Community gardens have a varied history around the world. They are defined by the Marin Master Gardeners as "any piece of land gardened by a group of people, utilizing either individual or shared plots on private or public land." In addition, "the land may produce fruit, vegetables, and/or ornamentals. Community gardens may be found in neighborhoods, schools, connected to institutions such as hospitals, and on residential housing grounds."
Known as "allotments" in the United Kingdom, these community gardens were formed in the 19th century as a way to aid poor laborers who could not sustain themselves on meager wages alone. They were eventually made available to all citizens, specifically at a time when servicemen were returning from the first world war.
In the United States, community gardens formed out of necessity and in response to the economic recession of the 1900s, when both jobs and food were scarce. Detroit was the first U.S. city to initiate such a program. The concept then spread to cities such as Boston, San Francisco and Philadelphia. The popularity of community gardens has wavered over the years, with peak interest forming during World War II. During this time, community gardens earned the names "liberty gardens," "war gardens" and "victory gardens." They were touted as patriotic opportunities to aid with the war effort back at home. Such campaigns by the U.S. government were highly successful in achieving big results by citizens. In fact, according to the Smithsonian Institution, by 1944, between 18 million and 20 million "families with victory gardens were providing 40 percent of the vegetables in America."
After the war, the popularity of community gardens decreased. But then the rise of processed foods and a lack of fresh foods brought on a worldwide obesity epidemic, and many consider community gardens to be a necessity in fighting back against unhealthy eating habits. Gardeners and social activists are working tirelessly around the world to instill healthy eating habits through the creation of community gardens.
Ron Finley of Los Angeles is a major proponent of urban gardening. His involvement in the community garden scene stemmed from the rise of "food deserts" in urban cities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as "parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas." They are largely caused by a lack of food stores and farmers markets. In many communities, the only access to fresh produce may be nothing more than a sad collection of overpriced bruised apples and bananas at the corner liquor store. Finley became aware of the need for access to fresh produce in impoverished communities. He proposed the growing of plants anywhere and everywhere, a process he referred to as "guerrilla gardening." Guerrilla gardening entails planting even in places where it may not be legally permissible. In fact, Finley was fined for planting in the concrete parking median in his neighborhood, but he persisted anyway. Finley was determined to aid his community by providing a bounty of fresh produce where it was otherwise scarce.
There are other well-known names in the community garden scene, such as British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. Oliver has also expressed interest in reforming unhealthy diets through the use of community gardens. His focus has been on school meals and the detrimental impact that they have had on the health of children. Oliver won the 2010 TED Prize for his TED Talk on the subject of revolutionizing meals that children have access to while in school. He chose to combat this problem by becoming one of the pioneers of the community garden movement in schools. Schoolchildren are aided in the gardening and harvesting of the very fruits and vegetables that will be incorporated into their meals. Finley agreed in his own TED Talk about the potential success of having children grow their own food. He said, "If kids grow kale, kids eat kale; if they grow tomatoes, they eat tomatoes."
You don't need to be a celebrity chef or live in a large city to participate in community gardening. Many cities around the globe have recognized the need for a central location where neighbors can participate in creating a healthier and greener community.