During these oh-so-cold months in the midwest, I love to begin thinking about the first thing we’re going to plant once the ground thaws. As such, I find myself gravitating towards articles that lean towards food and gardening.
A recent commentary from our friends at GOOD asked the question, “Will urban gardens wilt post-recession?” Oh what an excellent question. Urban gardening is a hot trend these days, especially in cities where vacant lots dot the landscape. They’re revitalizing the landscape of many neighborhoods, providing a place for neighbors to come together, and of course producing locally-grown food that is far healthier and more sustainable than most of what can be found in the local grocery store.
But I can’t help but disagree with the rosy picture that the article’s author paints. Yes, urban gardens have a multitude of benefits, and I firmly believe that they unquestionably belong in our urban fabric. I’m not convinced, however, that the multi-acre urban gardens are providing us what we need, especially in Omaha, to achieve the kind of density that will allow us to live more sustainably.
If urban gardens are to be a major part of the land-use equation, they’re displacing several households that could be living on that land. The big question is what happens around those gardens? If we simply continue to build McMansions surrounded by vast swaths of private turf lawns, we’re just going to perpetuate the problem of decreased density. Walkability goes out the window, as does connectedness with neighbors. When we’re spread out, we drive more, talk with our neighbors less, and generally live a less-satisfying life.
Our work with Metropolitan Community College was, at least in part, focused on ascertaining the viability and long-term trajectory of urban gardens in Omaha. They’re absolutely going gang-busters right now, and one organization after the next is jumping on the bandwagon, thinking about how they can improve community health, create jobs, build more cohesive neighborhoods, and decrease poverty. There’s no reason to think that the trend will not or should not continue. BUT planners need to be sure not to sacrifice increased density. Knowing Omaha’s City Planning Department, I’m sure we’re in good hands.