and inclusive communities increases, I think -and hope – we’ll see an increase in these useful green spaces, too.
Feature image credit: LUMOimages / Shutterstock