Urban community gardens have long been in existence as ways to promote community and alleviate the challenges of social and economic downturns. The Bay area of San Francisco is home to a vibrant community garden movement. While many of these emerged out of the City of Berkeley's Peoples Park movement of the late 1960s, community gardens have been in existence since at least the 1890s as increasing numbers of people moved to urban centers. In her history of the U.S. urban garden movement, City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America, Laura Lawson, Professor of Landscape Architecture, details the the evolution of urban garden programs from cultivation and charity societies, to depression era food gardens, to post WWII victory gardens, to todays community garden movement.
On a windy yet sunny day in San Francisco we visited the Fort Mason community garden in San Francisco. When we arrived, we found a garden protected from the ocean and bay winds by a hillside leaving a warm, quiet valley for gardening, social interactions, and strolling through the built-in paths throughout the site. We met two volunteers, Loraine and Joel, both on the four year wait list for a garden plot to call their own. We chatted about their love of gardening and they told us that although there is a four year waiting list anyone can volunteer, meet other gardeners, and work in the dirt. Joel and Lorraine did not know each other prior to volunteering at the garden. Now they talk and work side by side on many days each month and they seem to have become friends and neighbors.
The community garden at Fort Mason was organized in the early 1970s by artists and community activists, with a goal of bringing gardening to public school children and to create gardening jobs. In a history of the Fort Mason garden written by Alexander Dixon in 1988, the story is told of the original garden as a "poet's garden", a "culinary exchange", and a budding "populist arboretum." Today the garden is well organized. It is self-supported, managed by its members, and home to over 125 garden plots. The bulletin board on site lists the names of those on the waiting list, announces activities and upcoming meetings and work days. It also announces the recent deaths of a few men and women who spent many years as members of the garden enriching their lives and clearly touching the lives of others.
We found a community garden movement in San Francisco still going strong, with more gardens being established every year. Our visit enforced for us the importance of building gardens into community development projects not only as a way to provide open green spaces, but to meet many of the differing needs of residents. Gardens provide educational opportunities for school-aged children on food sources and organic cooking as well as environmental stewardship. For adults, gardens provide both recreational activity and economic relief from food prices. Gardens enhance social sustainability as commons, meeting places, intergenerational programming, and opportunities for community involvement.