Community gardens in urban areas – critical reflection on social cohesion & alternative food provisioning – PhD thesis by Esther Veen

Esther Veen - Community gardens in urban areasJune 15, 2015 at 1.30 pm Esther Veen will publicly defend her PhD-thesis ‘Community gardens in urban areas: A critical reflection on the extent to which they strengthen social cohesion and provide alternative food‘ in the Auditorium of Wageningen University. The defence ceremony will be streamed live by WURTV but can be viewed later as well. A hard copy of the thesis can be ordered by sending an email to esther.veen@wur.nl or a pdf can be downloaded from Wageningen Library (see link above).

This thesis shows that the different organisational set-ups of community gardens reflect gardeners’ different motivations for being involved in these gardens. The gardens studied in this thesis can be defined as either place-based or interest-based; gardens in the first category are focused on the social benefits of gardening, whereas gardens in the second category are focused on gardening and vegetables. Nevertheless, social effects occur in both types of gardens; in all of the gardens studied, participants meet and get to know others and value these contacts. Based on this finding, I conclude that community gardens do indeed enhance social cohesion.

Place-based community gardens specifically have the potential to become important meeting places; they offer the opportunity to work communally towards a common goal, and once established, can develop into neighbourhood spaces to be used for various other shared activities. Most interest-based gardens lack opportunities to develop the social contacts that originated at the garden beyond the borders of the garden. These gardens are often maintained by people who do not live close to the garden or to each other, and those who garden are generally less motivated by social motivations per se. Important to note is that community gardens do not necessarily foster a more inclusive society; they often attract people with relatively similar socio-economic backgrounds and may support not one, but several communities.

Most participants from place-based gardens eat from their gardens only occasionally; others never do so. This type of community garden can therefore hardly be seen as a reaction to the industrialised food system, let alone an attempt to create an alternative food system. Nevertheless, certain aspects of these gardens are in line with the alternative rhetoric. By contrast, most gardeners at interest-based gardens eat a substantial amount of food from their gardens, and to some of them the choice to consume this locally-grown food relates to a lifestyle in which environmental considerations play a role. However, this reflexivity is not expressed in political terms and participants do not see themselves as part of a food movement. Participants who buy rather than grow produce showed the greatest tendency to explain their involvement in political terms, but many of them have difficulty including the produce in their diets on a regular basis. I therefore conclude that community gardens cannot be seen as conscious, ‘alternative’ alternatives to the industrial food system. Nonetheless, the role of food in these gardens is essential, as it is what brings participants together – either because they enjoy gardening or because the activities which are organised there centre around food.

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