Anchorage’s community gardening program is administered by the Municipality of Anchorage Parks and Recreation program and part of their mission is to provide “a food system where locally produced, affordable, and nutritious food is available to all”. The demand for access to community gardens far outweighs the supply raising the question, how can the city of Anchorage strategically and sustainably expand their community garden system? To explore this question, the Municipality of Anchorage partnered with the University of Alaska Anchorage to better understand how expanding community gardens can bridge a gap in the local food system and increase access to fresh foods by the city’s most vulnerable and diverse individuals. To do this, we developed a multi-faceted needs assessment that included a community survey, stakeholder workshop, and key informant interviews. This paper explores the opportunities and challenges of expanding Anchorage’s community gardens and offers expansion strategies that balance the needs of the community’s diverse populations with the city’s community gardening mission. The findings of this study show that to sustainably meet the needs of diverse audiences, community garden expansion efforts should focus on 1) making new gardens accessible by identifying safe, convenient, and functional locations; 2) building gardener capacity through education and outreach programs; and 3) strengthening partnerships with other community organizations to share resources and capabilities. The methods used and the associated findings revealed through this study can be adapted and applied in other cities looking to develop a sustainable and strategic model for community gardening.

INTRODUCTION

The City of Anchorage is located in Southcentral Alaska (Figure 1) and has approximately 300,000 residents—making it the state’s largest city and comprising more than 40% of the state’s total population [1]. Anchorage’s community gardening program is administered by the Municipality of Anchorage (MOA) Parks and Recreation program and their mission is “providing access to land, education and other resources necessary for community members of Anchorage, Alaska, to grow food in environmentally sustainable ways as a means to creating a food system where locally produced, affordable, and nutritious food is available to all” [2]. The focus of this project is to provide the MOA with information needed to strategically grow their community gardening program in an equitable way to help better serve Anchorage’s diverse and growing population. The City of Anchorage is divided into 38 Community Council neighborhoods, and in 2017, the MOA managed four community gardens with a total of 183 garden plots (Figure 2). All four of these community gardens are located in the north/northeastern portions of Anchorage and provide a mechanism for making fresh, local foods available to some of Anchorage’s most vulnerable and diverse populations. As noted in CNN [3], the Mountain View and surrounding neighborhoods (home to three of the four of Anchorage’s community gardens) comprise the most diverse census tracts in the US bringing together community members from Alaska Native, Native American, Asian/Pacific Island, Latin American and other ethnic groups [4]. These neighborhoods also have Anchorage’s lowest per capita incomes [5] and, unfortunately, encompass the city’s highest incidences of crime [6]; raising questions about equitable and safe access to the gardens. However, even with crime and safety concerns, the demand for community gardens consistently exceeds garden plot availability. This paper presents a suite of opportunities and challenges the MOA faces in sustainably balancing community needs and interests with the city’s mission of providing access to community gardens that is equitable for all.

FIGURE 1.

The Anchorage and surrounding Matanuska Valley region. Figure retrieved from the Municipality of Anchorage Planning Department at https://www.muni.org/Departments/OCPD/Planning/PublishingImages/vicinity.gif.

FIGURE 1.

The Anchorage and surrounding Matanuska Valley region. Figure retrieved from the Municipality of Anchorage Planning Department at https://www.muni.org/Departments/OCPD/Planning/PublishingImages/vicinity.gif.

FIGURE 2.

Community gardens managed by the MOA and the corresponding Community Council neighborhoods. The MOA’s four community gardens are located in the northern portion of Anchorage.

FIGURE 2.

Community gardens managed by the MOA and the corresponding Community Council neighborhoods. The MOA’s four community gardens are located in the northern portion of Anchorage.

CASE EXAMINATION

Background

Food Insecurity and Community Gardens in the Last Frontier

According to the US Census of Agriculture [7], despite being the largest state, Alaska has the smallest agricultural industry and ranks last of the 50 states in the value of agricultural products sold. Between 2007 and 2012, the total land in production decreased by 5% [7], further reducing the amount of food produced locally. According to Meter and Goldenberg [8], expanding personal capacity and agricultural/gardening opportunities is critical for increasing food security in Alaska and, as such, Anchorage looks into community garden expansion as a mechanism for strategically strengthening community’s members access to affordable, local produce. Alaska’s growing season is limited in length but community gardens provide increased access to local food and the outdoors, which is especially beneficial for members of lower income, diverse and/or vulnerable communities that may otherwise have limited access to both fresh foods and safe outdoor spaces [9]. However, the current demand for community garden land exceeds the supply, resulting in a waitlist for all four of Anchorage’s community gardens. Approximately 75% of garden plots are renewed annually, leaving few rental plots available for incoming community gardeners.

According to Alaska Population Projections 2012 to 2042, the state population is projected to grow at a much faster rate compared to the Lower 48 and will add nearly 200,000 people between 2012 and 2042. Calculations show the Anchorage/Matanuska Valley population (see Figure 1) growing by approximately 35% from nearly 390,000 people in 2012 to more than 530,000 people in 2042 [10]. Given these predictions, along with the rising cost of growing and shipping imported food, the MOA anticipates the demand for community garden space to increase exponentially. Since the community gardening program has exceeded capacity and the city’s resources are extremely limited, community gardening expansion efforts need to be strategic to ensure that the expansion is equitable and sustainable.

Methods

The faculty and undergraduate student researchers of the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) worked with the MOA to understand opportunities and challenges of expanding Anchorage’s community garden system. As part of this process, we administered an online survey, organized a Food Summit Workshop, and conducted key informant interviews.

Online Survey

The UAA research team partnered with the MOA to develop an online survey aimed at understanding the needs and opportunities for expanding community gardens within the city of Anchorage. We recruited participants through announcements on the MOA Parks and Recreation webpage, Anchorage Community Council webpages, local listservs, and a survey link was emailed and shared via handouts to community gardeners. The survey consisted of a total of 37 open and closed-ended questions and was adaptive in nature. A total of 478 individuals participated in the survey.

Food Summit Workshop

In June 2015, we held a Food Summit Workshop that included 23 key stakeholders interested in expanding Anchorage’s community gardening program. These stakeholders represented a diverse non-profit, public, and private organizations engaged in the local food movement. The workshop was an all-day, interactive meeting co-sponsored by UAA and the MOA Parks and Recreation Department. Workshop participants engaged in a shared visioning exercise, break-out sessions, a Strength, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis [11], and group brainstorming sessions. We typed and analyzed workshop notes using qualitative coding to sort information and to identify recurring themes [12].

Key Informant Interviews

During the preliminary analysis phase of this project, it came to light that there was very little representation from the McPhee Gardens, a garden primarily comprised of members from the Hmong community, or the refugee community. In an effort to try to capture the perspectives of these stakeholder groups, we recruited key informants to help us. We recruited Hmong and refugee gardeners and those who have experience working with these stakeholder groups until we reached theoretical saturation [13], conducting a total of ten interviews by either phone or email (Table 1).

TABLE 1.

Key informant interview guide

  • Describe your experiences working with members of the ‘X’ community.

  • Which community garden do most of these individuals use?

  • How are people getting to and from the garden?

  • How far are community gardeners typically traveling? (is the community garden close to their home)

  • Do the community gardens seem to be conveniently located for them? Why or why not?

  • Are there other parts of town these gardeners would like to see a community garden added?

  • In your opinion, would gardeners be willing to pay more for the plot rental? Does the rental price seem fair to them? Please explain why or why not.

  • What do community gardeners do with the produce? How much do they actually use for themselves and their families?

  • Are they interested in gardening education programs? If so, what kind? If not, why not?

  • To what degree do you feel the community garden program satisfies this community’s demand for garden plots?

  • How do these individuals get information on community gardens and other issues?

  • What methods have you used to build relationships with this community?

  • What lessons have you learned?

 
  • Describe your experiences working with members of the ‘X’ community.

  • Which community garden do most of these individuals use?

  • How are people getting to and from the garden?

  • How far are community gardeners typically traveling? (is the community garden close to their home)

  • Do the community gardens seem to be conveniently located for them? Why or why not?

  • Are there other parts of town these gardeners would like to see a community garden added?

  • In your opinion, would gardeners be willing to pay more for the plot rental? Does the rental price seem fair to them? Please explain why or why not.

  • What do community gardeners do with the produce? How much do they actually use for themselves and their families?

  • Are they interested in gardening education programs? If so, what kind? If not, why not?

  • To what degree do you feel the community garden program satisfies this community’s demand for garden plots?

  • How do these individuals get information on community gardens and other issues?

  • What methods have you used to build relationships with this community?

  • What lessons have you learned?

 

Results

Substantive Findings

Online Survey

Between April 15 and August 31, 2015, 478 respondents participated in the online survey focused on community gardening needs and interests in Anchorage. Survey respondents reported that while gardening space is what they value most about community gardens, they also consider fresh food, pleasure gained from gardening, a sense of community, and educational opportunities as important aspects of the community gardening program (Figure 3). More than half of survey respondents had been on a community gardening waitlist at some point, but others gave a diversity of reasons for not signing up for the waitlist, including not being able to attend in-person registration, thinking the waitlist was too long, and not knowing a waitlist process existed. Of those who were on a waitlist, approximately 70% waited one year for a garden plot with the remaining 30% waiting 2–4 years for a plot.

FIGURE 3.

Reasons survey respondents interested in community gardening.

FIGURE 3.

Reasons survey respondents interested in community gardening.

Survey respondents not currently involved in community gardening but interested in the program offered several reasons why they do not participate, with 36% reporting inconvenient locations as their primary reason (Figure 4). In-person registration and lack of parking were both noted as barriers to participation, while others feel the regulations are too rigid, there is too much vandalism, and some gardens lack desired infrastructure such as fences, benches, and sheds. For example, one participant noted, Fairview Lions Park community garden was poorly planned and implemented with no water or fencing. There are lots of complaints over the need to initially haul water, and of vandalism or theft of vegetation”. In regard to registration, while 49% of respondents reported being satisfied to somewhat satisfied with the current in-person registration process, 149 participants indicated that they would prefer registration be available online.

FIGURE 4.

Why survey respondents do not participate in community gardening.

FIGURE 4.

Why survey respondents do not participate in community gardening.

When asked where new gardens should be located, survey respondents offered a diversity of suggestions, which ranged all over town. Of specific neighborhoods, survey respondents ranked Mountain View, East Anchorage/Muldoon, and Spenard of greatest interest (see Figure 1 for neighborhood locations). South Anchorage and Airport Heights neighborhoods were mentioned by approximately 12% and 10% of survey respondents, respectively. Within these neighborhoods, individual respondents indicated specific locations at schools, churches, housing developments, and on greenbelts. The majority of community gardeners report driving to their garden plots, but 28% of respondents state that they do not have access to a vehicle and need to walk or take the bus to their garden plots—making gardens accessible by alternative transportation critical for these community gardeners. We sorted site suggestions and the following three categories emerged about where new gardens should be built: 1) where there is the greatest need for fresh food, 2) in areas where gardens do not already exist, and/or 3) where the greatest number of people are located.

Most participants feel the current garden plot rental fee is fair. Approximately 5% of respondents thought the price to rent a plot should be reduced with two respondents requesting garden plots be available for free. Approximately 10% of participants suggested the price should be increased and a total of three respondents indicated that they would pay up to $100 per year per garden plot. A few other respondents indicated that while they would be willing to pay more for a garden spot, raising the fee might make the program inaccessible to others. One participant noted, “I would be willing to pay more, but I think that [the plots] should be more affordable so people with low incomes can grow their own food”.

Approximately half of the respondents consider themselves to be somewhat knowledgeable to extremely knowledgeable of gardening practices. Many participants reporting getting their knowledge from the web, books, magazines, and family or friends, and less than 10% of participants participated in local gardening education and outreach programs. However, when asked if they were interested in participating in educational workshops, 280 respondents said that they were either interested or extremely interested in participating in a diversity of garden programs (Figure 5).

FIGURE 5.

Gardening education programs of interest to survey participants.

FIGURE 5.

Gardening education programs of interest to survey participants.

Food Summit Workshop

Results from the Food Summit culminated into two products. The first was a framework for a shared vision of the community garden program, and the second was a SWOT analysis of the Anchorage’s community gardening system.

As part of the Food Summit, workshop participants worked together in four groups, with 4–6 individuals in each group, to brainstorm their shared vision of Anchorage’s community garden. Each group came up with a set of values they wanted to be captured in this vision and facilitators sorted these values into themes (Table 2).

TABLE 2.

Values for a shared vision of an expanded community garden program in Anchorage

ValueShared Vision
Quality of Life 
  • Enhance community—interactions with neighbors

  • Improve local food security

  • Increase affordability—access

 
Education 
  • Enhance education

  • Master gardeners

  • Garden champions

 
Access 
  • Prioritize high density locations

  • Affordability—access

  • Map out sequential expansion plan

  • Work with developers and housing organizations to create community gardens on multifamily housing complexes

 
Partnerships and Funding 
  • Partnerships

    • Identify partners

    • Diversity of partnerships

    • Connect with industry

    • Sustainable partnerships—government

    • Community involvement/alliance

    • Master gardeners and garden champions

    • Focus on housing opportunities

  • Funding

    • Establish methods for obtaining funding

    • Corporate donations and leadership

    • Private donations

 
Health 
  • Affordability—access to healthy food

  • Increase health

  • Education and nutritional health

 
Management 
  • System wide approach

  • Community involvement/alliance

  • Volunteer requirement from gardeners

  • Municipal code that supports community gardens

  • Oversight—make sure policies are enforced

  • Establish methods for obtaining funding

  • Easier sign-up

  • Strategic planning

    • Identify partners

    • Establish methods for obtaining funding

    • Map out sequential expansion plan

    • Expand methods we have already

  • Create a foundation for sustainable gardening programs

    • Financial

    • Educational

    • Diversity of partnerships

    • Municipal code that supports community gardens

 
ValueShared Vision
Quality of Life 
  • Enhance community—interactions with neighbors

  • Improve local food security

  • Increase affordability—access

 
Education 
  • Enhance education

  • Master gardeners

  • Garden champions

 
Access 
  • Prioritize high density locations

  • Affordability—access

  • Map out sequential expansion plan

  • Work with developers and housing organizations to create community gardens on multifamily housing complexes

 
Partnerships and Funding 
  • Partnerships

    • Identify partners

    • Diversity of partnerships

    • Connect with industry

    • Sustainable partnerships—government

    • Community involvement/alliance

    • Master gardeners and garden champions

    • Focus on housing opportunities

  • Funding

    • Establish methods for obtaining funding

    • Corporate donations and leadership

    • Private donations

 
Health 
  • Affordability—access to healthy food

  • Increase health

  • Education and nutritional health

 
Management 
  • System wide approach

  • Community involvement/alliance

  • Volunteer requirement from gardeners

  • Municipal code that supports community gardens

  • Oversight—make sure policies are enforced

  • Establish methods for obtaining funding

  • Easier sign-up

  • Strategic planning

    • Identify partners

    • Establish methods for obtaining funding

    • Map out sequential expansion plan

    • Expand methods we have already

  • Create a foundation for sustainable gardening programs

    • Financial

    • Educational

    • Diversity of partnerships

    • Municipal code that supports community gardens

 

The SWOT analysis was divided into six themes: Education, Fundraising, Site Selection, Volunteers, Garden Management, and Other. Participants formed sub-groups based on their interests and expertise and worked together to complete the SWOT analysis (Table 3). While groups were asked to focus on a particular theme, as expected, many of the topics and issues that emerged overlapped across themes. A topic that was raised by all groups was the need for more partnerships. Some groups saw the existing partnership the MOA has with the Anchorage Community Land Trust through the Gardens at Bragaw as a strength that should be capitalized on and a model which to replicate. Some participants suggested collaborating with schools, churches, and other organizations to create additional gardens that are more accessible and diverse. Partnering with other organizations that are involved in gardening programs was identified as an opportunity to leverage resources and develop better programs through collaboration. A lack of partnerships is seen as a threat to the community garden program because the MOA does not have enough financial or human resources to expand the city’s community garden system on its own. Education, while a topic of its own, was discussed throughout the SWOT analysis and seen as both a strength and weakness of the community gardening program. There is interest and demand by outside organizations to develop gardening education programs, but there are few resources allocated to developing and implementing community gardening education modules. Results of the SWOT analysis also show that while there is ample parkland, new community garden site selection needs to be accessible, conveniently located, safe, and contain the necessary infrastructure (road access, parking, water availability, etc.). These concerns can largely be addressed through garden site selection. For example, selecting sites that are well lit, in public view, well maintained, and frequently regulated will help increase a sense of safety.

TABLE 3.

Food summit SWOT analysis results

StrengthsWeaknessesOpportunitiesThreats
Education
(formal and informal, demonstration, outreach, workshops, training) 
  • Existing community garden program

  • Education via master gardening

  • Opportunity for education (youth + adult)

  • Master Gardeners/Cooperative Extension

  • Diverse education opportunities

 
  • Few interns

  • Difficult to find language-accessible education

 
  • Expand UAA nutritional education

  • Partners working together to promote mutually beneficial outcomes

  • Youth education—practicing healthy living

  • Demonstration gardens

  • Partnership with schools

  • Spenard Rec/Fairview Rec Centers

  • APU Urban Farm

  • Working w/partners to provide classes at community gardens

 
  • None reported

 
Fundraising
(networking, leveraging resources, collaboration) 
  • Possible funding sources exist (e.g., Rasumson Foundation, Anchorage Parks Foundation)

  • Obtain free resources (such as wood clippings and manure)

  • Volunteer labor

  • Corporate/industry money available

  • Community support

  • Model for cooperation between Muni/Partners (Gardens at Bragaw)

  • Assembly/community council support

 
  • There is no low cost model

  • Easy to work in a silo

  • Lack of coordination among potential supporters

  • Lack of management expertise

  • No coordination/clearing house

 
  • Adopt a muni-wide community garden plan with funding for a dedicated staff person

  • Feasibility studies of parks, open spaces, natural areas for community gardening

  • Sell products from gardens, food stands

  • Coaching/mentorship program

  • Lots of potential partnerships (with Co-op Extension, ACAT/Yarducopia, Schools/21st Century, ABG, Land Trusts, 4H, UAA Public Health)

  • Neighborhood/Community Council engagement

  • Sliding Scale

  • Sponsor-a-plot, individual giving

  • Increase outreach and education on benefits of community garden

  • Food tourism

  • Marijuana funding

  • Develop a community garden non-profit organization and manage, volunteers, funding

  • Use higher education resources to help run clearing house or other organization oversight

 
  • Uncertain funding future

  • Competing community needs

  • Burnout from high demand

 
Site Selection
(location, accessibility, convenience, available resources) 
  • 11,000 acres of municipal parkland

  • C-street well-known/established, centrally located, accessible

  • Lots of park, open spaces, other natural areas

  • Room for a few pilots in little-used parks throughout Anchorage

  • Private land (churches, condos, rooftops)

  • Schools

  • Abundant water

  • Gardens at Bragaw as a model

 
  • High start-up costs

  • Safety issues/vandalism/crime

  • Infrastructure/plumbing availability

  • Wildlife

  • Landuse regulations

  • Land needs to be garden-ready for development (soil, fencing, design/planning and land use)

  • Weak public transportation system

  • C-street garden too close to the road, pollution, noise, shade

  • Problems associated with locking gardens

  • Water turned on later than people want to start gardening

  • Not enough people, time or money

 
  • Partner with Mountain View Boys and Girls Club and Schools

  • UAA as resource

  • Use heat from schools to warm greenhouse

  • Demand for a garden in the U-Med

  • ML&P and greenhouses

 
  • Vandalism

  • Cost of water and access on MOA land

  • Competing land uses

 
Volunteers
(human capital, community capacity, mentorship) 
  • Lot of people volunteer!

  • Waitlists mean that there is demand

 
  • Reliance on volunteers

  • School ends when gardening starts—student volunteers are difficult to come by

  • Need to connect with new populations that are not using the gardens

  • Finding volunteers is difficult

  • Volunteer oversight is difficult

 
  • Farm Stands (schools, etc.)

  • Encourage/require plot users/members to volunteer

  • Proper security guidelines

  • Tapping into student resources UAA/APU/High School

  • Interested politicians

 
  • Too far stretched

  • High demand for volunteers

  • Burnout from the opportunities

  • Competing priorities for interested people

 
Garden management
(regulations, maintenance, infrastructure) 
  • Community buy-in/momentum for idea of community gardens

  • Low fees at gardens now

  • Many models currently exist

 
  • Muni-code is rigid

  • Fees collected does not cover management/maintenance costs

  • Lack of sustainable revenue stream to maintain/manage into future

 
  • Muni support for cooperative use agreements w/partner organizations

  • Water catchment from garden sheds or covered compost (spring melt could help early season gardening)

  • Change/take advantage of municipal ordinances/laws

  • Need database of other community gardens (church, private, etc.)

  • Need to make private land easily, legally, community garden space

  • Identify community resources: people, ordinances, funders, non-profits

  • Work with developers to create greenspace to be used for gardening

 
  • Administrative barriers

  • Maintenance costs (Insurance, fertilizer, fencing, etc.)

  • Vandalism

  • Economic climate

  • Municipal ordinances zoning/permitting/food safety

  • Homeless camps

  • Space lies unused 9 months out of the year

  • Flooding or natural impacts such as snow

  • Difficulties with sustainability/long-term management

  • Pests

  • Moose

  • Shade

  • Lack of water or access to water

 
Others
(other items not captured above) 
  • Increased accessibility of food

  • Nutritional benefits

  • Cold climate seeds available

  • Cultural diversity

  • Locally sourced soil amendments

  • Community building

  • High demand from users

  • Need safe spaces

 
  • Short growing season

  • It is a slow process

  • Competition from other activities during growing season

  • Maybe we are not at the tipping point for gardens being a priority in Anchorage yet

  • Lack of gardening knowledge

 
  • Build for food security

  • New administration

  • Build food sovereignty

  • Expand gardens with minimal operations and support

 
  • Winter

  • Public perception of return on investment

  • Loss of motivation

 
StrengthsWeaknessesOpportunitiesThreats
Education
(formal and informal, demonstration, outreach, workshops, training) 
  • Existing community garden program

  • Education via master gardening

  • Opportunity for education (youth + adult)

  • Master Gardeners/Cooperative Extension

  • Diverse education opportunities

 
  • Few interns

  • Difficult to find language-accessible education

 
  • Expand UAA nutritional education

  • Partners working together to promote mutually beneficial outcomes

  • Youth education—practicing healthy living

  • Demonstration gardens

  • Partnership with schools

  • Spenard Rec/Fairview Rec Centers

  • APU Urban Farm

  • Working w/partners to provide classes at community gardens

 
  • None reported

 
Fundraising
(networking, leveraging resources, collaboration) 
  • Possible funding sources exist (e.g., Rasumson Foundation, Anchorage Parks Foundation)

  • Obtain free resources (such as wood clippings and manure)

  • Volunteer labor

  • Corporate/industry money available

  • Community support

  • Model for cooperation between Muni/Partners (Gardens at Bragaw)

  • Assembly/community council support

 
  • There is no low cost model

  • Easy to work in a silo

  • Lack of coordination among potential supporters

  • Lack of management expertise

  • No coordination/clearing house

 
  • Adopt a muni-wide community garden plan with funding for a dedicated staff person

  • Feasibility studies of parks, open spaces, natural areas for community gardening

  • Sell products from gardens, food stands

  • Coaching/mentorship program

  • Lots of potential partnerships (with Co-op Extension, ACAT/Yarducopia, Schools/21st Century, ABG, Land Trusts, 4H, UAA Public Health)

  • Neighborhood/Community Council engagement

  • Sliding Scale

  • Sponsor-a-plot, individual giving

  • Increase outreach and education on benefits of community garden

  • Food tourism

  • Marijuana funding

  • Develop a community garden non-profit organization and manage, volunteers, funding

  • Use higher education resources to help run clearing house or other organization oversight

 
  • Uncertain funding future

  • Competing community needs

  • Burnout from high demand

 
Site Selection
(location, accessibility, convenience, available resources) 
  • 11,000 acres of municipal parkland

  • C-street well-known/established, centrally located, accessible

  • Lots of park, open spaces, other natural areas

  • Room for a few pilots in little-used parks throughout Anchorage

  • Private land (churches, condos, rooftops)

  • Schools

  • Abundant water

  • Gardens at Bragaw as a model

 
  • High start-up costs

  • Safety issues/vandalism/crime

  • Infrastructure/plumbing availability

  • Wildlife

  • Landuse regulations

  • Land needs to be garden-ready for development (soil, fencing, design/planning and land use)

  • Weak public transportation system

  • C-street garden too close to the road, pollution, noise, shade

  • Problems associated with locking gardens

  • Water turned on later than people want to start gardening

  • Not enough people, time or money

 
  • Partner with Mountain View Boys and Girls Club and Schools

  • UAA as resource

  • Use heat from schools to warm greenhouse

  • Demand for a garden in the U-Med

  • ML&P and greenhouses

 
  • Vandalism

  • Cost of water and access on MOA land

  • Competing land uses

 
Volunteers
(human capital, community capacity, mentorship) 
  • Lot of people volunteer!

  • Waitlists mean that there is demand

 
  • Reliance on volunteers

  • School ends when gardening starts—student volunteers are difficult to come by

  • Need to connect with new populations that are not using the gardens

  • Finding volunteers is difficult

  • Volunteer oversight is difficult

 
  • Farm Stands (schools, etc.)

  • Encourage/require plot users/members to volunteer

  • Proper security guidelines

  • Tapping into student resources UAA/APU/High School

  • Interested politicians

 
  • Too far stretched

  • High demand for volunteers

  • Burnout from the opportunities

  • Competing priorities for interested people

 
Garden management
(regulations, maintenance, infrastructure) 
  • Community buy-in/momentum for idea of community gardens

  • Low fees at gardens now

  • Many models currently exist

 
  • Muni-code is rigid

  • Fees collected does not cover management/maintenance costs

  • Lack of sustainable revenue stream to maintain/manage into future

 
  • Muni support for cooperative use agreements w/partner organizations

  • Water catchment from garden sheds or covered compost (spring melt could help early season gardening)

  • Change/take advantage of municipal ordinances/laws

  • Need database of other community gardens (church, private, etc.)

  • Need to make private land easily, legally, community garden space

  • Identify community resources: people, ordinances, funders, non-profits

  • Work with developers to create greenspace to be used for gardening

 
  • Administrative barriers

  • Maintenance costs (Insurance, fertilizer, fencing, etc.)

  • Vandalism

  • Economic climate

  • Municipal ordinances zoning/permitting/food safety

  • Homeless camps

  • Space lies unused 9 months out of the year

  • Flooding or natural impacts such as snow

  • Difficulties with sustainability/long-term management

  • Pests

  • Moose

  • Shade

  • Lack of water or access to water

 
Others
(other items not captured above) 
  • Increased accessibility of food

  • Nutritional benefits

  • Cold climate seeds available

  • Cultural diversity

  • Locally sourced soil amendments

  • Community building

  • High demand from users

  • Need safe spaces

 
  • Short growing season

  • It is a slow process

  • Competition from other activities during growing season

  • Maybe we are not at the tipping point for gardens being a priority in Anchorage yet

  • Lack of gardening knowledge

 
  • Build for food security

  • New administration

  • Build food sovereignty

  • Expand gardens with minimal operations and support

 
  • Winter

  • Public perception of return on investment

  • Loss of motivation

 
Key Informant Interviews

In general, our key informants confirmed that community gardeners from the Hmong and refugee communities are eager to garden and that their demand for garden plots exceeds the current supply. In addition to not being able to get a garden plot (or plots), many gardeners from both the Hmong and refugee populations are unable to participate in the community gardening program because they live too far away from the existing community gardening locations. The majority of gardeners from these underrepresented communities are from the Mountain View, Northeast, and Spenard neighborhoods. Many of them do not have cars and most of them take the bus or walk to their garden plots. Some people walk and/or ride the bus up to 30 minutes to reach their garden plot. Adding a garden in Spenard would offer refugees a local alternative to the already over-capacity C-Street garden. More garden locations in Mountain View and East Anchorage neighborhoods would be beneficial to Hmong and lower-income residents in that area. Most gardeners feel the current rental fees of $25–$35 is fair and are willing to pay that price to rent a plot, but a raise in price could present a hardship to Hmong gardeners, most of whom are older and on a fixed income. Gardeners are also concerned about vandalism and their safety while coming and going from the garden. The MOA should take this into account and consider adequate lighting, good visibility, accessibility to the bus system, and walking paths when citing new locations.

Members of the Hmong community have found success in the gardens and do not feel a need to participate in additional gardening education programs. However, Anchorage has a number of community gardeners from different ethnic backgrounds who have come to Alaska from agriculturally based societies. These gardeners may be very interested in educational programs that help them learn how to adapt and apply their gardening knowledge and experiences to Alaska’s growing conditions. In the past, seed exchanges and social gatherings have been popular with members of refugee groups and the MOA might consider adding an educational component to these types of events.

For underrepresented groups such as Hmong and refugee gardeners, the in-person system for renting a plot does not seem to be a burden. Many of these individuals have limited access to the internet and/or do not speak English and would struggle with an online sign-up system available only in English language. Retaining in-person registration as a mechanism for garden plot rental is important to ensure accessibility to such underrepresented groups.

Integrated Findings

Findings from the survey, workshop, and key informant interviews were analyzed and integrated to develop a set of goals, short-term (2–5 year) and long-term (5–10 year) objectives, and associated action steps (Table 4). The results of this study suggest that to fulfill their mission while also meeting the needs of the community, the MOA should focus on the following three overarching goals:

  • 1)

    Increase community garden accessibility so that they are available to those in need while still being geographically dispersed and can be safely accessed by multiple modes of transportation.

  • 2)

    Develop education programs and build upon existing workshops to maximize effectiveness and to build gardener capacity.

  • 3)

    Create partnerships with a diversity of organizations that are involved in community gardening and/or the local food movement to help support the resources needed to sustainably expand the city’s community gardening system.

TABLE 4.

Short-term, long-term objectives and associated action steps for expanding the MOA’s community garden system

Associated Action Steps
Short-Term Objectives (1–2 years)  
Assess and revise the city’s vision, policies, and regulations for Anchorage’s community gardens 
  • Determine to what degree the current vision, policies, and regulations meet existing needs.

  • Identify elements that should/could be modified and determine next steps.

  • Assess how existing resources are used and identify changes to improve MOA’s efficiency.

  • Determine what elements of the community garden program are open to change and which pieces are embedded in larger set of protocols and policies, requiring them to stay the same.

 
Create a shared vision for how the community gardening program can be sustainable 
  • With key stakeholders, develop an operational definition for community garden sustainability.

  • Determine the actual costs of the gardening program. Consider infrastructure, staff time, management and other resources. Determine limitations given MOA restrictions and infrastructure needs.

  • Create a model that considers the economic benefits and ecosystem services provided by community gardens.

 
Create a clearinghouse of local food and community gardening resources 
  • Partner with UAA and/or APU to help design and manage the clearinghouse, and to recruit interns.

  • Develop an inventory of others engaged with the community gardening and/or local food movement.

  • Create a live portal for potential partners to share and engage.

 
Design and install 2–4 new community gardens in Anchorage 
  • Approach Community Councils that represent low-income neighborhoods with a high degree of interest and that have interest but no community gardens within close proximity.

  • Conduct focus groups and/or a survey with community members living in these neighborhoods. Consider including a participatory mapping component to pinpoint exact locations.

  • Identify partners and/or funding agencies to help offset the cost, oversight, and/or management.

 
Increase public awareness about the role and purpose of gardens 
  • Conduct outreach activities that explain which gardens are a part of the MOA system and that anyone (not just lower-income and minority groups) is eligible to apply to rent a garden plot.

 
Diversify opportunities to register for garden plots 
  • Create an online registration option.

  • Translate online registration instructions and forms into multiple languages.

 
Long-Term Objectives (2–5 years)  
Create gardening education programming 
  • Use the clearinghouse to partner with others to create and implement education programs.

  • Survey gardens to determine specific education programs of interest.

  • Design education programs that include a social component (such as a potluck) in an effort to create camaraderie and to increase community capacity.

 
Remove financial barriers 
  • Create sliding scales, scholarships, and/or donated plots so that rental costs do not hinder participation.

 
Create more garden spaces 
  • Continue to work with Community Councils, neighborhoods, and potential partners (schools, housing developments, churches, etc.) to identify specific garden locations.

  • Enlist the help of partners (UAA, APU, and others) to garner funding from granting organizations.

  • Reassess community demand for garden plots after creating online registration and waitlist opportunities.

 
Increase sustainability by diversifying financially 
  • Use the community garden space to host fee-for-service events.

  • Consider selling a portion of the produce grown in the garden.

 
Associated Action Steps
Short-Term Objectives (1–2 years)  
Assess and revise the city’s vision, policies, and regulations for Anchorage’s community gardens 
  • Determine to what degree the current vision, policies, and regulations meet existing needs.

  • Identify elements that should/could be modified and determine next steps.

  • Assess how existing resources are used and identify changes to improve MOA’s efficiency.

  • Determine what elements of the community garden program are open to change and which pieces are embedded in larger set of protocols and policies, requiring them to stay the same.

 
Create a shared vision for how the community gardening program can be sustainable 
  • With key stakeholders, develop an operational definition for community garden sustainability.

  • Determine the actual costs of the gardening program. Consider infrastructure, staff time, management and other resources. Determine limitations given MOA restrictions and infrastructure needs.

  • Create a model that considers the economic benefits and ecosystem services provided by community gardens.

 
Create a clearinghouse of local food and community gardening resources 
  • Partner with UAA and/or APU to help design and manage the clearinghouse, and to recruit interns.

  • Develop an inventory of others engaged with the community gardening and/or local food movement.

  • Create a live portal for potential partners to share and engage.

 
Design and install 2–4 new community gardens in Anchorage 
  • Approach Community Councils that represent low-income neighborhoods with a high degree of interest and that have interest but no community gardens within close proximity.

  • Conduct focus groups and/or a survey with community members living in these neighborhoods. Consider including a participatory mapping component to pinpoint exact locations.

  • Identify partners and/or funding agencies to help offset the cost, oversight, and/or management.

 
Increase public awareness about the role and purpose of gardens 
  • Conduct outreach activities that explain which gardens are a part of the MOA system and that anyone (not just lower-income and minority groups) is eligible to apply to rent a garden plot.

 
Diversify opportunities to register for garden plots 
  • Create an online registration option.

  • Translate online registration instructions and forms into multiple languages.

 
Long-Term Objectives (2–5 years)  
Create gardening education programming 
  • Use the clearinghouse to partner with others to create and implement education programs.

  • Survey gardens to determine specific education programs of interest.

  • Design education programs that include a social component (such as a potluck) in an effort to create camaraderie and to increase community capacity.

 
Remove financial barriers 
  • Create sliding scales, scholarships, and/or donated plots so that rental costs do not hinder participation.

 
Create more garden spaces 
  • Continue to work with Community Councils, neighborhoods, and potential partners (schools, housing developments, churches, etc.) to identify specific garden locations.

  • Enlist the help of partners (UAA, APU, and others) to garner funding from granting organizations.

  • Reassess community demand for garden plots after creating online registration and waitlist opportunities.

 
Increase sustainability by diversifying financially 
  • Use the community garden space to host fee-for-service events.

  • Consider selling a portion of the produce grown in the garden.

 

The goals above, along with objectives and action steps summarized in Table 2 provide the MOA with direction for how to strategically strengthen and expand the community garden program.

The Big Picture: Making a Garden System Grow

Data collected by the three different methods described above had overlapping results and led us to draw similar conclusions. The most prominent findings include the demand for the gardens exceeds the supply and there is broad interest from diverse stakeholder groups and audiences in expanding the city’s community gardening program. Furthermore, the results of the study imply that the existing demand and interest in community gardens may be greatly underestimated because many of the individuals interested in participating in the community gardening program, for the various reasons described in the results section, have not applied for the waitlist. There is reason to believe that if the MOA builds it, even more than the expected number of individuals may come. However, expanding the gardening system raises many social justice issues including making garden availability and accessibility equitable; making outreach and education materials available in formats and languages that will reach the intended audiences; and maintaining affordable rental plot fees by creating sliding fee scales, scholarships, and/or opportunities for individuals to donate money toward the program. The majority of project participants agree that more garden locations are needed but there is a large discrepancy as to where these new sites should be located. Regardless of where new gardens are installed, new site locations should consider safety/vandalism issues, site convenience and accessibility (including close proximity to bus routes and access to trail systems), and infrastructure (such as water, fences, and potentially including locks on the gates to reduce vandalism).

Given the current demand and interest, a new community garden is likely to attract gardeners no matter where it is placed, but the MOA should select new sites based on community needs and interests. Results of the study show that even though the existing gardens are located in north and east Anchorage, these neighborhoods continue to show the greatest demand and need for inexpensive, healthy food and would benefit from the installment of more plots that are easily accessible, have the necessary infrastructure, and are safe and secure. Findings also suggest that there is interest in installing gardens in the South Anchorage and Turnagain neighborhoods. Relatively speaking, these neighborhoods are not as diverse or vulnerable as those in north/east Anchorage, but expanding the gardening system into these areas would improve access to the gardens by the general population. To determine specific garden locations, the MOA should confer with Community Councils and consider doing focus groups and/or participatory mapping exercises with community members.

In order to expand the community gardening program equitably, all facets of the study point to a need to further develop partnerships. The MOA should research existing partnership models and consider developing an advisory board, creating funding partnerships, collaborating with other local food and gardening groups (e.g., Alaska Cooperative Extension, the Alaska Food Policy Council), developing/sharing educational programming and modules, and/or creating an online clearinghouse that can provide resources and virtual networking opportunities. The MOA should also create long-term partnerships with local, higher education centers such as the UAA and Alaska Pacific University (APU), whose faculties have the potential to include related tasks into yearly workload agreements. For example, as the community garden program expands, it is essential to revise and update the MOA website, rules, and regulations to better meet user’s needs. This is something an intern or a volunteer could do with input from the MOA and supervision from faculty members. There is also need to diversify funding and resources used to support the gardens. The rental fees collected do not cover the costs to run the program. Securing funding partners, organizations to donate materials, and leveraging resources to minimize overhead and oversight costs are critical for ensuring long-term sustainability.

Approximately half of the survey respondents consider themselves somewhat knowledgeable to extremely knowledgeable of gardening practices, with many participants getting their knowledge from the web, books and/or magazines, and family and friends. When asked if they were interested in participating in educational workshops, 280 respondents said that they were either interested or extremely interested in participating in a diversity of garden programs (Figure 5), but survey respondents who reported being only marginally interested in gardening education programs also acknowledged having little gardening experience. This result implies that more educational programming is needed in order for community gardeners to maximize their gardening potential, but drawing inexperienced gardeners into educational programming has been difficult. Methods for cultivating interest in education and outreach programs may include peer-to-peer mentoring, lunch and learn sessions, incentive-based activities, and/or social events. The MOA should collaborate with local organizations to plan and execute education and outreach programs to maximize buy-in, reach a wider-audience, and to share associated cost and management responsibilities.

Through all areas of the study, project participants reiterated a need for the community garden program to be sustainable. Participants explained sustainability in various ways including developing a program that is self-sustaining; expanding the gardens in a mutually beneficial way; ensuring the gardens long-term existence; folding the community garden program into larger, city-wide food security goals; and creating a program that is environmentally sound. With input from partners and community members, the MOA needs to determine which of these elements to include as a part of their sustainability framework and how such a framework will inform the growth of the community gardening program moving forward. Based on the results of this project, in order to sustainably and equitably expand Anchorage’s community gardening system, the MOA should focus on leveraging partnerships to grow educational and outreach activities, expanding existing gardens to better meet the local need, and creating new gardens that consider a range of safety and accessibility issues.

CONCLUSION

Other cities may struggle to balance climatic, geographic, and demographic challenges, but Anchorage is unique in that it happens to experience the upper limit of these combined challenges by being the most northern metropolitan area, with the greatest ethnic diversity, and the shortest growing season in the United States. However, opportunities and challenges revealed through this study can help Anchorage and other cities consider how to strategically expand their gardens equitably while balancing limited financial and human resources. Like many other cities, Anchorage has a plethora of public, non-profit, and private organizations engaged in the community gardening and/or local food movement. Formalizing these partnerships can increase the capacity of the gardens while allowing the burden to be shared across local food groups. Finally, the MOA should consider that while growing food is a very important benefit of the community gardens, an expanded program should build on a foundation of diverse values to ensure equitable access for all.

CASE STUDY QUESTIONS

  1. What social justice issues need to be further explored to ensure that Anchorage’s community garden program is expanded equitably?

  2. Can the MOA achieve their mission of creating “a food system where locally produced, affordable, and nutritious food is available to all” while also providing access to gardens to those who are in the greatest need? Are these efforts compatible or should they prioritize one element over the other?

  3. The MOA currently has no educational activities associated with the MOA’s community gardening program. Other gardening education programs exist, but they all have their limitations including high costs and limited availability. Education and outreach is needed to maximize the impact of the gardens and to strengthen gardener capacity. How can Anchorage better leverage resources to develop and deliver successful gardening education programs?

AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS

Shannon Donovan is the only author of this work.

I am extremely grateful to our project participants for sharing their perspectives on community gardening in Anchorage. I would also like to thank the MOA Parks and Recreation Department and, specifically, Steve Rafuse for partnering with us on this project. Lastly, I thank the UAA Department of Geography and Environmental Studies and undergraduate students/research technicians Renata Ballesteros-Lopez, Whitney Lowell, and Sabre Hill.

FUNDING

This project was generously funded through a UAA Office of Research INNOVATE Award and a UAA Center for Community Engagement and Learning Mini-Grant.

COMPETING INTERESTS

I declare that no competing interests exist.

ETHICAL APPROVAL

All fieldwork and procedures performed in this study involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the International Review Board (IRB), the University of Alaska Anchorage IRB Committee.

INFORMED CONSENT

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in this study.

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