Community Gardens: From Thrift to War to Urban Activism

My first exposure to community gardens was as someone growing up in a city, and later as a suburban apartment-dweller that refused to accept I wouldn’t be able to garden. You might think of community gardens as a recent invention brought about by more people living in cities, but the concept of community gardening dates way farther back! From local cities battling the effects of economic depression, to the government encouraging gardening as a patriotic act during wartime, to modern urban activism, community gardening has brought people together for the good of the community and farther afield.

Way Back When:

The first community gardens began in the 1890s, in Detroit. ‘The Panic of 1893’ brought about an economic depression that lasted about 4 years, and inspired the mayor of Detroit to turn vacant lots into gardens where unemployed workers could grow and sell food.

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Smithsonian Gardens – ‘Community of Gardens’ exhibit

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, an even more widespread program of community gardening took shape across the country. The initial gardens started out small, supported by local groups, but were eventually transformed by state and federal programs. They provided food and employment, and produced millions of dollars’ worth of produce.

Food Fighting for Freedom

Most of us have heard of the Victory Gardens of WW2, but there was also a considerable war-gardening effort during WWI. There was a severe food-shortage in Europe during the war, and the U.S. government put in a massive effort on the homefront to grow food to ship overseas to troops and our allies. The Federal Bureau of Education developed a national gardening curriculum and millions of schoolchildren ‘enlisted’ in the United States School Garden Army. (Wouldn’t it be great if gardening and growing food were still part of school curriculum today!)

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State Historical Society of North Dakota

During WW2, food was in short supply in the U.S. for a variety of reasons – canned goods were being shipped to troops overseas, the food transportation system took a backseat to shipping troops and supplies, and there were restrictions on imports. The government instituted rationing on goods like gas, clothing, and of course food. Ration books were given to each family – they specified how much of each item you were allowed, and you would bring your book to the store to get stamped, indicating the quantity and time of items purchased, based on a points system. None of this guaranteed that the shop would have what you needed, however, and certain items like meats, sugar, and butter, were often not in supply.

During this time of intense rationing on the homefront, the government encouraged ‘Victory Gardens’ to fill the gap in food shortages. Individual families grew food at home, but neighborhoods also pulled together to form cooperatives for growing. Victory Gardening also produced some truly awesome ‘propaganda’ posters as well. The government wanted you to feel that growing food was truly a patriotic act.

Back to Nature

The American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) was founded in the late 1970s in Chicago, as a way to connect and share information across the hundreds of local garden programs across the country. In the face of cuts from federal programs that were supporting many of the gardens, leaders in the ACGA learned to work within the political system to support the national community garden system.

Today there are an estimated 18,000 community gardens in the U.S.! If you’re feeling inspired to get your hands in the dirt and get involved in your community you can start by searching here. You can also check with your local parks, churches, libraries and environmental centers. There may be a garden right around the corner from you!

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Here’s some great resources if you’re interested in learning more about the history of community gardens:

A Brief History of Urban Garden Programs in the United States
Community Gardening Toolkit
Grown from the Past: A Short History of Community Gardening in the United States

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