“Trying to build the community up”: An Exploration of the Social Impacts of Louisiana Urban Community Gardens

By Castel Sweet and Sarah Becker


A community garden is a piece of land that a group of people collectively maintains and uses as a space to grow food, flowers, and other forms of life that help feed or beautify a neighborhood. Community gardens deliver a wide range of documented social, health, and material benefits to participants and to the local areas in which they are situated. In this essay, we use ethnographic data and interviews with two key participants in Louisiana urban community gardens to explore the social impacts collective gardening efforts carry for individuals and neighborhoods.

History of Community Gardening in the United States

Community gardens have historically waxed and waned in popularity as the underlying social-structural conditions that incentivize participation in such efforts emerge and shift across time (Draper and Freedman 2010). In the 1800s, for example, Hazen Pingree, then mayor of Detroit, attempted to mitigate the effects of the 1893 depression by implementing the use of donated vacant land as gardens to be tended and maintained by unemployed people in order to produce food for consumption and sale (Lawson 2005). The success of this program led to identical efforts appearing across the nation in cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia (Lawson 2005).

During World War I, World War II, and the Great Depression, community gardens again experienced a boom in the United States (Draper and Freedman 2010). While initially aimed at immigrants, the elderly, and the poor, adversities brought on by the two World Wars and the Great Depression caused an increase in participation across a wider demographic (Draper and Freedman 2010). ‘Victory gardens,” as they came to be known, produced nearly forty-two percent of the nation's vegetable supply during World War II–in large part because they were supported by a federally funded campaign for public gardening (Lawson 2005). These gardens were connected to the broader “Fights for Freedom” movement that involved rationing, recycling, canning, handicrafts, and volunteer farm work during the war (Lawson 2005). After the war ended, however, interest in these causes decreased as well.

In the modern context, a similar constellation of social, environmental, and economic conditions have come together to produce renewed interest in collective gardening (Draper and Freedman 2010). An economic recession, public policy emphasis on health, widespread attention to the benefits of eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, an increasing incidence of “green” movements, and changing environmental attitudes have helped produce a resurgence in community gardening in America. The neoliberal state, which emphasizes individual responsibility over government provision of a safety net also incentivizes individual and local-level efforts to combat poverty like neighborhood gardens. In the face of a deteriorating public support system for the poor (Wacquant 2009, 2010) and forces of modern capitalism that have worked to produce “food deserts,” or areas where citizens do not have access to fresh produce (USDA 2015), community gardens are an increasingly popular strategy for mediating the effects of poverty and inequality, especially in urban areas.

The Benefits of Community Gardens

Community gardens originated as a means for offsetting harsh socio-economic conditions and, indeed, research demonstrates that they help buffer against those difficult conditions (Bonacich and Alimahomed-Wilson 2011; Draper and Freedman 2010; Kutiwa, Boon, and Devuyst 2010; Patel 1996; Phiri 2008). Community gardens also deliver a wider range of positive impacts on both the individual and community levels, however. Participation in community gardens is linked to increased daily consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables (Alaimo, Packnett, Miles, and Kruger 2008; Flanigan and Varma 2006; Litt et al. 2011); increased physical activity (Bergland 2014); higher academic achievement among youth participants (Draper and Freedman 2010); lower stress levels (Bhatti 2006); and overall improved physical and emotional health (Alaimo et al. 2008; Bhatti, Church, Claremont, and Stenner 2009).

Fig. 1: Turnip greens harvested from one of the Louisiana community gardens. Photo taken by Sarah Becker.

On the community level, gardens improve people's views of their neighborhood (Gorham, Waliczek, Snelgrove, and Zajicek 2009; Ohmer, Meadowcroft, Freed, and Lewis 2009) and of social ties there (Alaimo, Reischl, and Allen 2010), can foster a sense of community and belonging (du Plessis and Lekganyane 2010; Ohmer et al. 2009; Roubanis and Landis 2007) or political citizenship (Glover, Shinew, and Parry 2005), and can help build relationships (Patel 1996; Raske 2010)–even across racial boundaries (Shinew, Glover, and Parry 2005). Community gardens have been linked to residents' perceptions of improved safety and to lower crime levels (Garvin, Cannuscio, and Branas 2012; Kuo and Sullivan 2001), have been shown to improve property values (Voicu and Been 2008), and can inspire other forms of activism and community engagement, especially in marginalized communities (Armstrong 2000; Saldivar-Tanaka and Krasny 2004; Twiss et al. 2003).

Purpose and Approach of the Study

In this essay, we explore the lived experiences associated with the social benefits urban community gardens carry. Data used in this essay is part of Dr. Sarah Becker's broader study of urban community gardening in the southern United States. For this piece, Castel Sweet conducted thirty hours of participant observation in two urban community gardens in Louisiana, completed a handful of informal interviews in the field while working in those gardens, and did two in-depth, semi-structured, open-ended interviews with key participants from one of the sites: “Oasis Garden” (Participants and garden site names have been changed to preserve confidentiality). Drawing on that data, we examine the impact collective gardening efforts can have on the urban communities they are situated in and on the people who regularly participate. Using personal narratives and firsthand experiences, we shed light on the various processes and procedures of the community garden that contribute to its function(s) for the locality and its occupants.

The Gardens and Participants

Community gardens vary widely in structure, organization, and purpose (Hondagneu-Sotelo 2010; Kurtz 2001). The gardens in this project all utilize a similar model. Rather than having individual plots assigned to specific people who rent or are given the space and use it to plant what they wish, these gardens are utilized in their entirety by anyone in the community who wants to participate. In other words, while specific individuals or organizations own each plot of land, the land is used in a way that it belongs to anyone who shows up to help. Volunteers regularly send produce home with participants and/or give it to area residents in need of food.

Each garden is run by a site advocate, who “shows up to supervise work every week, facilitates garden planning, plays a central role in securing resources for the garden (e.g., seeds, plants, tools, and soil), and is the location's contact person” (Becker and Paul 2015:186). Weather providing, the gardeners meet once a week at a regularly designated time. Anywhere from one to twenty neighborhood residents, students from local colleges or universities doing service work, and/or volunteers from other parts of town show up to tend the garden together. Participants range in age from three to eighty-six years old and come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are local residents who live nearby, especially the children who participate and the garden advocates. The overwhelming majority of these participants are black and working or middle/lower-middle class. Some are college students attending the gardens for course or degree credit. The overwhelming majority of these participants are white and middle or upper-middle class.

The gardens belong to the Metro Garden Coalition (MGC), a loosely-knit group of garden leaders from across the city who work together to share resources and help support collective gardening efforts in their metropolitan area. The gardens are located in neighborhoods that are designated USDA food deserts. This means that they are areas where residents do not have access to fresh, healthy, affordable food. Instead of having supermarkets or grocery stores, they either have no food access or only have access to fast food restaurants and corner stores that have few healthy and affordable food options (USDA 2015). These neighborhoods also have at least a 20 percent poverty rate (most of them have a much higher rate) and have been designated low-access areas by the USDA because at least five hundred people or 33 percent of the census tract's population lives more than one mile from a grocery store or supermarket (USDA 2015).

The two key participants Castel interviewed for this essay are a middle-aged black man named Malcolm who actively participated in the weekly meetings at Oasis Garden and volunteered to ensure its upkeep. He cut the grass and watered plants during the remainder of the week when the community garden did not meet, for example. He also ran a produce stand located directly across the street from Oasis. The second interviewee was Ms. Thomas, an elderly black woman who is one of the three designated garden advocates at Oasis. Ms. Thomas has been gardening all her life and is usually the point person for decisions made in relation to many of the MGC spaces because of her experiences and her rich knowledge on gardening, plants, and produce. These interviews and Castel's detailed field notes from hours of participant observation at the garden sites were used to generate the narrative analysis that follows.

Social Capital as Community Gardens' “Produce”

Scholars in the fields of agriculture, horticulture, human geography, psychology, and public health have contributed a wealth of knowledge about the positive impacts community gardens can have on individuals who participate, their families, and their neighborhoods. Few sociologists study community gardens, but those who do often draw on and contribute to studies of social capital. While debates about what social capital is are contentious in the discipline and have an extensive history (see Portes 1998), in its simplest conception, social capital is the power that lies in connections between people. Network connections between individuals, groups of people, and institutions can deliver tremendous good to those individuals, groups, and localities.1 Looking at community gardens through the lens of social capital development can help us examine how the positive effects laid out by researchers in other disciplines are tied together and embedded in specific social processes. Here, we use ethnographic and interview data from two Louisiana urban community gardens to explore how this works.

1. Building Network Ties

At the most basic level, community gardens develop social capital by helping create new ties or strengthening existing ties between people (Patel 1996; Raske 2010). Community garden participants often express that they feel the gardens are a place for positive social interaction and sharing with others—making the space one for socialization rather than solely agricultural production (Alaimo et al. 2010). The gardens we studied provide a common meeting ground for individuals within the community and people from outside of the community to come and interact with one another while also benefiting themselves and the neighborhood. People who regularly attend garden meetings quickly learn that these spaces are meant to be receptive to all individuals who attend and show interest in gardening. Ms. Thomas's feelings symbolize this spirit of openness:

Fig. 2: Mustard greens being harvested by a community volunteer. Photo by Sadie O'Keefe.

I love to garden and I love to teach others about gardening. I would be out here all day everyday if I could. When I am not here at this garden, I am at home in my own garden. I just love to garden and I really enjoy coming out here to the garden to help others.

For Ms. Thomas, the garden is a place where anyone belongs, regardless of whether or not they live in the immediate area. If they like working with their hands and want to help, she made sure to make them feel like they had a place. Malcolm, too, saw the garden as a space where people got to know one another. He especially saw it working to link people from the immediate area to one another:

After coming to the garden . . . I have gotten to know more people within the community on a more personal level. I have gotten the chance to meet and talk to people from the community that I would have not met if I didn't go to Oasis Garden or work at the produce stand.

His words reveal how gardening alongside other residents and running the produce stand facilitated him forming new relationships with people in his neighborhood—people he says he otherwise “would not have met.” In addition, he was able to get to know people he was already acquainted with “on a more personal level.”

One of Ms. Thomas's experiences reveals the same social process at work. At a spring garden meeting, a young black man named Orvell participated for the first time. While talking with Ms. Thomas, they realized that he had been living on the same street for over ten years, but they had never met or seen one another. Over the next few months, as he returned to attend garden meetings multiple times, they developed a unique relationship. Orvell visited Ms. Thomas at her house outside of the garden meetings and assisted her with any household chores she needed help with. In exchange, she cooked for him, listened to him talk about his life, and entertained him with stories about events like her church bus trips across the United States.

Something similar surfaced for youth at Oasis, where their social connections were forged or strengthened in the garden space. Many of these children attended the same schools, but did not necessarily know each other very well prior to gardening together. While on site, it was not uncommon to see them doing gymnastics together, standing around in their school uniforms talking about the day's events, taking pictures of each other or themselves and sharing them, or sitting at one of the brightly-colored picnic tables at the front of the garden near the street working on homework together or sharing a snack. As a result of these interactions, existing friendships could be strengthened and new relationships could be formed, like they were for six-year-old Leela, who met new friends when she first came to the garden. For youth, as is true in each of our other examples, the community garden served as a vehicle for building and strengthening ties within the community.

2. Reciprocity, Trust, and Community Responsibility

Exchanges between youth, where they help each other with homework, and Ms. Thomas and Orvell's relationship, where they swap food, chores, and stories, highlight the “communitarian” aspect of social capital (R. D. Putnam 1993). Here, communities and individuals benefit from network connections when people develop reciprocity, trust, shared norms, and shared investment in civil engagement (Cancino 2005; Coleman 1988; Lee 2008; R. D. Putnam 1993). Participants who became newly tied to one another's social networks through the gardens or whose connection to one another is strengthened all became part of a network of civil engagement because garden workers were engaged in at least one civic activity–the garden itself. Indeed, garden networks operated in a way that facilitated three public benefits: the development or strengthening of trust between local residents, a sense of community, and shared investment in community responsibility.

For example, Jasmine, a young elementary-school-aged girl, attended weekly garden meetings at Oasis. Her mother (Elle) or grandmother (Trudy) dropped her off every week. Even though they were not personally tied to any of the other garden participants, early interactions led Elle and Trudy to trust that Jasmine would be well taken care of. Trudy and Jasmine met one of Oasis's three garden advocates, a young mixed-race women named Renata, when she brought a group of kids from Oasis to volunteer at the home garden of an elderly man in the community who lived down the street. Weeks later, Trudy approached Renata at Oasis. She said she lived only two houses down and would be okay with leaving Jasmine to help out there if Renata agreed to make sure she or someone else watched her walk home every evening. When Renata assured them she would do that, Trudy and Elle then trusted that Jasmine would be well taken care of and she was able to help garden at Oasis. Jasmine's chattiness, upbeat demeanor, and excitement for sharing her knowledge of plants suggested she very much enjoyed the opportunity and felt safe in that space.

The same thing was true for many other children in the community whose parents and caretakers met garden leaders and volunteers and decided to trust the care of their children to them. Many neighborhood kids walked, rode their bikes, or were dropped off at Oasis to garden for a few hours one afternoon a week. Garden leaders supervised them on site and ensured that they went home as their parents, grandparents, or caretakers preferred them to. Some had to get home before the sun started to set. Others needed to be walked home individually. A few waited with volunteers at the picnic tables until their ride showed up or were given a ride home from volunteers. The rest—mostly older children—simply walked or rode their bikes home, together or solo.

Fig. 3: Castel Sweet watering tomato plants at one of the Louisiana community gardens. Photo by Trish Davis.

In addition to fostering trust in ways demonstrated in these examples (and perhaps because of that trust), social capital has a strong reciprocal relationship with civic engagement, altruism, volunteerism, and philanthropy (Alaimo et al. 2010; R. Putnam 2000). Studies have found that community gardens, specifically, can have this effect, especially in marginalized communities (Armstrong, 2000; Saldivar-Tanaka and Krasny, 2004; Twiss et al., 2003). Part of this happens because participation in civically active networks helps people develop a broader sense of self, transition from an “I” to a “we,” and acquire a fondness for collective benefit (R.D. Putnam 1993).

We regularly saw this when talking with participants from the gardens, who would often refer to the work that “we” do in the garden, not the work that “I” do in the garden. When new participants would show up on a gardening day, for example, the advocate in charge would frequently ask one of the youth to give that person a tour. When Castel got her first tour, she quickly realized that there was a strong sense of collective effort communicated in the description of the labor people dedicated to maintaining the garden. While one of the children described the various fruits and vegetables growing in the garden, they also explained how “we” planted specific items because “we” want to grow produce that people in the neighborhood regularly eat. This illustrated that even though individual participants might vary in terms of what they would like to grow in the garden, the final decision for what would be planted was a direct result of its potential to be collectively consumed.

This focus on the collectivity was also present in terms of how people shared the resources provided by their cooperative work: the food. As Ms. Thomas, the garden advocate, stressed:

I do not take home the vegetables from the garden, but I allow anyone who comes to take as much as they would like. If you come to the garden you should be able to take some stuff with you. You work for it. If you don't want to take it, I will take it and cook it so that everyone could come over and it eat some. I know that some people don't know how to cook it so I will cook it for them. But if you come and work in the [community] garden you should be allowed to take whatever you want home with you.

Ms. Thomas focuses squarely on those who spend their time helping with the community garden. If they show up, she argues, they should be able to take something home. She, like other women who run these garden sites, goes even further than that, however. On more than one occasion, some of the black women who are advocates at various garden sites have spent hours (sometimes days) cooking produce from a harvest and then have opened up their homes to garden volunteers to share in the bounty. These acts share the garden's produce collectively while also enhancing the social relationships formed in those spaces.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that these gardens help build a stronger sense of community, as studies have indicated is possible. Gardens can “[propagate] neighborhood norms and beliefs, including reciprocity, helping others, neighborhood involvement, collective efficacy, sense of community, and neighborhood pride and morale” (Alaimo, Reischle, and Allen 2010). When questioned about who participates in the garden and why it is beneficial to the community, Malcolm responded in a way that reflects these processes are at work: “Oasis has a big impact [on the community] because the community is tore down with drugs and alcohol and [we] are trying to build the community up to help people and the people in the community love it.”

3. Material Benefits

Malcolm also expressed the belief that the garden “builds the community up” because it helps support healthy eating and provides people access to fresh foods. Living in a food desert where the majority of inhabitants are impoverished, food insecurity is a serious issue. As Malcolm explained, the gardens help address this:

Oasis brings healthy eating to the community, because kids like to eat a lot of junk food like cookies and candy, and it doesn't do anything but rotten their teeth out so Oasis brings some healthy eating into the community. . . . The corner store sells all those greasy chicken wings, and pig tails, and all that bad stuff. . . . Oasis is trying to build the community up to help people eat healthy.

The same applies to how people see the garden and produce stand. “I even see people from out of the community pass by,” Malcolm said. He said people in and outside the community are “look[ing] for healthy eating,” so when they see the stand, they stop and purchase goods there.

Malcolm's observations regularly played out during gardening days. At many of the garden meetings, children would simply walk up to plants, pick off a leaf or two, a fruit, or a peapod and put it directly into their mouth and proceed to eat it with confidence. When their other friends would come to the garden for the first time, the children often took pride in showing them around the garden and describing the different plants and produce that were growing there. Seeing these children, who often started out bringing chips and candy to snack on at the garden, become more knowledgeable about vegetables and produce was impressive. Castel, when speaking to one of the young boys who regularly attended the garden, asked what his favorite food was. To her surprise, his response was not pizza or hamburgers, as kids often say. Instead, he proudly said his favorite food was edamame (immature soybeans steamed in their pods) and couscous (tiny grains of steamed wheat)—two foods he had been introduced to via the garden.

As these stories reveal, the gardens introduce participants to new foods or new ways to prepare familiar healthy foods. Research indicates that participation in community gardens has the potential to increase people's daily intake of fresh fruits and vegetables and, consequently, their overall health (Alaimo et al. 2008; Flanigan and Varma 2006; Litt et al. 2011). In addition to this, the gardens also provide access to food for some individuals in the community who do not have the means to purchase fresh produce. Whether it is because of lack of transportation or lack of funds, area residents who volunteer and those who do not have time to volunteer, but are part of participants' networks and are in need of food, can easily get access to free produce. With no financial investment required, food insecure households can have some of their material burden alleviated because of these collective gardening efforts.

4. Horizontal and Vertical Ties

Beyond the produce itself, the gardens deliver many more material resources to their participants and people in need who are part of participants' extended networks. These resources, however, are often delivered invisibly—at least to outsiders' eyes. We explore this phenomenon by talking about the unique utility of horizontal and vertical network ties in these collective projects. Horizontal ties (ties between people who occupy a similar social status) deliver benefits to the community in a way vertical ties (ties between people with dissimilar social status positions) do not (R. D. Putnam 1993).

When outsiders or non-residents like university students attending for credit or activists from the broader metropolitan area came to the gardens to volunteer, they often built brand new connections to local residents they had never met before. These volunteers were almost all white and middle or upper middle class people and therefore also brought with them network connections that many local residents, who were predominantly black, and poor, working, or sometimes middle class, did not have. As such, they were able to leverage resources for the gardens, if motivated, that many locals might not be able to utilize, or have knowledge about.

For example, an elderly black woman who lives right near one of the MGC gardens needed work done on her home and could not afford to pay a high price for the repairs, nor could she do them herself because of her health. Students from a nearby university who had volunteered at the garden that semester were able to leverage their school's resources to help her. They facilitated a request that the university send student volunteers to her house on the school's annual MLK Day of Service. Their connection to an institution of higher education and their willingness to use it to help her meant that this woman's house was repaired in one day by a small but hardworking group of student and faculty volunteers. Though only a one-time effort, the event created significant impact and brought a great deal of visibility.

While some neighborhood residents attend college, many at the same university that those students came from, and many have middle-class incomes and homes, the typical local resident does not have these sorts of resources to leverage. Nonetheless, they are the people who keep each of these community gardens running year-round. These women and men deliver a tremendous amount of resources to the gardens, their participants, and the local community with very limited means. For example, Ms. Thomas is retired and lives on a budget. Nonetheless, she often supplies Oasis garden with tools such as shovels and rakes from her own garage. She voluntarily purchases seeds and other materials for the garden with her own money—just like other garden advocates regularly do at their sites—because of passion for the work, the people, and her community.

Regular volunteers and garden advocates also frequently engage in individualized forms of activism, helping one person in the neighborhood at a time outside the context of the garden. This work is largely invisible to anyone other than the most dedicated and deeply connected volunteers at each site. Whenever there is produce after harvest at a garden site, for example, advocates often set some aside for people they know who are in need of food. If there are leftovers, advocates might donate to a local shelter as well.

Chet's story is another example of this mostly invisible oneon- one community activism. One afternoon when Sarah was at Oasis working alongside some students, teens from the neighborhood, and regular volunteers, a middle-aged black man pulled up to the garden on a bicycle. He asked what people were doing there. When Sarah explained that volunteers were gardening and invited him to help if he wanted to, he stayed. Chet quickly bonded with Ms. Thomas when she saw him step forward while others were hesitating to do the needed shoveling that day because of the excessive heat. He single-handedly dug through the thick, clay-like soil at the back of the garden that had been riddled with weeds, freeing the area for more planting and, eventually, a greater harvest.

Chet continued to come back to Oasis week after week. Through their interactions, Ms. Thomas learned that he was homeless and had only recently gotten a job as a dishwasher at a nearby restaurant. He rode his bike long distances in the heat to get to and from work and yet he still religiously came to the garden to help out. Ms. Thomas could not tolerate the idea that Chet did not have a place to stay. She invited him to her house, cooked for him, and quickly worked her networks to find him an apartment, pay his first month's rent, and stock the place with a refrigerator and stove. The community garden linked Ms. Thomas and Chet together in a way that she felt a sense of communal responsibility to ensure that he had what he needed in terms of proper shelter.

Only a couple individuals knew about Ms. Thomas helping Chet. The same is true for the business next door to the garden and how it supports Oasis. Seeing value in their work, the business owner regularly lets garden workers use his water hose to water the plants and never asks for money for his water bill. He also coordinates volunteers to mow the garden on occasion (something regular volunteers frequently struggle to do since the site does not have its own mower). Without his generosity, the plants in the garden most likely would not survive, volunteers would not be able to access the garden beds, and the garden would not be able to flourish. He and his employees may not attend or participate in weekly garden meetings, but their silent support is indicative of a shared sentiment—one that sees the community garden as a positive amenity to the neighborhood.

Of all these examples where networks delivered resources to individuals and organizations in the community because of the garden, only one got widespread attention. Local and university news media covered the MLK Day of Service and a picture of students working on that garden advocate's house was widely circulated. The more regular, invisible work done by locals and the resources delivered as a result of their bonds to one another goes on from week to week with little or no recognition. University students and irregular volunteers from outside of the community frequently complain about or criticize the “lack of participation” by local residents—not knowing that these behind-the-scenes forms of participation sustain the garden and allow it to deliver many of the positive benefits social capital can offer individuals and communities.


The interactions observed at these Louisiana community gardens and our interviews with garden participants reveal the social benefits that urban community gardens have on local communities and their residents. By providing a space where participants can come together to share and exchange goods and services, urban community gardens like Oasis Garden create an opportunity for social capital to be developed among residents within the local community, to their benefit and to the benefit of the entire neighborhood. These projects facilitate the building of new relationships and create stronger bonds amongst individuals with existing relationships. Such outcomes help explain the reappearance of community gardens across urban landscapes. As Malcolm attested “I would like to see community gardens all over [this city] with more people participating. I think it is good for the community and will really help the people and the community be better.”


1. Social ties can also contribute to increased individual responsibility, strain, and/or community struggle (see Browning 2009; Lee and Blanchard 2012 for examples), but that is not the focus of this essay


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Castel Sweet is a doctoral sociology student at Louisiana State University. Sarah Becker is a sociologist at Louisiana State University. This article was first published in the 2015 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany.