Three questions with SSSA member, Kristen McIvor

Community gardens—spaces where friends, neighbors, or even complete strangers come together to grow food, flowers, and community—are a burgeoning trend in many urban areas, and for good reason. They can help cities combat food insecurity and improve nutrition, “green” blighted areas, and boost local economies, among other benefits.

Kristen McIvor posing in a garden

But it isn’t easy to grow community gardens, which makes the success of Tacoma, Washington’s program all the more remarkable. In just a few years, the city and surrounding Pierce County have more than doubled their number of shared gardening spaces, from 26 to more than 60.

Kristen McIvor, community garden coordinator for the Pierce Conservation District in Tacoma, recently shared her thoughts on these achievements, and what other cities can do to realize similar success.

SSSA: Why does the Tacoma area have so many community gardens today? How have you achieved this?

McIvor: There have been a number of factors that have aligned in Tacoma to create the increase in community gardens that we have seen over the past couple years.

The first was a facilitated process that brought a diverse group of interests to the table. Our local health department received a grant called ACHIEVE, intended to support communities to combat obesity. This provided the resources and the opportunity to bring more than 30 different stakeholders, including government agencies, citizens, and non-profit groups, to the table to develop a plan for building gardens. So when we started, we already had really broad support and a group of citizens and agencies already working together.

We have also benefitted from strong political support. The Mayor of Tacoma, Marilyn Strickland, was part of the early ACHIEVE leadership and decided that community gardens were an issue she was going to champion. This led to a lot of support, both from city government, and from citizens as people rallied to support the idea.

Our program has also developed in a way that has allowed a great diversity of gardens to flourish. When we are contacted by citizen groups who want to establish a garden, we come to support them in figuring out what their vision is, and what is the best way to achieve that. There isn’t a “one size fits all” template that we use: Each garden is designed and managed by the neighborhood that builds it. This has allows for some gardens to develop that are truly about food security—people growing food who wouldn’t access it otherwise. Some gardens are about beautifying vacant lots, others are about learning to garden, and so on. It just depends on the motivations of those interested and all ideas are welcome.

People standing in a community garden

In addition, we have the benefit of some incredible physical resources that make it a lot easier to actually build a garden in the city—especially one with a history of soil contamination. The City of Tacoma produces a Class A biosolids product called Tagro, which is made available to all the gardens for free. One of the versions of this product can be used to fill raised beds, which is a really simple way of taking a vacant lot that has been neglected (and no doubt has poor soil quality) and transforming it into a productive space with very little time. This allows the community group to see the results of their work quickly, rather than waiting years for the soil to improve. We also have access to the local county’s compost product, which is also great for improving soils.

Lastly, Tacoma and the surrounding county are full of citizens who really want to get their hands dirty and make their community a better place. There isn’t anything our program can do to make a garden if the community members aren’t willing to come out and do a tremendous amount of work.

So the real answer to why there are a lot of gardens now in Tacoma/Pierce County is because the people who live there want to see it happen and are willing to put in the time.

SSSA: Why has Tacoma made community gardening such as priority?

McIvor: I think it depends on who you talk to—and that’s part of the strength of the program because it meets different needs for different community members. The city supports it primarily because gardens help neighbors get to know each other and care for their neighborhood and those who live there. It is also a way to get the word out about the city’s biosolids product, and educate people about the ecology of a city and what the city is doing to promote recycling of this important resource.

Our parks district supports it because it’s a way for people to recreate and enjoy parks. The public health department supports it because it helps increase fruit and vegetable consumption and promotes exercise. The solid waste division supports it as a way to educate people about compost and organic waste in a city.

Citizens also support it for the same diversity of reasons. Some want to learn how to grow vegetables and it seems easier to do this with a group than alone in the backyard. Some just want to get to know their neighbors. Some want to clean up the neighborhood by turning vacant lot into something beautiful. And a growing number are motivated by what are continuing hard times for many. Our local food banks have seen record increases, so a large number of gardens are organized around the goal of growing fresh fruits and vegetable for those in need.

SSSA: If you could give the would-be organizer of a new community garden just one piece of advice, what would it be?

McIvor: Gardening and even building a garden are really simple tasks compared with the challenge of building relationships among a group of strangers, and helping them as a group make decisions and work together to steward a piece of property long-term. Due to resources constraints, our program looks to the garden’s leadership to do much of the work in managing a garden.

So, I spend the bulk of my time on the community organizing that’s necessary to encourage a group of people to take ownership of a public place, while keeping it public and inclusive and welcoming to all. I also encourage others not to neglect this in the excitement of building fences and raised beds and compost bins.

In other words, the community part of community gardening is where most of the important and challenging work is, because a community garden without the people is just a vacant lot.

To learn more about fostering community gardens, visit:

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