How a Local Data Collaborative Increases Value of Community Gardens
Despite a long history of community gardens in Philadelphia, the city has not had a consistent abundance of greenery.
Many Philadelphia community gardens (some which have been running for 70 to 80 years) had to close in the early 2000s due to lack of funding. However, around 2007 the economic recession began and sparked a renewed interest in community gardens in Philadelphia.
It appears that we are in the midst of another surge in urban gardening. One study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Planning and Urban Studies program reported that Philadelphia gardens produce more than two million pounds of produce each year, coming in at an economic value of $4.9 million. Not only are community gardens active in Philadelphia, but they are also growing.
From historical records, researchers like Dr. Laura Lawson of Rutgers University have shown that support for community gardens tends to follow economic boom and bust cycles. During recession or war, city gardens flourish as a way to employ people and produce food. However, during economic upturns gardens are often sold or developed.
To ensure that gardens in the city thrive over the long term, we have to monitor the economic and policy trends. But how?
Data to the rescue!
Data on the locations, historical and current influences, and value of these spaces will be a critical tool for the community gardens preservation. Luckily the Philadelphia Garden Data Collaborative comes to the rescue.
The Philadelphia Garden Data Collaborative database will be used long-term for analysis and to support the preservation of public green spaces. First, researchers set about gathering data on garden locations by using a combination of virtual and field visits to historical listings of garden addresses. Equipped with GPS units and criteria for determining if a garden is active, volunteers and collaborators verified about 470 active community gardens in Philadelphia.
The Collaborative consists of partners including the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia’s Garden Legal Initiative, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and the Neighborhood Gardens Trust; local academics such as Dr. Craig Borowiak of Haverford College, and other experts like Dr. Peleg Kremer, a faculty member of Villanova’s Department of Geography& the Environment.
Dr. Kremer explained, “I look at spatial patterns in the interactions between different types of social, environmental, and ecological phenomenon.” We sat down with her to find out more about her research and work with the Philadelphia Garden Data Collaborative.
Quantifying Ecosystem Services
In researching urban green spaces, Dr. Kremer is particularly interested in the benefits and preservation of these natural areas provide to urban communities. Community gardens are important green spaces that produce many social-ecological benefits for communities.
Ecosystem benefits include as carbon sequestration, water runoff mitigation, and filtration of pollutants from air and water. Dr. Kremer gives the example of storm water absorption, which can be relatively easily estimated for a plot of land and translated into economic value.
Along with these ecosystem services green spaces also provide cultural ecosystem services, which are focused on people and social benefits. Consuming local food is better for the environment, health and budgets, but there are many surprising benefits as well. For example, a study of one precinct in Philadelphia revealed a 90% drop in incidents of theft and burglaries after police helped residents convert neighborhood vacant lots into gardens.
Many benefits of community gardens that are less tangible but just as important, like how exposure to green space affects how people feel, how they relate to other people, build community, and use shared space for recreation
Historically, cities tend to think of land value regarding income, lot taxes, or potential for development but many of the benefits of green spaces are not easily translated into economic measurements. “We live in the data era,” Kremer explains. But data can be a useful tool for the preservation of green spaces with “the idea is that there is value in community spaces that serve purposes that live outside of the market sphere.”
The challenge to show the value of community gardens
An important goal for the collaborative’s work will be to quantify the value of these outside-the-box benefits and how these spaces contribute to the city in ways more than monetarily.
Researchers can use social science methods like interviewing people in neighborhoods to gain insights into social benefits. One example is how shared green spaces foster strong relationships within an area and contribute to community resilience.
Dr. Kremer explains that this is important because having strong relationships within communities make them deal with adversity. “If we provide spaces for creating a stronger network in the community, then we’re doing something that is beneficial, though not as easily quantifiable.”
Bringing it all together
It can be difficult to understand how all these factors fit together to understand the big picture. One solution is using spatial (or geographic) data to understand the distribution of ecosystem services within cities.
Spatial data can be combined with other data on land cover in Philadelphia, socioeconomic parameters, soils, and many other factors. Once researchers recognize patterns, they can determine what helps community gardens succeed and which neighborhoods need the most attention. The more data we can gather about urban agriculture and green spaces, the better equipped we are to support and preserve them.
As urban gardens benefits are increasingly discussed, many cities like Philly have begun working to help them. Our city’s sustainability plan, Greenworks, lists increasing urban food production as one of its actionable goals.
As Dr. Kremer points out, “all the research we have indicates that as we become more and more urbanized and dense, the roles these (gardens and farms) spaces play are only going to become more important. It already has an incredible role in providing personal and community benefits.”
hot to Get involved in your local garden
Want to get involved in the cause for local community gardens?
- Help on the ground by reaching out to your local neighborhood organization.
- Learn how to convert vacant lots to green spaces by using Public Interest Law Center’s Vacant Land Toolkit.
- Visit Grounded in Philly, a project by the Garden Legal Initiative,
- Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has resources and more information on getting involved with community gardens near you.