Neighborhood gardens boost urban economies

A Growing Home trainee tends to tomatoes in one of the project's greenhouses. (Courtesy of Growing Home)

Blighted neighborhood lots are blooming into fertile beds of food — and hope — in cities across America.

In places like Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit, residents are reclaiming public tracts that had been littered with abandoned buildings and weeds and planting them with trees, vegetables and flowers. With permission of city governments, they are erecting fences around the gardens that indicate that the land now belongs to a group of people who care.

It’s economically sound. Urban food production helps low-income residents save money on food bills, giving them income to spend on other necessities. Many city dwellers grow some of their own fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers because they prefer the flavor and wholesomeness of home-grown produce to what they might purchase.

Nearly two out of three Americans live in a city, according to the Census Bureau. American Consumers Newsletter reports that, between 2010 and 2013, the population of the nation’s cities grew 3.1 percent, greater than the 2.4 percent growth rate for the nation as a whole.

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities, according to the World Bank. Urban agriculture is practiced by 800 million people around the world, according to U.N. reports. The U.S. Department of Agriculture publishes urban-gardening guides to encourage the best techniques.


In addition to their economic and health benefits, urban gardens reduce crime. After the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society reclaimed and planted thousands of Philadelphia’s vacant lots, vandalism and violent crime in surrounding areas went down.

Neighborhood residents began to feel more comfortable in their homes and “more in touch with their neighbors,” said Charles Branas, a researcher with the University of Pennsylvania who studied the effects urban gardens were having on host communities.


In Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, where healthy food choices had been limited, urban gardens are offering chances to people who thought they had few.

A large urban agriculture project, Growing Home, produced 16,330 kilograms of produce in 2014. Executive Director Harry Rhodes says Growing Home “changes people.” Its job training program reaches people who are unemployed and teaches life skills, from how to take initiative to cultivating a respectful work environment for colleagues.

The training opens doors to career opportunities in food service, warehousing, landscaping and other industries. As graduates get jobs, the local economy improves.

“Wherever I go in the next five, 10, 20 years, [I’ll] come back to this — to Growing Home, because there’s something that you all saw in me, and your hearts went out to me. People like me deserve a second chance, and Growing Home gave me that,” said an appreciative participant.