Validating verdancy or vacancy? The relationship of community gardens and vacant lands in the U.S.

Luke Drake and Laura J. Lawson


•Community gardens are often seen as temporary uses of vacant land.

•Gardeners see them as important parts of neighborhoods and cities.

•Local governments and organizations historically planned gardens to be temporary.

•Increasingly, gardeners reproduce those dominant narratives as well.

•Rethinking these transformations can lead to better policy toward vacant land.



Community gardens have gained attention and support in recent years because of a range of expected benefits and outcomes, and they are one of many examples of transformations of vacant land into green space. While the improvements to vacant or underutilized land are lauded, the practice of community gardening is underpinned by the assumption that it is a temporary practice on temporarily-available land. This assumption, which is at times implicit and at others explicit, maintains that support for community gardens—technical assistance and especially access to land—can be temporary. Through a genealogy of community garden advocacy in the U.S., we find that a dominant narrative of community gardening as a means to an end has been continuously reproduced for more than a century in large part by government agencies and philanthropic organizations. In recent decades, community gardeners have become key actors in advocacy, and although they portray gardening as a meaningful part of everyday city life, they also reproduce that narrative of temporariness by promoting it as a means to address various issues. We argue that this tension between means and ends—especially coming from community gardeners—is problematic. It is a challenge for community gardeners and the many other producers of green space on supposedly vacant land because their means-oriented discourse takes precedence in the public imagination; it perpetuates the notion that the land is ultimately still vacant.

Suggested citation

Drake, L., & Lawson, L. J. 2014. Validating verdancy or vacancy? The relationship of community gardens and vacant lands in the US. Cities, 40, 133-142.