Town Planning Review 89.6 Featured Article

The editors of Town Planning Review have selected ‘Civic-led public space: favourable conditions for the management of community gardens’ by Anne Könst, Rianne van Melik, and Wouter-Jan Verheul.

It will be free to access for a limited time here.

When asked to describe the paper, and highlight its importance the authors stated the following:

In our paper, we investigate five community gardens in the Netherlands, which are all developed and managed by members of the community, in most cases close neighbours. We wanted to find out why and how these citizens became engaged in the (co)production of public space. In our current ‘Big Society’, citizen participation is seen as a favourable development. When citizens manage public space, this potentially alleviates pressure on municipal budgets and leads to increased use. However, there are also potential downsides, such as exclusion of people who feel the garden is not ‘for them’.

Our research has shown that favourable conditions for the management of community gardens alter over time. Setting up a community garden is one thing, but formally managing it on the long run is another. A sense of urgency, visionary and connective leadership, a large external network and government support are essential when starting a community initiative. However, in the management phase, personal interest, ‘fun’, shared responsibilities and a local network become important conditions. Community gardens thus need to be adaptive to respond to changing circumstances as the initiative matures.

Civic-led public space like our investigated community gardens have their pros and cons. In each case, a green space was added to neighbourhoods with limited public space. As such, the gardens served a broader societal purpose and not just personal interests. However, we have also seen that civic leadership makes these initiatives relatively vulnerable. The gardens heavily rely on older and often unemployed or retired volunteers; other volunteers are difficult to recruit. Managing public space is time-consuming and can undermine the primary activities of gardening and socialising. Moreover, there is a tension between being sufficiently ‘closed’ to ensure volunteers feel connected to the gardens and not being ‘open’ enough to other residents in the neighbourhood.

Overall, our research revealed that there is a large variety in the ways community gardens are organised and who is involved. Even when public spaces are managed by citizens, they still often collaborate with many other actors, including local governments, supermarkets, day-care centres, etc. The paper thus highlights that there is no single actor who can best manage public space; local governments, markets and communities are mutually dependent in creating attractive public space, each having their own strengths and weaknesses.

The authors also commented:

Könst: “During the interviews the degree of resilience proved to be an important characteristic of successfully managed community gardens, which is an important base for sustainable urban development.”

Van Melik: “Community gardens are very interesting examples of public spaces in which citizens play a very active and autonomous role. This makes them perfect sites to study the pros and cons of co-producing public space.”

Verheul: “We feel that public-space literature is dominated by the dichotomy of public versus private, where government-led public space is generally preferred over market-led. The debate would profit from a trichotomous perspective in acknowledging that public space is increasingly a co-production of state, market and as our empirical study shows: community. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, are mutually dependent, and should not be considered as a replacement, but as an addition to each other.”