The aims of this thesis are twofold; firstly, it aims to increase the understanding of the extent to which community gardens enhance social cohesion for those involved; secondly, it aims to gain insight into the importance community gardeners attach to food growing per se, and the extent to which participants perceive community gardens as an alternative to the industrial food system.
I define community gardens as a plot of land in an urban area, cultivated either communally or individually by people from the direct neighbourhood or the wider city, or in which urbanites are involved in other ways than gardening, and to which there is a collective element. Over the last years, community gardens have sprung up in several Dutch cities. Although there are various reasons for an increasing interest in community gardens, there are two that I focus on in this thesis in particular. The first is the assumption made that community gardens stimulate social cohesion in inner-city neighbourhoods, to be seen in the light of the ‘participatory society’. The second is community gardens’ contribution to the availability of locally produced food, in the context of an increased interest in Alternative Food Networks (AFNs).
The Dutch government aims to transform the Dutch welfare state into a participatory society in which citizens take more responsibility for their social and physical environment. This way the government not only hopes to limit public spending, but also wishes to increase social bonding and the self-organisational capacity of society. Community gardens fit the rhetoric around the participatory society, as they are examples of organised residents taking responsibility for their living environment. Moreover, the literature suggests that gardens are physical interventions that may decrease isolation by acting as meeting places. However, both the extent to which community gardens enhance social cohesion and under what conditions they may do so are unclear, especially as gardens come in various designs, shapes and sizes.
The popularity of community gardens also seems to be related to an overall increasing societal interest in food, and can be discussed in relation to Alternative Food Networks. AFNs are food systems that are different in some way from the mainstream, and are seen as a reaction to consumer concerns about the conventional food system. They are often considered to be dictated by political motivations and injected with a ‘deeper morality’. The category ‘AFN’ is however a heterogeneous category, as is the conventional food system; neither can be easily defined. The degree to which community gardens can be seen as AFNs is therefore unclear. While they do improve the availability of local food and operate outside of the market economy, we do not know how much and how often people eat from their gardens, nor do we know to what extent they are involved in the gardens in order to provide an alternative to the industrial food system. Hence, there is a lack of knowledge about the sense in which community gardens are alternative alternatives.
The overall research question of this thesis is:
What is the significance of community gardening in terms of its intention to promote social cohesion as well as its representation as an alternative food system?
This broad question is instructed by the following sub-questions:
- Why do people get involved in community gardens? What are their motivations?
- How, to what extent, and under which conditions does community gardening promote the development of social relations between participants?
- How do participants value these social effects?
- To what extent do the diets of community garden participants originate from the gardens in which they are involved? What is the importance of food in community gardens?
- What is the importance of growing or getting access to alternative food for participants of community gardens?
An important theoretical lens in this research is the theory of practice. Practices are defined as concrete human activity and include things, bodily doings and sayings. By performing practices people not only draw upon but also feed into structure. Routinisation – of practices, but also of daily life – therefore plays a central role in practice theory. Practice theory allows for an emphasis on practical reality as well as a study of motivations. This focus on how people manage everyday life, and how gardening fits within that, makes it particularly useful for this thesis.
I define social cohesion as the way in which people in a society feel and are connected to each other (De Kam and Needham 2003) and operationalised it by focusing on ‘social contacts, social networks, and social capital’, one of the elements into which social cohesion is often broken up. This element was operationalised as 1) contacts (the width of social cohesion) and 2) mutual help (the depth of social cohesion).
This research has a case study design; I studied four Dutch community gardens over a two-year period of time, and later supplemented these with an additional three cases. As practices consist of both doings and sayings, analysis must be concerned with both practical activity and its representation. I used participant observations to study practical activities, and interviews, questionnaires and document study to examine the representation of these activities.
Chapters 3 to 7 form the main part of this thesis. They are papers/book chapters that have been submitted to or are published by scientific journals or books. All of them are based on the field work.
In chapter 3 we compare two of the case studies and determine to what extent they can be seen as ‘alternative’. We argue that although reflexive motivations are present, most participants are unwilling to frame their involvement as political, and mundane motivations play an important role in people’s involvement as well. By using the concept of ‘food provisioning practices’ we show that participants of community gardens are often required to be actively involved in the production of their food. This means that participants are both producers and consumers: the gardens show a ‘sliding scale of producership’. This chapter also shows that political statements are not a perfect predictor of actual involvement in community gardening. This finding was one of the main reasons for starting to use the theory of practice, which is the main topic of the next chapter.
In chapter 4 we compare one of my case studies with an urban food growing initiative in New York City. By comparing the internal dynamics of these two cases and their relations with other social practices, we investigate whether different urban food growing initiatives can be seen as variations of one single practice. We also study the question of whether the practice can be seen as emerging. In particular, we take the elements of meaning, competences and material (Shove et al. 2012) into account. We found both similarities and differences between the two cases, with the main difference relating to the meanings practitioners attach to the practice. We conclude, therefore, that it is not fully convincing to see these cases as examples of the same social practice. We also argue that urban food growing may be considered an emerging practice, because it combines various practices, both new and established, under one single heading.
In chapter 5 we use the theory of practice to explore how urban food growing is interwoven with everyday life. We compare four community gardens - two allotments and two cases which we define as AFNs. We found that participants of the allotments are involved in the practice of gardening, while members of the AFNs are involved in the practice of shopping. The gardening practice requires structural engagement, turning it into a routine. The produce is a result of that routine and is easily integrated into daily meals. As AFNs are associated with the practice of shopping, they remain in competition with more convenient food acquisition venues. Eating from these gardens is therefore less easily integrated in daily life; every visit to the garden requires a conscious decision. Hence, whether members are primarily involved in shopping or in growing has an impact on the degree to which they eat urban-grown food. This shows that motivations are embedded in the context and routine of everyday life, and ‘only go so far’.
Chapter 6 concerns the organisational differences between the seven case studies in this thesis and the extent to which these influence the enhancement of social cohesion. We study people’s motivations for being involved in the gardens and compare these with the three main organisational differences. This comparison reveals that the gardens can be divided into place-based and interest-based gardens. Place-based gardens are those in which people participate for social reasons – aiming to create social bonds in the neighbourhood. Interest-based gardens are those in which people participate because they enjoy growing vegetables. Nevertheless, all of these gardens contribute to the development of social cohesion. Moreover, while participants who are motivated by the social aspects of gardening show a higher level of appreciation for them, these social aspects also bring added value for those participants who are motivated primarily by growing vegetables.
In chapter 7 we present a garden that exemplifies that gardens may encompass not only one, but indeed several communities, and that rapprochement and separation take place simultaneously. While this garden is an important meeting place, thereby contributing to social cohesion, it harbours two distinct communities. These communities assign others to categories (‘us’ and ‘them’) on the basis of place of residence, thereby strengthening their own social identities. Ownership over the garden is both an outcome and a tool in that struggle. We define the relationship between these two communities as instrumental-rational – referring to roles rather than individuals - which explains why they do not form a larger unity. Nevertheless, the two communities show the potential to develop into a larger imagined garden-community.
This thesis shows that the different organisational set-ups of community gardens reflect gardeners’ different motivations for being involved in these gardens. The gardens studied in this thesis can be defined as either place-based or interest-based; gardens in the first category are focused on the social benefits of gardening, whereas gardens in the second category are focused on gardening and vegetables. Nevertheless, social effects occur in both types of gardens; in all of the gardens studied, participants meet and get to know others and value these contacts. Based on this finding, I conclude that community gardens do indeed enhance social cohesion.
Place-based community gardens specifically have the potential to become important meeting places; they offer the opportunity to work communally towards a common goal, and once established, can develop into neighbourhood spaces to be used for various other shared activities. Most interest-based gardens lack opportunities to develop the social contacts that originated at the garden beyond the borders of the garden. These gardens are often maintained by people who do not live close to the garden or to each other, and those who garden are generally less motivated by social motivations per se. Important to note is that community gardens do not necessarily foster a more inclusive society; they often attract people with relatively similar socio-economic backgrounds and may support not one, but several communities.
Most participants from place-based gardens eat from their gardens only occasionally; others never do so. This type of community garden can therefore hardly be seen as a reaction to the industrialised food system, let alone an attempt to create an alternative food system. Nevertheless, certain aspects of these gardens are in line with the alternative rhetoric. By contrast, most gardeners at interest-based gardens eat a substantial amount of food from their gardens, and to some of them the choice to consume this locally-grown food relates to a lifestyle in which environmental considerations play a role. However, this reflexivity is not expressed in political terms and participants do not see themselves as part of a food movement. Participants who buy rather than grow produce showed the greatest tendency to explain their involvement in political terms, but many of them have difficulty including the produce in their diets on a regular basis. I therefore conclude that community gardens cannot be seen as conscious, ‘alternative’ alternatives to the industrial food system. Nonetheless, the role of food in these gardens is essential, as it is what brings participants together – either because they enjoy gardening or because the activities which are organised there centre around food.
In this thesis I used and aimed to contribute to the theory of practice. Using participant observations to study what people do in reality was particularly useful. It turned research into an embodied activity, enabling me to truly ‘live the practice’, and therefore to understand it from the inside.
Deconstructing the practice of food provisioning into activities such as buying, growing and cooking was helpful in gaining an understanding of how people manage everyday life, and how food acquisitioning fits into their everyday rhythms. It sheds light on how and to what extent people experience the practice of community gardening as a food acquisitioning practice, and to what degree they relate it to other elements of food provisioning such as cooking and eating. The focus on the separate elements of food provisioning practices helped me realise that acquiring food from community gardens represents a different practice to different people; some are engaged in the practice of growing food, others in the practice of shopping for food.
This thesis showed that motivations delineate how the practice ‘works out in practice’; the way in which a practice such as community gardening is given shape attracts people with certain motivations, who, by reproducing that practice, increase the attractiveness of the practice for others with similar motivations. This implies that while community gardening appears to be one practice, it should in fact be interpreted as several distinct practices, such as the practice of food growing or the practice of social gathering. Motivations therefore influence a garden’s benefits and outcomes. This thesis thus highlights that motivations should not be overlooked when studying practices.
Apprehending the motivations of community gardeners is also an important contribution to the literature around AFNs, since it helps us to understand the extent to which urban food production is truly alternative. By studying motivations, this thesis reveals that AFNs do not necessarily represent a deeper morality, or that not all food growing initiatives in the city can be defined as alternative. However, participants of community gardens are often both producers and consumers (there is a ‘sliding scale of producership’); the gardens are thus largely independent from the conventional food system. Moreover, for participants who buy produce, the meaning of the gardens often goes beyond an economic logic (there is a ‘sliding scale of marketness’). Hence, while the gardens studied in this thesis are no alternative alternatives, most of them can be qualified as ‘actually existing alternatives’ (after Jehlicka and Smith 2011).
This thesis showed that even those gardens in which the commodification of food is being challenged do not necessarily represent a deeper morality, which is contrary to what is argued by Watts et al. (2005). This implies that understanding whether or not initiatives resist incorporation into the food system is insufficient to be able to determine whether or not they can be defined as alternative food networks. However, determining whether or not deeper moral reflection is present is not a satisfactory way of defining food networks as alternative either, as this neglects the fact that motivations do not always overlap with practical reality. This suggests that establishing whether a food network can be regarded as alternative requires studying both motivations and practical reality. The thesis also raises the question to what extent the label AFN is still useful. Since it is unclear what ‘alternative’ means exactly, it is also unclear whether a given initiative can be considered alternative. Moreover, the world of food seems too complex to be represented by a dichotomy between alternative and conventional food systems; the gardens presented in this thesis are diverse and carry characteristics of both systems. I therefore suggest considering replacing the term AFN with that of civic food networks, as Renting et al. (2012) advocate.