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Gardening is good for our health. How can we make it more accessible?

Introduction by Croakey: The health benefits of gardening are numerous, durable, and proven, but many Australians don’t have access to gardens or gardening for a wide range of personal and structural reasons.

In the article below, a group of researchers and practitioners who have come together as an alliance on gardening, health, housing, and social justice explore many of those barriers and showcase groups and initiatives that provide important access to gardens and fresh produce.

They contend that all Australians should have a right to garden and propose a number of ways forward to achieve that.

See the full list of authors at the bottom of the post.


Zoë Goodall, Jonathan Kingsley and colleagues write:

Existing research evidence has shown that gardening can improve mental health, reduce social isolation, and help address food insecurity. For example, 150 minutes of gardening per week has been shown to increase life satisfaction and mental wellbeing and to improve cardiometabolic risk markers, especially among older adults.

These benefits become more pronounced during times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, during which gardening became a lifeline for escaping everyday stressors, increasing physical activity, and encouraging social connections for many.

Furthermore, there are clear health and cost-saving benefits of being able to grow your own fresh produce.

The benefits of gardening make it a practical public health intervention and nature-based solution that ought to be accessible in all Australian capital cities and beyond.

Unfortunately, gardening is not accessible to all Australians. There are housing and economic inequalities that make it difficult for many people to garden.

For example, research suggests that homeowners may garden more than renters. This could be due to differences in access to private green space, storage space for gardening supplies, and likelihood of planting metaphorical roots by living in one dwelling long-term.

In privately rented dwellings, tenants may not be allowed to make changes to areas that would be ideal for gardening. Similarly, people living in semi-detached or free-standing homes tend to have more gardening opportunities than residents of apartments. And, in some instances, strata titles that govern apartment living can restrict gardening options in public-facing areas.

Factors additional to physical aspects of housing and associated property rights also impact the ability to garden. For instance, employment status and income influence access to gardening, as it requires time and money, as well as space.

Household finances interact with the types of housing people live in over the life course. Younger adults are more likely to live in private rentals and/or high-density apartments where access to gardening is more restricted than it may be for the type of housing occupied by older and/or wealthier populations.

Having a backyard may not matter though if you can’t afford plants and tools, or have no spare time to garden, or are not allowed to tinker in your garden even if you want to. That doesn’t even take into account the constraints faced by people with caring responsibilities for children and family.

These challenges underscore that access to gardening, like so many life- and health-enriching activities, may seem out of reach for individuals who are struggling in the current economic climate.

Many Australians are currently feeling the crunch of escalating costs of living, housing instability, and associated health impacts.

But it’s not that simple.

Addressing gardening myths and common misconceptions could also improve accessibility. For instance, gardening can occur in modest spaces such as windowsills and balconies. Seeds often cost less than seedlings, and saving and sharing seeds from our own produce just takes a bit of time and know-how.

While environmental factors, such as drought or polluted soil, may restrict gardening access, this doesn’t have to be the case: reclaiming water rights for gardening has occurred in Colorado in the United States, for example.

Proactive neighbourhood communities that have high rates of homeownership and long-term living can support these practices. However, such activities can also be encouraged in housing settings where residents’ tenure tends to be briefer.

Coffs Harbour: Prince street residents and volunteers co-build the raised garden beds for their community garden with Community Greening and Mission Australia staff. Photo by Brenden Moore, First Nations Community Greening Officer, Botanic Gardens of Sydney

A matter of health equity

How do we enable more people to reap the benefits of gardening when we are confronted by socioeconomic and time pressures in our day-to-day lives and increasing society-wide inequalities related to housing?

We argue that access to gardening is a matter of health equity – everyone should have the opportunity to access garden spaces.

More Australian policies and programs need to address how people in all housing situations and income brackets can be supported to garden if they are interested. This will require structural changes that offer all Australians the opportunities and resources to develop skills in gardening, no matter their current life circumstances or background.

Promisingly, there are already some initiatives underway throughout Australia.

The Community Greening Program run across New South Wales by the Botanic Gardens of Sydney brings gardening opportunities to people in social housing, strengthening community connection and supporting people to grow their own food.

Notably, 14 percent of participants identify as Aboriginal, in projects located across the state, including Wilcannia, Bourke and the Cabbage Tree Island pod village near Wardell.

The organisation Cultivating Community also supports community gardens in public housing across Melbourne. However, these programs tend to be available in discrete pockets across Australia and are not available to most people nationally.

Increasing community gardens has also been recommended by the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) as a key for improving nutritional health. One example of this in practice is the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service community garden, which distributes produce to elderly and/or chronic disease-affected community members.

Funding for more initiatives like these would be greatly beneficial.

There is also an underutilisation of public and private spaces which could be repurposed as gardens to offer community health benefits. For instance, more unused ground space could be enlivened with community and allotment gardens, and underutilised structures such as carparks could be revitalised, as has been done at the Skyfarm in Melbourne.

Capitalising in creative ways on these unused or under-used spaces may make the benefits of gardening more accessible to people across Australia.

Planting the seeds

Immediately, as an alliance of researchers and practitioners interested in gardening, health, housing, and social justice, we urge that:

  1. More research is needed to understand the barriers and enablers to gardening that will make gardening accessible to all people, no matter their housing and socioeconomic situation.
  2. A coordinated coalition comprising government, research, private industry, and community sector representatives should be established to advocate ways to promote gardening access and engagement that cuts across the Australian population.

Through research, program development, and cross-sector collaboration, we advocate for the right to garden, whether on public or private land, to ensure that the evidence-based physical, mental, and social health benefits of gardening can be enjoyed by all.

This will take bold and creative actions like converting carparks into gardens spaces and mandating more garden spaces in new building developments, whether private or public.

In areas in which access to private gardens might be restricted, like high-density neighbourhoods, promoting communal gardening opportunities such as gardening on verges and community gardens should also be considered.

At the same time, we can all advocate for the importance of gardening at a local level in our neighbourhood and community. This can be done through joining community gardens or environmental friends groups, or by inviting people who don’t have a garden into your garden, if you have one.

It’s time to dig deep, for the sake of our health and wellbeing.

Authors: Zoë Goodall (Swinburne University of Technology [SUT]), Jonathan Kingsley (SUT), Wendy Stone (SUT), Jessica L. Mackelprang (SUT), Phil Pettitt (Botanic Gardens of Sydney), Tonia Gray (Western Sydney University), Thomas Astell-Burt (Sydney University), Monika Egerer (Technical University of Munich), Brenda B. Lin (CSIRO), Jill Litt (University of Colorado Boulder & Barcelona Institute for Global Health), Xiaoqi Feng (University of New South Wales) and Nyssa Hadgraft (SUT).


See Croakey’s archive of articles on the social determinants of health

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