In Support of Community Gardens

In February, news headlines everywhere began describing a new study from the University of Michigan made claims that urban agriculture (which includes urban farms, community gardens, and individual gardens) has a 6x higher carbon footprint than conventional agriculture. The headlines said things like, “Community Gardens have 6x Higher Carbon Footprint than Conventional Agriculture” or even “Community Gardens are Bad for Climate Change” and generally, these headlines got a lot of people who have been cultivating such gardens in an uproar. Here’s one such news article, and here’s another.  And here’s a link to the original study. It has been pretty intense to see the discussions on social media about this over the last month or so. I’ve had a number of people (including blog readers) reach out for my opinion on this study. I posted something in my social media and it created a really interesting discussion.  Thus, I thought I’d share some perspectives here–from a few angles. I should share that in addition to being a druid, animist, homesteader, and permaculture designer, in my day job, I am also a social scientist with over 60 peer-reviewed publications, I teach teaching doctoral-level courses in research design and research methods, and I advise many doctoral dissertations employing qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches.  I certainly could respond to this article as a social scientist, but instead, I’m going to use that knowledge to respond to it as a druid.

I also think that this particular case is an interesting one to talk about some of the paradigm-shifting work that is necessary for us to build a better future–and community gardens are certainly part of that work!

The Issue of One-Dimensional vs. Holistic Perspectives

Community Garden plots in my local town! I had one here for a few years till we got the homestead.
Community Garden plots in my local town! I had one here for a few years till we got the homestead.

So let’s start with the big picture of why these headlines are so bad, and why even the study has problems from a conceptual framework. Overall, on the largest scale, western society thinks in a very limited way where a single, isolated variable or single issue takes on all importance. This is very bad, and it prevents us from understanding the world holistically or in a real way–which is that the world is a complex system that cannot be isolated from itself.

In science and social science, the general practice of the scientific method is to work to eliminate as many variables as possible and study one narrow thing.  In theory, if we have enough narrow studies, we can say something larger about how the world works.  The problem is, that narrow thing often gets understood as the only thing that matters, while not taking into account a whole lot of other things that do.  In science, this kind of thinking can work to one’s advantage to build a particular kind of knowledge–by controlling for anything we don’t want to study, we can focus just on the thing we do, which allows us to make claims about it (whether or not those claims are accurate is another matter).

In many ways, the problems associated with the carbon footprint article are explained clearly just in understanding this–carbon footprint was the only variable under investigation, which misses most of the points and value of community gardens: education, nature connection, habitat, vegetables, youth empowerment, and so forth. Carbon footprint is representative of the impact of urban and community gardens on their surrounding communities.

The problem is that this very narrow, one-dimensional thinking isn’t limited to science, instead, it is broadly applied all over human culture. Western cultures unfortunately think and build systems on these very narrow, one-dimensional issues. The medical industry is a great example–doctors focus only on a specific symptom, not on the holistic person.  Allopathic medicine is notoriously bad at taking into account how factors like diet, exercise, stress, environment, and so forth may be real and contributing factors to people’s illness–and mitigating those larger holistic concerns may actually mitigate the illness.  (I have a story about that in my own life!)  GDP is another great example–somehow everything is fine and dandy as long as the GDP is high.  Uh, hello?  And don’t even get me started on politics.

Carbon footprint is not the only metric that matters. Reducing carbon alone is not going to get us out of the larger issues we have stemming from the extreme demands humans are placing on our planet. The emphasis is so focused on carbon that we seem to forget other critical factors also are important–like the loss of habitat resulting in the ongoing 6th mass extinction, the lack of connection that humans have with nature (an underlying problem that is greatly contributing to the challenges we have with the world), or like the disempowerment and despair many people are currently facing in the light of such global challenges.

Thus, it is wise to beware of this kind of one-dimensional thinking or binary thinking, which is the root of a lot of problems today.   Consider how everything fits in a complex system–an ecosystem, and learn to think from a systematic perspective. What are the major factors and areas? Consider how to turn a binary set of thinking into ternary and work to explore more holistic approaches. Two books that talk about this thinking from radically different perspectives is Donella Meadows Thinking in Systems and John Michael Greer’s The Druidry Handbook.

Truth, Lies, and Money

Members of my previous community learning together!
Members of my previous community in Michigan learning together!

Of course, the other thing we have going on here is that news reporting is incredibly misleading. The goal is to sell the story, not tell the truth or keep people informed. These news organizations can be supported by special interest groups or even if they are producing actual journalism, they have to pander to advertisers (like conventional agricultural producers and food companies). This leads to what we are seeing here–taking a tiny slice of the truth, exploding that into something that misrepresents what is happening, and selling whatever story people will read. I know this firsthand–at three different points in my professional career, I have watched these so-called “news” stories be fabricated out of lies. In one case, I actually had my name once shown in a Tucker Carson short piece when he was still on Fox News that was a complete fabrication and resulted in actual death threats to others named in this story based on these utter fabrications. So yeah, to say I’m skeptical of news media reporting is an understatement. A lot of these media sources don’t care about representing the actual situation, they just want to sell the most dramatic story possible. This is to say, I don’t take anything I read in the news at face value, and you probably shouldn’t either.

What isn’t mentioned in the articles but is clearly present in the original study is that the researchers noted that the carbon footprint finding for community gardens had to do with inputs of resources for the garden: building garden beds, trucking in mountains of compost, or providing other infrastructure. The problem came when some community gardens were short-lived endeavors: a 3 year community garden that had consumed these resources to build the space would have a higher carbon footprint but a community garden that used the same infrastructure for 15 or 20 years would not.  A long-lasting community garden is a carbon sink. The study also mentioned the many other benefits of community gardens that were not studied for the purposes of that article.  In all in all, this is a very very different story than is being told in these articles and headlines.

What is not present in the news reports are the nuances of the data present in the study: long-term community gardens and urban farms, specifically those that build and use the same infrastructure over years or decades, do not have a higher carbon footprint than conventional agriculture. They have lower footprints in the long run and a host of other benefits.  So why, when it is written right there in the study itself, do the headlines read as they read? My guess is that this is because community gardens and organic urban farms are absolutely a threat to the larger systems of money and power. If people are empowered to grow their own food and come together, that’s less poison food they are consuming. And as they do this work, they teach others, and it spreads.

The Multitude of Benefits of Community Gardens

In fact, community gardens can be incredibly empowering places where people and nature come together, where humans learn how to reconnect, support ecosystems, and build healthy, stable relationships with each other.  Community gardens benefit both people and nature. I delved back into reading this scientific literature on community garden benefits to complete this second part of the post.

Benefits to Humans and Human Communities

This scientific review of the benefits of community gardens is extensive to human communities and includes all of the following:

  • Community gardens benefit the larger ecosystem by creating habitat, green spaces, and sources of food for birds, insects, and wildlife, often in areas that are very dominated by humans; this benefits both humans and the natural world
  • Community gardens benefit humans and their well-being including helping people deal with isolation, building a sense of connection with others, and having joy in connecting with nature
  • Community gardens are critical sites of education for youth, refugees, immigrants, and minorities, and other groups where they can learn to grow their own food and other core skills.
  • Community gardens also help people build social capital so that they can connect with others, learn, and learn how to leverage to enact change in broad ways.
  • Community gardens can support economic development and allow people with diminished resources to gain economic resources (either by growing and eating food they would not have to buy or by selling produce)
  • Community gardens help people create a number of positive health habits such as eating better and exercising
  • Community gardens bring people together to stand up for the right to have and cultivate these spaces, organize, and share (the case of New York’s community gardeners, for example, is a well-known one).  Some community gardens are lost to development but many people are able to win these fights.
  • Community gardens can greatly support people’s food security and food sovereignty
  • Community gardens also help reduce crime in urban areas
  • Community gardens help with neighborhood beautification and investment by local people in their immediate surroundings
  • Community gardens allow people to affirm, explore, and connect with their local cultural heritage

When I still lived in Michigan, I spent a lot of time volunteering and teaching at the Baldwin Center, which was a multi-purpose community center that offered a soup kitchen, after school programs, clothing, adult and children’s education, and also a big community garden. I was teaching classes there and at the time, I was also enrolled in an organic farming program at my university that was teaching me the ins and outs of organic farming and market farming–and the Baldwin Center’s garden was one of the places we tended.  I saw so, so many of the above benefits firsthand.  My favorite program was a summer/fall youth program where teens from low-income and minority groups were empowered to grow vegetables and fruit at the garden. Then they would learn how to package, market, and sell their produce at local farmer’s markets, and also learn the entire business end of how to do things.  They also learned cooking skills, build their resumes, and considered their path forward as entrepreneurs. I cannot stress the importance of this program and the kinds of impact it had–both in preparing for modern life, but also in connecting them to the earth. Students in this program came into the program not knowing that potatoes were dug from the ground and six months later, knew how to run a small business and cook with local vegetables they grew themselves. They taught their families how to grow their own food (in a place that was a massive food desert!)

Benefits to Nature and Ecosystems

Community gardens also greatly support the land around them. Here’s a summary of some of the ways in which community gardens can support nature:

  • Community gardens support habitat and increase biodiversity of plants and animals, including providing food and nectar sources for insects, birds, and other wildlife.  Many community gardens may be part of larger park systems that also do tree plantings, rain gardens, and other permaculture-based goodness.
  • Community gardens provide sinks for stormwater runoff; a community garden can sink a lot of rainwater runoff to immediately benefit the land (and not flood the streets); this can be done with rainwater harvesting, more porous surfaces, and the garden beds themselves
  • Community gardens provide cleaner air and healthier soil and can work to remediate problematic soils
  • Community gardens reduce the number of “food miles” that food has to travel, reducing carbon footprint for food
  • Community gardens reduce food waste by encouraging composting; this also teaches people about thinking in cycles rather than lines
  • Community gardens can use a number of other “waste” products (such as fall leaves, mulch, etc) – I see this a lot happening at our local community garden in Indiana, PA!  So many “wastes” turned into soil.

Every community garden that I have had the pleasure of visiting–especially those in urban areas–are incredible places where you see all sorts of life.  Pockets of abundance tucked in among the gray slabs of concrete and the buildings and bricks.  Some of these community gardens and urban farms are huge endeavors doing all kinds of work beyond a traditional growing plot. I’ll point here to Eastie Farm as an example of this work–I had the pleasure of doing my Permaculture Design Certificate with Kannan, who serves as Eastie Farm’s executive director. They are doing incredible work in a range of environmental stewardship, activism, supporting people learning more about nature, and supporting the planet!

Go with Love to Your Garden

I think the evidence I’ve presented above is a pretty good argument for why we need community gardens, urban farms, and any other spaces where humans and nature can interact, heal, and grow. Pay no attention to the headlines that would steer us further on the path of destruction.

Community gardens and urban farms represent major steps in helping reunite people with the earth and are wonderful places not only for that connection but in relearning, rewilding, and regenerating ourselves and the planet.

So, go to your garden–wherever it may be–with love in your heart. Care for your plants, care for the insects that pollinate them, care for the birds and wildlife, care for the soil, and certainly, care for each other. We all need these nourishing, regenerative spaces if we are going to build a brighter tomorrow.

Dana O'Driscoll

Dana O’Driscoll has been an animist druid for almost 20 years, and currently serves as Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. She is a druid-grade member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and is the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus Scholar. She is the author of Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice (REDFeather, 2021), the Sacred Actions Journal (REDFeather, 2022), and Land Healing: Physical, Metaphysical, and Ritual Approaches for Healing the Earth (REDFeather, 2024). She is also the author/illustrator of the Tarot of Trees, Plant Spirit Oracle, and Treelore Oracle. Dana is an herbalist, certified permaculture designer, and permaculture teacher who teaches about reconnection, regeneration, and land healing through herbalism, wild food foraging, and sustainable living. Dana lives at a 5-acre homestead in rural western Pennsylvania with her partner and a host of feathered and furred friends. She writes at the Druids Garden blog and is on Instagram as @druidsgardenart. She also regularly writes for Plant Healer Quarterly and Spirituality and Health magazine.

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  1. There’s a community garden down the street from me. They teach the students a lot of what you mentioned. They also do cooking classes. Even one for couples (teens). They teach sewing and so much more. The vegetables they grow they get for their families. They also donate 10 percent of what is grown to sell at a farmers market. That way they earn money to help keep the program to continue. They collect seeds for the next year.

    1. Hi Alice, thanks for sharing about your local community garden and they good they are doing! 🙂

  2. i have a Master’s degree in Ecology. i basically dismissed this study out of hand because Everything Runs on Oil in our current reality; the underlying truism that less distance food travels = lower carbon input (as you say, once the plot is established, which may require initial carbon usage) is _obvious_. these studies also don’t focus on _permaculture_ plots (trees, bushes, etc) which are generally using CO2 and giving off O2 long after the initial expenditure is made to get them started. so *much* of this junk science is paid for my Big Agriculture, tailored to back up Big Ag, and doesn’t come CLOSE to exposing all the horrible problems with Big Ag (pollution, genetic modification, monocultures, loss of habitat for huge stretches, horrid treatment of domesticated animals, etc) that they also entail. it’s advertising, pure and simple.

    OK, anger vented. i will now go love my permaculture garden. maybe sign up for a stint at Rahma.

    1. Yeah, it pretty much is a piece of BS research and really, the whole paradigm is BS. I’m over it! After reading this drivel (and there was even some new drivel today about organic food growing somehow creating more need for pesticides…goodness, it is hard to keep up), we both need to go with love to our permaculture gardens :).

  3. Such a lovely post, thank you Dana. I read about this when it first came out and it seemed like such capitalistic, know nothing BS nonsense. I love your takedown! Unfortunately, people read articles like that and believe them!! So incredibly unfortunate. I’m of the opinion that the more we do for our friends and loved ones and the less we interact with this falling apart capitalist system which is bent on destroying our beautiful alive Earth, the better we will all be. I’m trying to teach sewing, knitting, cooking, bread baking to my grandchildren. Even spinning. They may not appreciate it now, but at least they’ll know that things can be made at home, not just bought in a store.
    Thank you again, Dana!

    1. Hi Heather! Keep on fighting the good fight. Glad to hear the good work you are doing with your grandchildren! 🙂 Blessings to you!

  4. THANK YOU for this Dana!!! You have no idea how much reading this has given me hope and purpose again. The media only offers a tsunami of misleading or outright false information today. It is so easy. And many times, people don’t (and sometimes can’t) verify & confirm the truth AND accuracy of what they see or hear. It is also mentally, spiritually and emotionally draining to be barraged by such vile propaganda. And that is what I believe it to be when truth is denied or twisted in such articles.

    It gives me hope that what can be done locally, especially with fellow community members, is to bring healing, hope and connection both to Mother Earth and each other. We so need that, even more so in the time we are living in and experiencing. That your background is so full and well rounded in both science and the spiritual world is even more uplifting and encouraging. Thank you so much for this!!! I have saved the email and will be able to refer to it when I need a pick me up and a sound rebuttal for those who don’t go beyond the words/headlines. Thank you –Tess

    1. Hi Tess! Glad to be of service to all the community and urban gardeners and gardens. We need more, not less, of rooting in the earth. Blessings! Dana

  5. I think you hit the nail on the head. Growing our own food is the best way to keep from eating the poison food being pumped up by Big Ag. Of course they hate it.

    1. Grow on! Don’t let big ag get any of us down.

  6. Melissa A Bettcher

    The synchronicity in this world astounds me! This past weekend I was attending my local Mycological Association’s AGM and dinner and we had a special guest come and speak to us about her 40 years studying mycelium in relation to forestry, Melanie Jones PhD. What she shared with us shook us all to the core actually. She was one of the original researchers that had provided the data to support the “Wood Wide Web” idea whereby trees communicated and shared resources with each other via the mycelial network. Apparently, her research has been misrepresented in such a way by the media and other persons citing it that we have a view about the mycelial network in relation to trees and forests that is not quite right. I have included a link here for all that are interested(see the end of my comment). In summary, yes, there is a sharing that happens in the forest but it is not yet known if it extends beyond a few trees or not and there is doubt that the mycelium is really doing much other than looking out for itself in these interactions. However, there is no doubt that leaving forests intact and with their canopy closed will positively impact the health of the forest and allow recovery from both human led and nature led activities. There is also some recommendations on logging practices from their research that are more “sustainable” (if such a thing can be said about logging at all) based on how forests can regenerate if areas are left untouched.

    When she and her co-authors had released their review of their own research, there was intense backlash and some of them have even received very threatening messages. And this was even from the Mycological and Eco-Warrior community! Sometimes we want something to be true so badly that we skew data and bend the science to make it fit, and this goes for both sides of really any issue. Those that are so hell bent on burning all of the fossil fuels and forests until they are gone will make any alternative out to be a bad thing. It can happen on the other side with “greenwashing” too.

    What needs to happen, in my opinion, is that humans need to divest this idea that their beliefs are attached to their identity. Honestly, we also need to look at how we use the word “belief” anyway. It is better to have ideas that can change and evolve over time. Beliefs are often stagnant, rigid, and supercharged by emotion. If we can be more open to new ideas and new data, we can perhaps mitigate this fear that comes along with changing our minds. When we know better, we can choose to do better. It does not mean that we were wrong before, but we were only able to do as good as the information we had at the time.

    To tie this back to your post, it is very unfortunate that we cannot trust our news outlets to report the truth and that these days it seems that we have to do a lot of our own digging and verifying of facts. There is usually someone at the end of the line holding the bag of money and for that, I am sad.

    Thanks for a great post and for helping to dispel the myths.


    1. Thanks so much for sharing this story and this great piece of research! I’m really interested in mushrooms and fungi research, so this entire thing is fascinating. It is upsetting to hear how her own research has been misappropriated by many sources. That’s the crazy thing–there doesn’t have to be politics in research, and yet, research often becomes political. I’m glad to hear you are fighting the fight, Melissa!

  7. Hi Dana,
    Thank you for another wonderful post. Along the same vein of community and gardens, there is an old growth forest (called Sleepy Hollow) that is under grave threat of being cut down for housing development in South Park, PA. Info can be found here at this petition:

    I was wondering if you and your readers could take a look, sign and share with others (if they wish to do so). I am doing what I can for that beloved forest. If we add more voices and prayer, send light to the site, I am hopeful for this area to be left in peace. It is adjacent to a buffalo preserve as well.

    Best wishes and always, blessed be.

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