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Cultivating better health, wellbeing and societal outcomes through community gardening

Community gardens are a form of urban agriculture that bring wide-ranging health and social benefits, according to a new study titled, “You feel like you’re part of something bigger”: exploring motivations for community garden participation in Melbourne, Australia.

One of the study’s authors, Dr Jonathan Kingsley, a lecturer in health promotion at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, has called for a national plan to incorporate urban agricultural activities into public health initiatives.


Jonathan Kingsley writes:

I just sat there dumbfounded, not entirely sure what to say whilst participating in a local council committee meeting late last year.

One of my colleagues, a senior manager in a community health service, claimed there were no health and wellbeing benefits to community gardening and therefore such an activity should not be considered in council planning matters.

He based this on his observation that his health service’s community garden only had 20 gardening participants (he later spoke about shutting down this project to save money).

I found myself nodding, not because he was right but because both the academic evidence and the experiences of gardeners evidently are not filtering through to decision makers (at a policy and programmatic level).

Our latest article in BMC Public Health tries to substantiate evidence that highlights the potential of community gardening and the drivers to participation in Melbourne.

Extensive evidence

In the article, my colleagues Emily Foenander and Dr Aisling Bailey and I highlight the extensive evidence indicating the health, wellbeing, social, economic, environmental and societal benefits associated with community gardens and what leads individuals and groups to participate.

Some of this literature goes to great lengths to explain how this form of urban agriculture can, for example, reduce heath inequalities, increase urban collective action and leadership, mobilise community, reclaim food systems and address public health concerns.

These positives are reflected in the surge of community gardens across Melbourne, which have increased in number from 46 in 2009 to 317 in the space of a decade.

Knox Community Garden (Boronia). Photo by Jonathan Kingsley

Important questions

This staggering increase in participation has prompted me to ask the following questions:

  • What type of community garden promotes good health, environmental, societal and wellbeing outcomes?
  • Why isn’t the indisputable public health potential of this setting translating into government, health services and non-government support?
  • What are the steps to take in order to ensure this translates across communities and different cultural settings effectively?

Our study contributed to answering these questions by reviewing what motivates people to be involved in gardening across Melbourne in the first place and what makes them keep on coming back.

This is an important question to ask in the Australian urban context because a majority of the research in this space comes from North America and West Europe.

We engaged with 3000Acres (whose mission is to enable, empower and influence more people to grow food through activities like urban agriculture in Melbourne) to ensure we approached this research appropriately from the start.

Our research found people join community gardens for a complex array of reasons but there were distinct drivers for initial participation (such as a love for gardening), and maintaining participation (which seemed to come from gaining a sense of community connectedness).

A driver for initial participation as well as maintaining participation appeared to be the need to connect with nature.

Call for collaborators

Through undertaking this study we recognised that due to the complexity of needs and diversity of cultures, geographies and social-economic populations across Australia, a better platform is required to compare and contrast these elements in an attempt to engage more people (who would stand to gain the most benefits) in community gardening.

I urge Croakey readers to join with our research team in a collaborative manner through our proposed three-staged research project (as outlined in the BMC Public Health article) involving the development of a typology of community gardens across Australia, co-designing a measure to explore the health, wellbeing, environmental, social, cultural and economic outcomes of this setting, and advocating for a national plan to incorporate urban agricultural activities (like community gardening) into public health initiatives.

Let’s create a network of practitioners and academics attempting to push for more effective practice and narratives of community gardening across Melbourne, Australia as well as the globe.

Acknowledgment: I thank Morgan Koegel, Dr Aisling Bailey and Emily Foenander for their support with this research.

Fareshare Garden (Abbotsford). Photo by Jonathan Kingsley

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