For the most part, research and policymaking on urban gardening have focused on community gardens, whether in parks, vacant lots, or other public land. This emphasis, while important for many Midwestern cities, can obscure the significance of privately owned land such as front yard and back yard and their crucial connections with gardening on public land. In this case study, we examine how policies and practices related to gardening and the management of green space in two Midwestern cities exceed narrow visions of urban agriculture. The article explores the cultivation of vacant lot gardens and private yards as two modes of property in similar Midwestern contexts and argues that the management of green space is about more than urban agriculture. Instead, we show how urban gardening occurs across public/private property distinctions and involves a broader set of actors than those typically included in sustainability policies. Gardening also provides a key set of connections through which neighbors understand and practice sustainability in Midwestern cities.
Cities of all sizes are under contemporary pressures including changing climate and urban austerity. In the U.S. Midwest, with relatively low-density urban and suburban forms, deindustrialization and shrinking populations have made large areas of land vacant and available for the cultivation of food in the city . Gardening has also been an important part of a broader shift in environmental management through the introduction of green infrastructure (such as rain gardens, bioswales, xeriscaping, and coastal stabilization) to existing landscapes to reduce stormwater runoff or erosion. Over the past decade, large and small cities alike across the United States and other national contexts have developed a variety of policies designed to support and expand urban gardening .
For the most part, research and policymaking on urban gardening have focused on community gardens, whether in parks, vacant lots, or other public land. This emphasis, while important for many Midwestern cities, can obscure the significance of privately owned land such as front yard and back yard and their crucial connections with gardening on public land. In this case study, we examine the range and motivation of gardening practices in the broader context of urban sustainability and greening initiatives in U.S. cities. We explore how city policies related to gardening and the management of green space exceed narrow visions of urban agriculture.
This article focuses on the cultivation of vacant lot gardens and private yards as two modes of property where urban gardening occurs in Rock Island, Illinois, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, respectively. Minneapolis is a regional population center known for its urban sustainability policies, while Rock Island is a smaller city that reflects the long history of deindustrialization and urban decline in the Midwest. Both cities are representative of the broader region’s increasing embrace of urban agriculture as a strategy to address food insecurity and environmental challenges. Through these two case studies, we argue that the management of green space is about more than urban agriculture. Instead, we show how urban gardening occurs across public/private property distinctions and involves a broader set of actors than those typically included in emerging policies around urban agriculture and sustainability. Gardening also provides a key set of connections through which neighbors understand and practice sustainability in Midwestern cities.
In recent decades, there has been an explosion of interest in urban agriculture on the part of scholars, public health advocates, environmentalists, and other actors [3–5]. Urban agriculture involves the cultivation of food in urban areas through a variety of sociospatial forms such as community gardens in vacant lots and public parks, fruit tree orchards, private home gardens in back and front yards, and large-scale market farms . Although community gardens have been the subject of extensive research, particularly in larger North American cities, home food gardens have been largely ignored in the literature [6–8]. Research in multiple fields has focused on the benefits of urban gardening, which range from improving access to fresh foods ,1 lessening environmental impacts of industrial agriculture and improving biodiversity in cities,2 providing socioeconomic and health benefits to communities,3 and improving property values.4 Research on urban agriculture tends to celebrate the benefits of urban gardens , although a growing number of scholars have argued that urban agriculture cannot resolve deeply rooted problems in the food system on its own and, in some cases, may perpetuate existing inequalities [2, 15].
Despite increasing support for urban agriculture, cities continue to have an uneasy connection with gardening in practice. Even though agriculture has often been seen as rural and therefore separate from the city, there is a long history of urban gardening in North American cities [4, 16]. Agriculture has been typically excluded from formal land use policies, but many cities supported urban gardening during moments of economic crisis . Cities such as Philadelphia made vacant lots available to unemployed residents as allotment gardens in the 1890s , while cities across the United States supported Victory Gardens during World War II. More recently, urban agriculture has come to be seen as a potential response to disinvestment and abandonment in the wake of the urban crisis [4, 17].
Variegated landscapes of property ownership have also shaped urban gardening policies and practices, and urban agriculture in particular. Property seems to be a fixed, stable, or neutral way to draw bounds on a map of certain territories. But property can be more usefully thought of as a set of relations, and something that is constantly shaped through structures and practices such as legal definitions, representations of land on a map, or everyday practices [18, 19]. Although urban gardening has primarily been considered through community gardens on public land, there are diverse places where gardening occurs in urban areas (e.g., vacant lots, strips of land along roads, and privately owned yards). The distinction between private and public property has significant bearing on the particulars of land use zoning and building codes, policies, and enforcement.
In recent years, a number of cities have revised land use policies and zoning ordinances to incorporate urban agriculture into the planning process. Cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Seattle have adopted “urban agriculture” zoning ordinances that recognize agriculture as a legitimate land use and define permissible uses5 . Other cities have revised building and maintenance city codes to remove restrictions on agriculture and animal husbandry in other land use designations . These policies intersect with multiple forms of green space, as well as a range of socioeconomic conditions and aspirations [2, 23, 24]. Chief among these has been efforts to make more sustainable and resilient cities, in which an emphasis on local food systems and green infrastructure is an important component [25–27].
Although these nascent efforts have lent institutional support to urban gardening, cities have generally been reluctant to cede control over garden spaces, even on vacant lots, because of the potential for vacant properties to become desirable for commercial or residential development . Planning scholars have noted that the existing land use planning framework, which prioritizes the highest and “best” use, has trouble accommodating urban agriculture even in cities with a significant amount of vacant land . Competing ideas of citizenship and landscape also influence local urban gardening policies. Community gardens have frequently been studied and critiqued as spaces of citizenship — in other words, sites where relations between individuals, organizations such as grassroots community groups, and the state take particular forms. Crucially, research from social justice perspectives on community garden projects has asked the following: Who participates? How is the state involved? How do community garden projects reinforce or disrupt contested claims to the city? [9, 17, 29–31, 41]. Community gardens in New York City have been the primary site for much of this research, which has often focused on raced and classed contestations over the value of green spaces in dense and gentrifying neighborhoods [12, 32].
Often missed in these foregoing studies has been the recognition of the diverse meanings of gardens and gardening, particularly how private and communally cultivated landscapes are viewed and understood (see  for one important exception). In addition, the focus on high profile and coastal cities such as New York, Chicago, and Portland overlooks the ways smaller Midwestern cities are navigating, and perhaps innovating, responses to funding and redevelopment pressures. In this case study, we examine how aspects of gardening fit within urban agriculture policies, and which aspects may be important to residents or planners but are left out of these policies. To explore these questions, we present cases from gardens in two modes of property — private yards and vacant lot gardens in similar Midwestern US contexts. We argue that urban gardening in these cities encompasses much more than urban agriculture.
URBAN GARDENING LANDSCAPES IN ROCK ISLAND, ILLINOIS
Once known as the farm implement capital of the world, the Quad Cities metropolitan area in eastern Iowa and northwestern Illinois has struggled to regain its footing in the decades since the 1980s farm crisis . Following the closure of a local Farmall plant in 1986, Rock Island lost almost 40% of its population. The effects of deindustrialization were particularly concentrated in the city’s West End, a series of neighborhoods located along the industrial riverfront. Job losses and deteriorating housing conditions, combined with white flight in the decades after urban renewal, left the West End with a significant number of vacant lots. In response, local officials allowed residents to temporarily use adjacent vacant lots as gardens to reduce the city’s maintenance costs. The program gained popularity in the 2000s, coinciding with an increased interest in urban agriculture and sustainability nationally, as well as the arrival of a significant refugee population locally.
The case study of Rock Island community gardens is part of a study conducted with migrant gardeners in the city. Over the course of several summers, the first author and undergraduate research assistants conducted semi-structured interviews with 35 gardeners from sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the U.S. South . Interviews consisted of questions about gardeners’ motivations and types of gardening practices, their agricultural background, and the transfer of plants from the U.S. and global South to Rock Island, as well as gardener interactions with city officials and other residents. The first author also engaged in participant observation with a local garden advocacy organization to explore how city officials and residents view urban agriculture and the tensions surrounding the changing urban landscape.
Rock Island has few traditional “community gardens,” where multiple families and individuals each cultivate a small portion of a larger property. Instead, there are dozens of lot-sized gardens scattered throughout the West End on land owned by the city, local housing authority, school district, churches, and individual landowners. Most vacant lot gardens are cultivated by individuals or a small group of families, while a growing number of front yard and back yard are also used for vegetable gardening. Like a number of Rust Belt cities with a booming urban agriculture scene, many of the gardeners are immigrants and refugees who bring seeds, plants, and gardening techniques with them from the Global South [11, 35, 40].
Although vacant lot gardens were initially conceived by city planners as a land management strategy, the community garden program has become increasingly driven by sustainability concerns. In particular, city officials and local advocacy groups promote the social and environmental benefits of local food, especially in the so-called “food deserts.” But despite institutional support, gardens embody underlying tensions about the appearance and control over urban landscapes in Rock Island. Although the city maintains a relatively extensive community garden program for a small city, Rock Island is under pressure to produce revenue from the many vacant lots in the West End. Gardeners are given a year-lease on city-owned properties, and the city may take garden plots with only 30-day notice or reassign the plots to different gardeners in subsequent seasons. Although few vacant lot gardens have been repurposed for commercial or residential development, short-term leases can discourage gardeners from making investments in gardens on public land.
Land tenure insecurity and other challenges — most notably the lack of water access in increasingly dry and unpredictable summers — have led residents to combine vacant lot gardening with vegetable cultivation at home. Most vacant lot gardeners maintain a small home garden and use seedlings grown at home. During interviews, gardeners explained their motivation for gardening as primarily about sharing food with family members and friends, as well as teaching young people about healthy eating. Refugee gardeners frequently described the difficulty of finding affordable and culturally significant produce at local supermarkets, often using dried and frozen food from their gardens in soups throughout the winter instead (Figure 1). For others, the ability to sell produce has been constrained by limited access to land in the city and cultural differences at farmers’ markets. In one example, an African American gardener originally from Louisiana described how he gives away most of his produce to friends and neighbors after refusing to raise produce prices, which he saw as exorbitant for his goals of distributing produce widely, to match other growers at local farmers’ markets.
There are other types of movement between vacant lot and private home gardens. Several communal garden spaces have collapsed in recent years, partially as a result of increased homeownership among refugee gardeners, who are then able to start home gardens unavailable at apartment complexes. Increased use of front yard and back yard for urban gardening has created additional opportunities for neighbors to interact with each other. One young Nepali gardener described how plants have helped him create connections with his new white neighbors who garden in their front yard and back yard.
In other moments, however, gardens come to represent tensions about the image of agriculture and gardens in the city. City officials described receiving a variety of complaints about “messy” home and vacant lot gardens from other residents . Although calls to city officials and police officers have centered around perceived disorder in the garden — primarily from a lack of rows, insufficient attention to weeding, unfamiliar and potentially invasive plants, and often corn grown too close to the street — resident complaints are closely connected to broader concerns about a changing city. Because they are visual representations of a still declining city and demographic change, migrant gardens can represent a threat to conventional views of gardening as an ordered, tidy activity that occurs in backyards and, more broadly, views of the city as fundamentally separate from rural agricultural land.
FRONT YARD AND BACK YARD IN MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA
North of Rock Island along the Mississippi River, Minneapolis, Minnesota, is celebrated as a city of lush parks with lakes and urban forests, connected with extensive bicycle infrastructure, and with neighborhoods full of community gardens big and small. Within a metropolitan area of three million, Minneapolis has a population of 400,000 and is largely composed of residential neighborhoods of single family homes built along a large streetcar grid between the 1920s and 1950s. Around most homes and low-density apartment buildings such as duplexes, generous yards stretch across rectangular lots, usually about 40′ × 100′. Because of these development patterns, yards make up a significant portion of land in Minneapolis. Most homes have access to some kind of outdoor space across the socioeconomic spectrum, whether owned or rented. The discussion below is part of a study conducted by the second author of 45 yards across three areas of Minneapolis with varying socioeconomic and demographic characteristics [23, 24]. Methods included participant observation, qualitative interviews, and ethnography, as well as visual ethnography [36–39]. Yards are key sites where city residents understand and practice their relationships to nature in everyday life. The purpose of interviews and yard visits focused on what people do with yard spaces, motivations for people’s gardening, and maintenance practices in yards, as well as how people understand municipal regulations and environmental programs.
The city increasingly enrolls yards in urban sustainability and resilience efforts through encouraging better voluntary practices in yards, as well as regulating land use and maintenance. This has taken shape primarily in partnering with nonprofit organizations and encouraging best practices and physical adaptations to yards centered around improving water quality (for instance, rain gardens, rain barrels, permeable paving, and native prairie plantings). There are also various environmentally minded organizations and initiatives focused on issues such as pollinator habitat, urban agriculture, and beautification.6 The city of Minneapolis also regulates yards through land use zoning, as well as building and maintenance codes. This legal apparatus defines front, side, and back yards and regulates what people can build and put in these spaces (e.g., structures, patios, permanent gardening beds, and parked cars). Enforcement of these codes is largely complaint driven, in addition to annual visual surveys.
Residents were generally not very aware of policies or programs sited in yards related to the sustainability goals of the city of Minneapolis. The general requirements of building and maintenance codes were more familiar to people, especially to do with mowing lawns and fixing broken sidewalks. Some residents felt their own practices were “sustainable,” like one participant who had a complex system of homemade rain barrel, dish pans, and repurposed gallon jugs to capture stormwater from his roof for watering plants. This rain water system would not be included in formal city sustainability metrics, but it certainly functioned in ways that support the goals of more sustainable water management.
For the subset of roughly half the participants producing some food in their yards, the intensity and scale of production varied, as well as people’s responses about their motivations for food production. About five yards were organized around growing food, most gardened by white homeowners ranging from working to upper-middle-class income levels. These participants talked about their yard practices in terms of their local responses to global environmental concerns. One of these was centered on teaching children about the origins of food. Another yard full of collard greens and tomatoes was cultivated by an older African American man who sold bunches of greens to neighbors for a nominal amount to cover costs of materials. In these cases, food production happened largely in the back, with more decorative plantings in the front yard. In more cases, growing food involved several tomato plants, a raised bed, or patch of berry plants like raspberries in the side yard or back yard — usually out of sight from sidewalks. Gardeners growing food generally shared experiences in rural environments growing up — either from white settler farm communities in out-state Minnesota or through summers spent with African American extended family in southern states such as Alabama.
Of much more importance to people as they talked about their yards were social relationships with neighbors and passersby at the scale of the city block. This kind of environmental care involved the pleasures and labors of gardening. People across study sites routinely talked about their own motivations in terms of desires to provide particular sensory experiences (colors of blooms, textures, smells, shade, or sun) for others such as neighbors, passersby, as well as nonhumans (pets, birds, butterflies, or squirrels). Furthermore, most participants were homeowners, and through their yard practices participants worked with the existing plants and conditions of the yard. Rarely did people make dramatic changes to their yards. Rather, participants talked about small incremental changes related to children growing up and moving out, their perceived confidence or failure as a gardener, the limits of affordable changes and their own physical capacities (from working class to more affluent households, people almost never hired outside labor), and the health (or happiness) of plants (Figure 2).
Similar to Rock Island, in Minneapolis, the connections between people’s individual yards and shared community gardens reveal the breadth of dynamics at play when urban gardening is considered in practice. Across neighborhoods which varied in socioeconomic characteristics like income and race, diverse practices disrupted conventional ideas about yards as neatly bounded private property — for instance, sharing yards with neighbors, opening up fences between yards, and circulating free plants and knowledge. In addition, for several participants, gardening meant cultivation in their own yard as well as formal and informal community gardens. Despite clear distinctions laid out in city zoning and codes, yards and nearby gardens are often connected through informal networks to share plants, expertise, and with informal maintenance of gardens by neighbors. All of this adds up to experiences with yards embodying concerns well beyond food production, informed by neighborhood scale geographies of social relations and negotiating difference.
In this case study of two Midwestern cities, we explore how gardening represents a more than urban agriculture approach to the management of green space. In recent decades, cities across the United States have developed local sustainability policies that incorporate urban agriculture and other green infrastructure strategies into the planning process, especially on public and shared urban spaces. However, in the yards and gardens of Rock Island, Illinois, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, people consistently forge strong connections that bridge public/private land distinctions.
Narrow views of gardening practices can miss and marginalize these crucial practices and connections in urban landscapes. In Rock Island, the city recently revised its garden program so it more clearly demonstrates the benefits of vacant lot gardens to skeptical residents. However, a narrow definition of “community benefits” as the quantity of produce potentially sold at farmers’ markets or donated to food pantries can leave out other positive impacts of gardens, whether in vacant spaces or private yards. In a parallel way, a narrow definition of “sustainability” imagines yards primarily in terms of storm water diverted from pipes and leaves out the ways yards are most meaningful to those who live with them. We argue that multiple understandings of sustainability and local food are filtered through these gardening practices and spaces, which are also important sites of social identities and connections. In both cases, the significant links between private yards and community gardens in practice might be better considered in urban agriculture and sustainability policies.
CASE STUDY QUESTIONS
How does the urban form of these Midwestern yards and gardens provide opportunities for more sustainable urban environments? Is this recognized by planners? If so, how? If not, how might this opportunity be enhanced?
What motivates gardeners to cultivate yards and community gardens? How does this vary?
What are some of the pressures cities face in contemporary environmental management in public and private lands? How does this play out in the regulation of urban gardening and sustainability policies?
Both authors contributed to the conceptualization, investigation, analysis, writing, and editing of the article.
The first author would like to thank the Rock Island Urban Gardeners, all of the gardeners who participated in the study, and Maggie Richardson, Clayton Wassilak, and Elisa Klewinski for their research assistance. The second author would like to thank all the participants in the study.
The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.