Emily Wright

Cultivating Community

Space and Capacity in Urban Gardens

  • Faculty Advisor

    Timothy Earle

  • Faculty Advisor

    Helen Schwartzman

Published On

May 2011

Originally Published

NURJ 2011-12

Emily Wright | Submitted Photo


Digging in the dirt, nurturing plants, and enjoying fresh air—these are basic experiences that people share in urban gardens, during which gardeners interact and establish relationships that form the foundation on which a community grows. However, the spatial design of a garden, such as physical layout and leadership structure, can impose barriers to building that community. This study examines the physical and symbolic elements in five urban garden spaces and analyzes the effects those elements have on the gardens’ community-building capacity. It concludes that collectivist garden spaces, which provide structure for shared responsibilities, decision-making, and benefits, have greater capacity to build community than individualistic garden spaces.


Urban gardens across Chicago are envisioned as important spaces to build community. Characteristics typically associated with community gardens include communal growing plots, group workdays, and joint decision-making. These characteristics do indeed provide ample opportunities to build the four pillars of ‘community’, as put forth by McMillan and Chavis (1986): membership—an individual’s feeling of belonging; influence—each member’s equal contribution to the group; benefits—fulfillment of members’ needs through group resources; and a shared emotional connection through a common history, place, or experience. However, not all gardens have those typical characteristics and as a result, urban gardens vary in their capacity to build community.

In a community garden, as Kuo, et. al. (1998) argue is the case in all urban common spaces, the physical features of the space influence “the quantity and quality of informal social contact among neighbors,” in turn affecting the development of neighborhood social ties and the building of community (Kuo, et. al. 1998:826). Kuo, et. al. (1998) find that more lush and vegetative common spaces develop stronger communities in urban neighborhoods. Whether it is the amount of vegetation or the type of seating area, the construction of garden space plays a key role in determining the capacity of the garden to build community. This study examines the physical and symbolic space of five urban gardens in a Chicago neighborhood to understand: which spatial elements enhance or diminish a garden’s community-building capacity, what progress has been made toward the gardens’ community-building goals, and how individual gardeners and their social positions within the neighborhood have shaped the garden space itself.

Emily Wright | Submitted Photo

Drawing on the theories of Lefebvre (1991) and Harvey (1973), this study approaches the gardens with two main theoretical concepts. First, there are different types of space, which this study characterizes as physical and symbolic. Physical space is comprised of tangible and material items, encompassing the land itself, the benches, signs, and other objects and features. Symbolic space is the collection of ideas, representations, words, and actions used to communicate about the garden, as well as structures serving as the media for the exchange of that communication, such as meetings and events. The second theoretical concept is that space is socially constructed and produced—humans construct space through their social relations and in turn, space alters those relations. It is a continual and cyclical process of re-analyzing, re-building, and re-shaping.

Considering this theoretical framework, the neighborhood chosen for study provides a particularly complex setting in which to examine space and community. Historically, the area has been the entry point for various immigrant groups arriving to Chicago and it retains a strong ethnic culture today. Over the past forty years, the neighborhood experienced successive periods of arson, white flight, and disinvestment, all of which set the stage for the more recent advance of gentrification. This process is slowly displacing life-long residents from their homes, social networks, and livelihoods. The situation has re-ignited a long-standing campaign to claim neighborhood space for the current population and has fueled a strong tension between long-term residents and newcomers. Such contention about space and the composition of the “community” makes the study of community-building in urban gardens imperative to the vitality and sustainability of increasingly dynamic urban neighborhoods.


I conducted ethnographic fieldwork for this study from September 2010 to January 2011. All of the gardens were fallow for most of this time period. Therefore, instead of depending on informal, impromptu interviews in the gardens, I used a snowball sample to identify potential informants and conducted structured interviews in alternative settings. Additionally, my understanding and analysis of social relations between gardeners are based on interviews, local media pieces, and library research rather than observed interactions at garden sites. This approach proved surprisingly effective: gardeners appeared comfortable and willing to share thoughts that they may have not wanted to express in the presence of fellow gardeners.

I interviewed eleven individuals associated with five gardens. I loosely structured the interviews, but allowed interviewees to lead the conversation, which generated their unique perspectives on common themes. In my analysis, I closely examined the verbal and non-verbal interactions among the gardeners in the physical and symbolic garden space, as reported by the interviewees. I then used these interactions to complement the data I collected through participant-observation of gardens’ physical characteristics and their surrounding area. In gardens, I noted their layout and presentation, signage and artwork, entrance and enclosure, and the ratio of growing area to open area. Finally, I compiled this data with observations and literature of the neighborhood to analyze the current construction of the garden space and the roles of the gardeners within the context of the surrounding area.

Among the five gardens (referred to as A, B, C, D, and E), I collected the most abundant and detailed data on garden A, and thus, it was the focus of my analysis. However, the intricacy of the neighborhood gardening network and the frequency of gardens’ shared history meant that data from different gardens were complementary. While each garden ultimately retains its unique identity, they all exist in the same neighborhood context. As a result, the gardens could be viewed as case studies of space and community: by comparing and contrasting the gardens’ spatial constructions and magnitude of community, controlling for their histories, cultures, and dynamics, I could identify which spatial elements enhanced or diminished a garden’s capacity to build community. Here, I present the results according to specific physical and symbolic spatial attributes and the gardens’ community vitality.

Emily Wright | Submitted Photo


Physical Space

Gardening Style: The spatial designs of the five gardens supported different gardening styles along a spectrum from communal to individual. Gardens with a purely communal gardening style have growing areas that are tilled, planted, maintained, and harvested by a collective group of people. Every gardener has the opportunity to participate in activities during all stages of the gardening process. Everyone shares the garden’s products, unless they are donated to a food bank or similar organization. On the other end of the spectrum, gardens that have an individual gardening style designate specific growing areas to individual gardeners. Each gardener has her own plot to grow plants and she keeps all the products. This type of gardening style often requires gardeners to apply for a plot and pay a fee or due. Garden A has an individual gardening style. There are nine raised beds and one in-ground plot. Of these, four are designated to a local high school and the rest are distributed to individuals living in the immediate or adjacent neighborhoods. The gardeners tend to their own beds on their own schedules. As a result, it is rare for gardeners to encounter each other, as reported by an active gardener. Similarly, garden C has mainly individual beds, with a few small communal beds for herbs and perennials. The garden leader has observed that the gardeners maintain a narrow focus on their appropriated area, rather than considering the maintenance, development, and beautification of the entire site. Additionally, the leader is concerned by the limited opportunities for the community’s involvement with such few plots available.

In contrast, gardens B, D, and E have spatial structures that support communal gardening. Garden B is mostly ornamental and is constructed more like a park than a garden, but has six small beds. Community youth tend to these beds and the rest of the space through an entrepreneurial program run by a local non-profit organization. Gardens D and E, both managed by a single development corporation, have a communal gardening style even further along the spectrum. The entire gardening space in both gardens is worked by anyone who is interested. There are specific workdays, usually on the weekends, and everyone—from neighbors to passersby—is invited to participate and receive a share of the harvest.


All of the gardens studied have boundaries based on city lots, but the way in which they delineate and control those boundaries differ. The spectrum of this spatial construction ranges from low, picket fences without locks to high, metal gates that remain locked. Garden B has a spatial construction akin to the former end of the spectrum. A three-foot picket fence runs along the two borders it shares with the sidewalk, a seven-foot wooden fence lines the back of the lot, and the interior side is bordered by the adjacent building. There is a small gate that remains unlocked, a purposeful move that the leader of the organization has made to ensure it is an open space for the community. Garden C has a similar border fence without a lock.

The other gardens are closer to the opposite end of the spectrum. Garden A has a low picket fence surrounding one half of the garden space that has grass, benches, and ornamental plants rather than growing plots. This portion has neither a gate nor a lock. The other half of the space, which is the designated growing area, is surrounded by a tall, chain-linked fence and has a keyed lock. At the time of study, keys for this lock had not yet been distributed to the gardeners. Gardens D and E both have a high, black steel fence that runs along the entire border of the garden space. They are locked and are only opened during workdays or when other community events are held there. Everyone who is on the development corporation’s garden committee, which is open to residents of the corporation’s housing and non-residents alike, have a key to the garden. According to the head of the garden committee, people can call anyone on the garden committee and request that they open the garden at any time.

Symbolic Space

Leadership: The leadership structure of gardens varies according to several attributes: number of leadership roles, degree of formalization, and process of succession. Gardens A, B, and C all have a leader recognized by the neighborhood as the point of contact for their respective gardens. In garden A, a long-term resident who has been involved with the garden for over 10 years fills the leadership role. While her role is formalized, the succession of leadership is less so. The leader admits that she has been less active in the garden recently and would like to pass on the leadership. Yet, one gardener capable of playing that role who is a newer resident in the area and considers herself the most active in the garden, has hesitated to express her leadership interest for fear of disrespecting the current leader’s seniority. The process of identifying and choosing a new leader is informal, and it appears to be subject to the personal feelings and will of the current leader and gardeners.

The leader of garden B is the youth program director and has been in his role for more than five years. He came into the position when the outgoing leader was looking for a community member who would continue working in the space and involve youth, which aligned with the current leader’s goals. As with garden A, this process was informal and subject to the previous leader’s discretion. This same informal succession process occurred several years ago with garden C: the previous leader passed on responsibilities to the current leader, who had similar goals. The leader has her own vision for the garden, which she follows when making decisions about the garden’s direction, but she often seeks the gardeners’ input, thus giving others an opportunity to play a leadership role.

Gardens D and E are both led by a single garden committee. Both residents and non-residents of the corporation’s housing are able to sit on the committee and there is no formal process of election or succession. An employee of the development corporation that owns the garden property plays a coordination and facilitation role, ensuring that committee meetings and garden workdays are scheduled regularly.

Investment: The main form of investment that gardeners contribute is their time. The spatial structure of gardeners’ time spent in the garden is closely linked to the physical gardening style. In gardens that have a communal style, many gardeners contribute their time during weekly scheduled workdays. Gardens with an individual gardening style depend on fewer gardeners to contribute time based on their own schedule. Thus, gardens A and C support individuals gardening on their own time, while gardens B, D, and E have collective workdays. Other forms of investment may be an agreement to follow norms or rules, dues or fees, or participation in the decision-making process. In garden C, the leader consulted with the gardeners to develop a list of norms that gardeners would sign and be expected to fulfill. This leader also asks gardeners to pay a due of an amount commensurate with their income, though few gardeners choose to contribute in this way. Gardeners from gardens D and E have the opportunity to invest more of their time by being on the garden committee, which enables them to reap greater rewards from their experience.

Emily Wright | Submitted Photo

Community Vitality

Garden A: The community of garden A is representative of the neighborhood at-large in that it is diverse and rife with tension along residency lines. The gardeners who have lived in the area for a long time are more apt to perceive the infrequent gardening activity as a period of dormancy in the fluctuating history of the garden. They also tend to interpret the constructions of physical space pragmatically, such as viewing the chain-linked fence as a method to prevent people from throwing garbage and other litter into the gardening space. In contrast, gardeners who arrived more recently to the area or live in adjacent neighborhoods are more responsive to levels of gardening activity and physical constructions, viewing a lack of participation as a sign of disinterest and a chain-linked fence and lock as a barrier for other community members to participate. Furthermore, residency status seems to be hindering, to a certain degree, the logical succession of leadership to a resident who is the most active in the garden and a newcomer.

Garden B: Garden B has a community distinct from the other gardens studied, since it is run by a non-profit organization and neighborhood youth are the gardeners. The garden leader, who is neither a long-term resident nor a newcomer, has indicated the positive progression of his role and status within the neighborhood community; since he first arrived and began his non- profit work, his neighbors have come to accept him as a part of their community. This acceptance lends legitimacy to the garden and its youth involvement.

Garden C: Garden C has an equal number of long-term residents and newcomers. The garden leader has purposefully maintained this even composition in order to balance the needs of the gentrifying community. While there is a higher demand for plots by newcomers than long-term residents, the leader has been careful to reserve half of the beds for the latter group, acknowledging that the garden’s history in the neighborhood makes her want to ensure that they are included. This structure has not necessarily resulted in a strong, unified garden community. In fact, the gardeners are not as active and there is not as much interaction as the leader had hoped. However, the equal representation and the leader’s evolution toward a communal gardening style provide a growing number of opportunities for diverse gardeners to interact. The leader is hoping that a local community-based organization could take over the garden so it would become even more embedded in the neighborhood.

Gardens D and E: Gardens D and E share a community that is diverse and they have had significant success with community building. The gardeners have spent committee meetings, workdays, and special events interacting and learning about each other’s lifestyles, and thus have come to view each other as members of the community rather than long-term residents, newcomers, or other category. Furthermore, their communal gardening style fosters equality and shared responsibility.


A physical garden space that supports communal gardening, such as in gardens B, D, and E, has greater community-building capacity than an individual gardening space. This type of spatial construction increases the amount of social interaction among gardeners by promoting cooperative planning, decision-making, and actions. Communal gardening also increases the amount of investment gardeners make by distributing work responsibilities evenly, which ensures that all gardeners receive benefits, such as a share of the harvest and social relationships. In contrast, individual gardening devolves planning and decision-making to separate actors, eliminating the discussion, debate, and collaboration so essential to the development of a community. Each gardener can construct the physical space of her plot in whichever way she so chooses. As a result, the individual gardener has the power to affect the community without the input of its members and has the ability to work separately during his own free time, possibly without ever interacting with his fellow gardeners.

The effects of boundary delineation and control on a garden’s community-building capacity are less clear. Across all gardens, the dialogue about fences and locks presented several concerns. One issue that appears to be resolved or diminished by a fence and lock is the presence of undesirable behavior and material, including litter and drugs. In this respect, boundary protection can significantly improve the quality of garden space and community. However, many gardeners feel the negative impact on the community far outweighs any benefit: high fences and locks present a physical and symbolic barrier to individuals’ participation that directly contradicts the community-oriented purpose of a “community garden”. Based on the evidence gathered, the negative perceptions are stronger than positive ones. Therefore, boundary delineation and control slightly decrease a garden’s capacity to build community.

A symbolic garden space that has multiple leadership roles and more opportunities for gardeners’ investment, such as in gardens D and E, is more capable of building community than a garden with a single leader and few investment opportunities. The former symbolic structure enables more fluid and open communication and interaction among gardeners. Organized workdays and committee meetings are forums that offer an even ground on which to relate. These settings let gardeners set aside the political, economic, and social contexts that usually codify their words and actions and instead communicate within the garden space in a way that is less influenced by their social positions in the neighborhood and more determined by their shared interest in gardening and the goals of the gardens. As a result, the divisions that exist within the neighborhood are eroded in the garden space, thereby building the integrated community that the gardeners would like.


Ethnographic evidence from this study indicates that physical gardening style, leadership, and investment opportunities play a significant role in a garden’s capacity to build community. Physical boundary delineation and control play a role to a slightly lesser extent. Across all of these physical and symbolic attributes, the more collectivist the garden space, the greater its community-building capacity. Conversely, the more individualistic the garden space, the lower its capacity. These results have impressive implications for new and existing urban gardens: they underscore the importance of spatial construction in a garden’s pursuit of its goals, especially if those include community building or the garden is located within a neighborhood fraught with discord. Future research on this topic, and specifically on the role of gardeners’ social positions within the surrounding neighborhood (i.e. long-term resident, newcomer) on garden space and community, would benefit residents and planners seeking to build community within increasingly diverse and complex urban environments.


Emily Wright


Harvey, David. 1973 Social Justice and the City. London, Edward Arnold.

Kuo, Frances E, William C. Sullivan, Rebekah Levine Coley, and Liesette Brunson

1998 “Fertile Ground for Community: Inner-City Neighborhood Common Spaces.” American Journal of Community Psychology 26(6):823-51.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1991 The Production of Space. Oxford, Blackwell.

McMillan, David W. and David M. Chavis. 1986 “Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory.” Journal of Community Psychology 14:6-23.