Jeffrey Hou, chair of the Landscape Architecture Department at the University of Washington-Seattle, was on campus on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010 to present a public lecture on his work on Seattle’s community gardens. His presentation expanded upon his 2009 co-authored study, Greening Cities, Growing Communities: Learning from Seattle’s Community Gardens. Dr. Hou began by noting the rapid development of community gardens, nationally and internationally, in the last decade. He began to pointing to Vancouver, BC as one of the leaders in this trend, then focused on Seattle, where the formal community garden program, called the P-Patch Program, was instituted in 1974 and has grown today to 73 garden sites. He related the expansion of community gardens as a public project to the growth in farmers markets, community-supported agriculture, and urban agriculture, and argued that these developments are embedded in larger social movements around food systems, food security, food justice, food sovereignty, food democracy, healthy eating, local food, and urban sustainability.
Jeffrey Hou’s research on community gardens in Seattle focused on six case studies of specific community gardens in Seattle, cases chosen to represent various socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of community gardeners, their land-use patterns, as well as the appearance and functions of the gardens, and particular themes. Among the more significant lessons he and his co-authors–Julie M. Johnson and Laura J. Lawson–learned about the relationship between community gardens and urban sustainability were that community gardens breed activism and grow community. In short, community gardens are more than just gardens. They are also cultural locations, educational sites, gathering places, and public art settings; they reflect the differences among community gardeners. Dr. Hou highlighted their central finding that design matters to all the diverse patterns and functions of community gardens. Community gardens are what he calls “hybrid public space.” That is, they are individual, collective, private, and public. They have multiple uses. They draw on and express multiple cultural and generational practices. They create opportunities for learning. They have multiple stakeholders.
Dr. Hou concluded by explaining that scaling up community gardens will require more institutional and social support-–more staff and resources, not just sites. It will also require the integration with local food systems and urban green infrastructure and the engagement with community and urban planning. A crucial question in the process of scaling up urban agriculture is whether such development can retain the idea of community open space. If so, then we must incentivize community-driven processes, volunteerism, and collective actions. We must recognize the diverse values, practices, and benefits of gardening/farming and insure that community gardens/farms retain their character as “hybrid public space.”