Community Gardens

What are Community Gardens?
Community gardens come in many forms and are found in urban and rural areas alike. The American Community Garden Association defines them as any piece of land gardened by a group of people.

A Multi-faceted Solution
Community gardens provide a way for people to grow fresh organic produce that they might not otherwise be able to afford, they give urban dwellers an opportunity to work the earth, and become thriving social centers. Replacing vacant lots with gardens has numerous documented benefits for the surrounding neighborhood: they increase property values, decrease crime (eyes on the street) and add to the sense of community. Community gardens have been particularly popular during economic downturns because they affordably provide a broad array of benefits: they leverage local resources to create things that make neighborhoods attractive without requiring significant financial investments.

Common Barriers and Common Solutions
Community gardens often lack a place in city zoning codes or are treated as if they are a development project with many potential risks. This has put some cities in the position of accidently creating red tape for gardeners. For example, one garden in the City of San Diego, now recognized nationally for its programs to help international refugees grow fresh, healthy food, cost $46,000 to get a permit. The City of San in response to the development of this garden and a local outpouring of support from community members, community-based organizations, elected officials, and city staff removed many of the regulatory challenges to community gardens in July 2011. Cities interested in promoting community gardens are encouraged to consider similiar measures including the following:

  • Insert positive language into the city's general plans;
  • Create clear, easy to follow ways of navigating the zoning code;
  • Ensure application or permitting processes are no or low-cost;
  • Identify city departments or agencies to oversee the operation of community gardens on public land;
  • Assist in finding land suitable for community gardens and negotiating with landowners if it is privately held.

A Snapshot of Local and National Activities
While support for community gardens in the San Diego region has often been limited to small programs for a few gardens on public land, cities are now taking much more pro-active stances. Local municipalities such as San Diego and National City are responding rapidly to interest in community gardens by creating new, supportive regulations.  In June 2011, the Healthy WorksSM School and Community Gardens Intervention worked closely with the City of San Diego and partners across the city in the passage of the changes to the city's municipal code that allow community gardens by right in all commercial and residential zones. Additionally, the City of Chula Vista passed an ordinance in early 2010 that allows community gardens on public lands.

Numerous other county cities are currently exploring adding pro-community garden language to their general plans as they go through plan updates. The language often aligns the community gardens with zoning which allows agriculture "by right" in at least the most significant zones. (This is particularly true of inland North County.) Other cities in the county continue to treat community gardens as a development project and may assess thousands of dollars in fees to get the right permit (though permits might be waived).

Cities across the country are adopting resident-friendly community garden policies as well. New York and Chicago host more than 600 community gardens a piece, and Los Angeles allows agricultural uses "by right" in all zones. Seattle offers a comprehensive model: its general plan has numerous references to encouraging community gardening, its zoning allows them "by right" in all zones, and its famous P-Patch program currently runs 73 community gardens.

Community gardens are popular because they brighten neighborhoods and connect people to their food and the earth. We encourage local leaders to work with residents to create policies that support community gardens in your neighborhood.

For more information, please contact JuliAnna Arnett, the Healthy WorksSM Food Policy Manager for the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative, a program of Community Health Improvement Partners.


Made possible by funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, through the County of San Diego.

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Quick Facts

  • More children are being diagnosed with diseases linked to overweight and obesity previously seen only in adults, such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease (The Obesity Society, 2009).
  • Walking and biking have decreased more than 40% during the past 3 decades, partly because of unsafe routes and poor walking conditions (Active Living Research, 2009).
  • One in four children in San Diego County is overweight or obese; this is slightly higher than the national average (California Center for Public Health Advocacy, 2009)

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