The growing pains of communal food gardens

Published on
July 20, 2018

In this study researchers have identified vulnerabilities in communal food gardens. From that a proposal was formulated for a support structure that contributes to more robust gardens. Because, in practice it proofs difficult to get the “needs” (the necessary organizational tasks) of a maturing initiative in balance with the “wants” (the hobby, gardening).

The Institute for Nature Education and Sustainability (IVN) and NatuurSUPER supported many communal food garden start-ups over the past decade. They noticed that many communal food gardens are confronted in their development with very different questions then they tackled as a start-up: what are their needs in maintaining and developing a resilient initiative (support, volunteers, earnings models, networks, cooperation, etc.)? And what could possibly be the role of IVN, NatuurSUPER or others? Therefore, in consultation with IVN and NatuurSUPER, three research questions have been formulated:

  • How do communal food gardens develop after the start-up phase?
  • Do communal food gardens need support during their development? And if so, what kind of support questions do they have?
  • Is there a role for IVN, NatuurSUPER and other parties in supporting the resilience quest of communal food gardens?

Stocktaking of needs

The focus of the research is a stocktaking of the developing needs of communal food gardens after the start-up phase. By means of a three-phase breakdown (start-up, growth, continuity), the development of the cases study gardens was determined. The communal food gardens started differently, achieved a lot in a short time span and all have a different position in terms of their developing phase.

Researchers then looked into the developing phases by focusing on the vulnerability of the gardens. The greater the vulnerability of a garden, the greater the chance that the garden activities will cease in the foreseeable future. All investigated gardens seem to have a certain degree of vulnerability.

The research addresses four crucial vulnerability themes: leadership, finance, location and time. Each of these themes in itself can already lead to the termination of a neighbourhood vegetable garden in case of dysfunction.

Exchanging knowledge

Communal food gardens need knowledge that focuses on increasing the robustness of the gardens by developing, sharing, transferring or communicating knowledge in the different phases (start-up, growth, continuity) with experts on the themes leadership, finance, location and time.

It also appears that initiators and members of communal food gardens have little time for exchanging knowledge. And to add to this, they all seem to struggle with the same kind of questions. Setting up a network between people with questions and without answers makes no sense. In order to have a well-functioning self-maintaining knowledge sharing network you need a balance in ‘bringing and taking’.

Instead a (digital) helpdesk in combination with a toolbox could be a worthwhile alternative to explore. Such a formula needs to be initiated and managed, which could be executed jointly by a number of organizations. A good combination could be: AVVN (well known for its expertise on allotments), IVN (known for its expertise on nature education) and NatuurSUPER (experienced in supporting communal food gardens start-ups).