Community Gardening: Reclaiming Public Spaces

Tamar Neugarten and Natalia Gutkowski
Translated by: Margalit Rodgers

Open urban public spaces (urban commons) are of paramount importance. They facilitate random contact between strangers, essential for building an urban society: they serve as arenas for social interaction, venues for the activities of marginalized groups, and places for direct, non-exclusionary encounters. These spaces facilitate encounters that do not involve a consumer experience or participation as passive ‘consumers’ and ‘observers’, and thus provide a platform for activities outside the city’s capitalistic consumer logic in which participants are active ‘citizens’ and ‘creators’.

In recent decades, urban public spaces have faced dangers of privatization, neglect, policing, and commercialization, and are at the center of social, cultural, and ideological struggles. The cost of adversely impacting public spaces – whether by selling them to private bodies, imposing restrictions on modes of behavior in such spaces, or due to their neglect – is both environmental and social.

Changes in the economic and social worldview that guides the urban establishment and shapes urban priorities have greatly influenced the way public space is managed. Studies show that under neoliberal government, public spaces that are available for civic activities – as arenas for realizing the right to the city and urban citizenship – are increasingly shrinking, and becoming a resource in short supply in the modern city.[1]

In light of these developments, it is particularly interesting to examine the spread of the community gardening phenomenon as an example of a different attitude towards public spaces. Community gardening is a social practice with clear spatial expression and environmental implications. Community gardens are civic spaces – gardens established in public spaces at the initiative of the city’s residents. Community gardens are communally and voluntarily planned and cultivated by groups of residents who generally assemble for weekly work meetings. This is in contrast with public city gardens, which are designed by planning institutions and cultivated by municipal workers or subcontractors. Like public gardens, community gardens facilitate interaction between residents, but unlike them, community gardens facilitate an ongoing encounter entailing joint endeavor, cultivating and operating the garden, and designing and adaptating it to local needs. Work in the gardens is subject to a system of authority and regulations jointly formulated and shaped by the members of each community garden.

The proprietary status of community gardens is unique: they express an intermediate situation – a public area that is jointly and communally managed as a Common by city residents. For local government institutions, which are only equipped both perceptually and legally, to handle and process conventional title deeds – private property and public property – this is a new and challenging situation.[2]

This brief article presents the community gardening phenomenon, its historical origins, and its manifestation in Israel, and attempts to position community gardening in the urban space as a form of reclaiming the urban commons.[3]


Although community gardening is a relatively new phenomenon inIsrael’s urban space, it has been prevalent in the Western world since the 1970s. In fact, the roots of community gardening were laid down as far back as the nineteenth century.

The origins of present-day community gardening can be traced back to the civic gardening projects that operated in the USand Europein the late nineteenth century. Practices of cultivating public space in general, and gardening in particular, became popular and widespread in times of social crisis and in the face of social problems that necessitated resolution,[4] from an environmental determinism approach – belief in the power of nature to influence man, and belief that making changes in the external environment would also promote internal changes within individuals and communities. By cultivating and tending the land, social reformers sought to instill values of labor, modesty, efficiency, good citizenship, and productivity in the poor, in immigrants, the unemployed, and in children and youth.[5]

Civic gardening projects, especially those that operated during the two world wars and in schools, were typified by ‘top-down’ organization. In general, they were hierarchical organizations with a philanthropic, educational, and temporary character. The land leased for these projects in times of economic crisis, was put back on the market and sold for construction when the crises were over. The leadership of the projects was external and consisted mainly of upper-middle class volunteers who wanted to help the needy during the crisis. Most of the gardening knowledge was in the hands of external experts, and no training was provided to project participants for the purpose of transferring the knowledge and skills they needed in order to continue growing food independently. Because the projects were viewed as a specific response to a passing crisis, there was no empowerment of activists, nor was a local leadership fostered. No social, planning, or legal mechanisms were created in the gardens to preserve them.

After World War Two, the immediate need for gardening and its produce subsided. Gardening was no longer considered necessary in an era of abundance and consumerism. Government support for community gardening ceased, and civic gardening projects vanished from the landscape. Many residents continued engaging in gardening as a hobby, but did so in their private gardens rather than in urban spaces. Cultivating private gardens became a status symbol, and the gardens were meticulously designed, in contrast with the esthetic of civic gardening in public spaces.

The Party - Florentine. Photo by: Florntine community garden activists

The gardens only reappeared in the urban landscape in the early 1970s, this time too in the wake of a social and economic crisis. However, this time the gardens – and parks – took on a completely different form.

In the early 1970s, manyUScities faced economic crisis. Thousands of urban lots were abandoned and became areas of neglect, crime, and pollution. InNew Yorkalone there were nearly 25,000 abandoned lots at the end of the 1970s. The economic crisis and neglect served as catalysts for spontaneous civic organization to reclaim urban spaces, and the neglected lots constituted spaces for action. This time, however, the gardens were not ‘top-down’ projects, but local ‘grassroots’ solutions for social and economic hardship. In the face of institutional neglect of urban public spaces, residents sought to offer alternative spaces that were safer and well cared for.

Groups of residents sought to save abandoned lots from the ‘tragedy of the commons’[6], and cultivate them communally as arenas of proactive community endeavor in their neighborhoods. Thus, the community gardens that began appearing in the US in the early 1970s were a local solution to social hardship. Rising interest in social and environmental issues in the late 1960s and early 1970s also contributed to renewed interest in community gardening. The growing discourse on racial and gender rights, heightened awareness of environmental crises, the strengthening of neoliberal capitalism that sanctifies market forces, the energy crisis, rising food prices and criticism leveled against agricultural industrialization, alongside growing recognition of the need for public spaces and of their importance as arenas for developing civic consciousness – all contributed to bringing urban gardening back into public consciousness, with new emphases: empowering community work, growing fresh produce close to home, actively addressing the global environmental crisis, and contending with local social challenges. According to a Gallup survey, in 1982 there were more than 10,000 community gardens in the US in which more than three million residents were active.[7]

In the 1970s, community gardens, whose roots originated in civic gardens grounded in philanthropic and institutional activity that influenced society from the top down and sought to advance social and national objectives, took on a new form as a ‘grassroots’ civic activity that seeks to leverage civic forces in the neighborhoods with the aim of promoting change and expressing protests as part of a broader ‘do it yourself’ subculture.

Unlike the civic logic of the early twentieth century, present-day community gardens no longer provide short-term solutions for specific crises, but endeavor to provide an ongoing alternative for the prevalent urban way of life, either explicitly or by the very fact of working communally in urban spaces. Due to its immediate and tangible products, even now community gardening is proposed by residents, and especially by third-sector organizations and institutional bodies, as an ‘almost instinctive’ solution for a variety of social and environmental problems. At the same time, we are also witnessing the utilization of community gardening and its attendant rhetoric in ‘top down’, ‘organized garden projects’[8] that emphasize personal empowerment and personal benefit from gardening for every participant, and place less emphasis on the community aspects of gardening, and especially on their importance as working communally in the urban commons. Although these projects, which operate in schools, prisons, and in work with immigrants and youth at risk, are called ‘community gardening’, they provide a social solution for individuals, corroding the community approach, and act within the boundaries of the neoliberal discourse as a kind of co-option of an activist practice.


In contrast with the thousands of gardens operating in North America (and thousands more in Europe), the scale inIsraelis much smaller. It is difficult to estimate how many community gardens operate in Israel today: the accepted estimate is that there are approximately 200 active community gardens in Israel, but since most are ‘grassroots’ projects, and in the absence of clear institutional or organizational responsibility on the national level that collects information about them or is involved in their activities, there is no official documentation concerning all the community gardens in Israel. Nor is there any information about the number of people active in these community gardens nor the total area over which they operate.

The first community gardens in Israelwere established in Jerusalem, most without municipal approval. They were initially established by residents, mostly Anglo-Saxons, who were familiar with community gardening in their countries of origin. The establishment of these gardens gave expression to the residents’ desire to respond to the neglect of the urban commons and to try and prevent development and construction plans in particular areas. Social and environmental organizations identified the advantages – tactical and strategic alike – inherent in community gardening, and gave their support to the community gardens in Jerusalemat an early stage. A document jointly published by the Jerusalem Urban Branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and the Department of Society and Youth at the Municipality of Jerusalem, which was the first municipal department to provide support for community gardens, emphasized their motivation for establishing and supporting the community gardens in the city – to preserve green open spaces, and find a quick solution for environmental neglect with limited resources.[9]

Early in the twenty-first century, the SPNI began regular activities in the area of community gardening. Entering this arena, initially by means of its Jerusalem Urban Branch, and then as part of its nationwide activity, helped heighten awareness and raise funds for community gardens, and strengthen ties with the municipal establishment.

Another municipal organization that initiated and promoted community gardens was Jerusalem’s network of community councils. These bodies were established to liaise between the municipality and residents, promote community democracy, the inclusion of residents in decision-making processes, and improve services at neighborhood level by identifying needs in the neighborhood and initiating action to improve its appearance. The councils were established as Non-Profit Organizations, but are budgeted by the Jerusalemmunicipality. Several community workers in the councils actively helped locate land for the gardens, enlist the community and donors, establish connections with the municipality, and provide instruction and help. It is worthy of note that promoting community gardening was not a function defined in their job description, but a task that each community worker chose to undertake. In fact, some community workers in the community councils worked counter to the municipality’s declared objectives – they played an active role in establishing facts on the ground and in protecting land against development and construction, which ran counter to plans that were already in place.[10]

community gardening activists meeting. Photo by: Tamar Neugarten

In the first decade of the twenty-first century dozens of community gardens were established inJerusalemand received budgetary support from the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the community councils. The first community garden in Tel Aviv-Yafo was established in2005 inthe Florentin neighborhood, and the second in the Maoz Aviv neighborhood shortly afterwards. Close to twenty gardens are currently operating around Tel Aviv and are supported by the municipality. Over the past few years numerous community gardens have been established all over the country.

In recent years, the process of establishing community gardens has progressed in two parallel directions: gardens established at the residents’ initiative, and gardens established at the initiative of the authorities. In the former case, residents initiated the establishment of community gardens inspired by community gardening in other countries, or by the community gardens inJerusalem, and contacted their local authorities to receive the necessary permits and support. In the latter case, the initiative for establishing the gardens came from local or state authorities. Local authorities, NPOs and other organizations, or other establishment bodies, established community gardens for different motivations: to provide a solution for the needs of the population, a social solution for disadvantaged populations or neglected areas, a desire to propose an innovative approach, or because of the thinking, led initially by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, that transferring such areas to the community and encouraging their cultivation by the residents would contribute to savings in municipality funds.

A central component of encouraging the establishment of community gardens by the authorities was the commencement of Ministry of Environmental Protection activities in this sphere. The Ministry’s Urban Environment Unit recognized that the gardens constituted a tool for achieving several of its core objectives: promoting and cultivating open spaces close to home, preventing neglect, promoting environmental awareness in disadvantaged populations through gardening, making environmental content accessible to the public, providing tools for communities to influence their surroundings, and placing emphasis on the local authority’s role in creating accessibility to the environment and environmental quality in cities.[11]


Despite the ideal of creating public spaces that are cultivated by neighbors and residents living close by, managing community gardens is in practice complex and at times raises dilemmas regarding their communal management and the desired form of management. Establishing community gardens in urban public spaces and the need for resources like water and an irrigation infrastructure, poses a challenge for the local authority on the issue of providing assistance to garden members, willingness to relinquish management of the space, and dilemmas between customary gardening practices in cities, and garden members’ aesthetic perception of the garden.

Despite the growing popularity of community gardening in Israel, and the support provided by government ministries, municipalities, and organizations, community gardening is still not perceived as ‘mainstream’ in the urban space. Analysis of activities in the community gardens shows that they offer a different spatial practice to that which typifies hegemonic urban spaces. The gardens are heterotopic spaces: ‘counter spaces’[12] where human activity and interaction run counter to that which is prevalent in the surrounding urban environment. The gardens are the ‘other space’[13] in the city – commons in an environment where private property is central; well-tended environments where neglect prevailed; arenas for working communally in an environment typified by alienation; natural and somewhat wild plots of land in tended, cultivated surroundings; and sites for non-consumer, non-judgmental encounters in an environment governed by market forces.

The gardens meet the social, cultural, and environmental needs of the people who are active in them. Activities and interactions in the gardens create new communal resources, such as social capital, support networks, a sense of community and belonging resulting from working communally in the garden, developing participatory democracy, preserving cultural heritage, intercultural contact, knowledge generated and disseminated from one person to another in the garden, a sense of security in the public space, environmental justice, and local sustainability.

Experience in Israel and around the world shows that when citizens claim ownership of public spaces, plan them in accordance with their needs, and use them for their own benefit, this can contribute both to the city and neighborhood where neighbors seek to break down the barriers of alienation and fencing, to get to know one another and work together in a communal space. Community gardens enable city dwellers to create spaces for themselves communally and as individuals, and thus establish themselves as urban citizens and communities in the city, and realize their right to the city.

Natalia Gutkowski is a lecturer at the Social EconomicAcademy’s fellows program, Seminar HakibutzimCollege, and Tel Aviv Univesity
Tamar Neugarten is the Professional Supervisor – the Environmental Policy Clinic  at Tel Aviv University



[1]   See for example: Low, Setha & Smith, Neil (Eds.), 2006. The Politics of Public Space. New York and London: Routledge; Mitchell, Don, 2003. The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York and London: Guilford Press; Sennett, Richard, 2005. “Capitalism and the City”, in Stephen Read, Jorgen Rosemann, and Job van Eldijk (Eds.), Future City, New York: Spon Press, pp. 114-124; Zukin, Sharon, 1995. The Cultures of Cities.Cambridge,MA: Blackwell.

[2]   Neugarten, Tamar, 2009. The Spatial, Social, and Perceptual Status of Community Gardens in Tel Aviv. MA thesis, Porter School of Environmental Studies,TelAvivUniversity.

[3]   Klein, Naomi, 2001. Reclaiming the Commons, New Left Review No. 9.

Rowe, Jonathan, 2002. Book Review – Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth by David Bollier. YES Magazine.

[4]   Studies clearly show an overlap between nationwide civic gardening projects in theUS and periods of social crisis and economic hardship between 1890 and 1945 (Bassett,1979, in Pudup, 2008 – see fn 8). Examples of this were the emergence of organizations that took care of neglected yards and abandoned lots in inner cities that had been abandoned in favor of the suburbs, promoting gardens in schoolyards in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and giving family plots to the poor and unemployed during the Great Depression in the late 1920s, and establishing ‘victory gardens’ during the two world wars in order to increase food production in the country and to enable food shipments to the front (Lawson, 2005 – see fn 5).

[5]   Lawson, Laura J., 2005. City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America.Berkeley:University ofCalifornia Press.

[6]   Hardin, Garrett, 1968. The Tragedy of the Commons, Science, Vol. 162, pp. 1243-1248.

[7]   Francis, Mark et al., 1984. Community Open Spaces: Greening Neighborhoods through Community Action and Land Conservation.WashingtonD.C.:Island Press.

[8]   Pudup, Mary Beth, 2008. “It Takes a Garden: Cultivating Citizen-Subjects in Organized Garden Projects”, Geoforum, Vol. 39, pp. 1228-1240.

[9]   Neugarten, Tamar, 2009. (See fn 2); Sharabi, B., Goldberg, L., & Maltinsky, D. 2005. Community Gardens: Community Activity in Urban Public Spaces.Jerusalem:Jerusalem Urban Branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature inIsrael and the Department of Society and Youth at theMunicipality ofJerusalem.

[10]  Neugarten, 2009.

[11]  Ibid.

[12]  Foucault, Michel, 2003.Of Other Spaces (Hebrew trans. Ariella Azoulay), Tel Aviv: Resling.

[13]  Lefebvre, Henri, 2003 [1970]. The Urban Revolution (trans. Robert Bononno).Minneapolis andLondon:University ofMinnesota Press