There is a diversity of successful community garden sites. But the most important thing is that the site works for the community of gardeners who will manage it. Several important considerations need to be taken into account when choosing a site for a community garden. Some have to do with location, others with the landowner.
It’s beneficial to have the garden in a clearly visible location. Some of the most successful gardens are situated in a place where the community naturally gathers. They can serve as community gathering areas. Tucking a garden out of the way, in places people would otherwise not go, can prevent a garden from being used by the community and recognized as an asset.
Visibility is also important for safety reasons. Locating the garden in a place where passersby can have “eyes” on the site may discourage unwanted behavior.
In addition to being visible, the garden needs to be accessible to both gardeners and large vehicles such as delivery trucks. You might not be able to find a location with all of the following, but consider each:
- Bus route availability
- Accessibility for the disabled
- Child friendliness/safety
- Truck delivery (compost, hay bales, etc.)
Sun, wind, and drainage
The vast majority of vegetables and fruits don’t do well without at least 6 to 8 hours of full sunlight daily. Look to the south for large buildings or trees that will shade the site. Some shade on the site can be a nice relief on hot summer days, but a very shady site will be a challenge for growing vegetables. Likewise, too much wind will stunt plant growth. Finally, does it look like your prospective garden will flood? Or is it on a steep slope where you’ll need to terrace the soil to prevent erosion?
Good gardens start with the great soil! Urban soil is often compacted, full of weed seeds, and sometimes contaminated. Take a pick or shovel and pot-hole around your prospective site. Is the soil heavy clay, sandy, full of rocks, rubble, or trash? Is it dark with organic matter or does it look like the topsoil was long scraped off? (Read more about evaluating soil here.) Become a historian and find out about the site history. Ask neighbors and check with the county tax assessor’s office to see if the site was primarily residential or formerly hosted businesses. Determine if nearby major industries might have shed pollutants on the site. For more information on soil contaminants, see the Discover Soils section on Soil Contaminants. While many urban soils can be rehabilitated, think carefully about what you’ll have to invest to bring the soil at your prospective site up to top production potential.
The other major consideration when choosing a site is the landowner. Different types of landowners present different benefits and challenges to the garden—both in initial development and long-term stability. While many landowners are potentially willing to host a community garden, the differences between them most often boil down to the differences between public landowners (such as a city) and private landowners (such as an individual, citizens' group, or an agency like a church). Read about Quebec's unique history of urban gardening here.
Some considerations that relate to the type of landowner include:
Permission and land tenure
In many cases, urban farmers and community gardeners will arrange to lease land from an individual landowner or city agencies. Approach the landowner with a brief proposal in a letter. If they reply favorably, meet to work out further details (from garden design to clean up at the project close) and finalize everything in writing. Individual landowners might be easier to negotiate with than city agencies with their bureaucracy, but municipalities might be willing to give you a longer lease. Ideally, you will secure at least 3 years on your new site. Land tenure will affect whether you want to plant fruit trees in the ground or in barrels, the amount of soil building and physical infrastructure you build, etc. Remember to consult neighbors and community groups. Regardless of whether they have official say (like a homeowners' association) good neighbors and local group relations will greatly increase your project’s success. If you want to consider buying vacant urban land either as an individual or community gardening group, be aware that loans for vacant land work differently than home loans. You could make owning land more affordable through partnerships with land trusts or reduce your tax liability by having your land designated as agricultural or open space. While ownership means a certain amount of stability (especially if you purchase the land outright at an auction), it also means full responsibility for things like utilities and insurance.
Water and other utilities
There are three costs related to water. The first is access to a water meter. This can be one of the largest upfront costs. A public agency may be better able to pay for installation of a water meter than a private citizens’ group.
The second cost is installing pipes to convey water from the meter to the garden’s location, and then throughout the garden. This can often be done for relatively low cost. Public agencies often have staff qualified to do this work, or private citizens can do it with volunteer labor, but it helps to have a skilled volunteer.
The third cost is the ongoing cost of the water. No matter who the landowner is, gardeners are usually held responsible for the cost of the water they use throughout a growing season.
Other utilities include electricity (handy for operating power tools and lights), trash or green waste (you might not compost everything yourself!) and possibly sewage if you intend to have on-site restrooms – important if your space will become a more developed community or youth center. Be sure to negotiate who will pay for what.
Different types of landowners will have different requirements regarding insurance. If the owner is a public agency that’s used to insuring its public spaces, then treating the garden like a public space (and/or having gardeners sign a waiver) can often satisfy the agency's requirements. Churches or other land-owning non-profits are also familiar with the costs of insuring the land they own, and changes may not be necessary to turn parts of their land into a garden.
A private citizen, however, probably won’t want to buy additional insurance to let a group of gardeners use his or her land. In this case, it may be best to seek out a third party that would be willing to support the community garden by handling the insurance.
Access to resources
Different ownership structures may make you eligible for different resources to assist with building the garden. In general, it’s easier to access public dollars if the garden is on public land. Private dollars can be sought to develop a garden on either public or private land. Consider partnering with or forming a non-profit to take advantage of tax-exempt status for donations.
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