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Stabilizing a City Through a Seed 

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by Bakari Clark

Studying to become an environmental planner, Bakari’s belief in the power of planning for equitable and ecological
community development is the framework for much of her work. Bakaris planning career began at Temple University, where she received her bachelors in Community Development. During her time at Temple, she worked at an urban farm called Philly Forest, where her passion for sustainable urban agriculture grew. Today, much of her academic work looks at how to nurture community food systems by highlighting the successes and challenges of providing people adequate access to affordable, cultural, and healthy food


As gardeners, the winter season holds much excitement when planning what is to come from the upcoming months. Many of us hold in high regard this time of year, as we ask ourselves the questions, ‘What worked last year?’ ‘How should I rotate my crops this year?’ ‘Are sweet potatoes and beans actually companion plants?’ and of course, lest we not forget, ‘How can I attract pollinators?’ All of these questions hold the ability to open ones eyes to the ecological systems that are achieved within sustainable agriculture and how it may be practiced on a community scale. Living in Philadelphia, I have found that sustainable agriculture is a practice that must be embraced and supported on a neighborhood, city, and state scale. With organizations ranging from the Green Guerillas to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, community agriculture systems are created when residents who hold a desire to grow are afforded an opportunity to nurture their skills in a sustainable manner. In cities where cultural diversity stands as an undeniable asset, these community agriculture spaces represent more than just  a garden. They also act as a means of preservation and connectivity to the parts of ourselves we value the most—and as planners, this is what we yearn to find. Furthermore, as keen observers and seekers of these great means of community development, planners must always ask ourselves, ‘How did this system come to be?’ 

[1] Domenic Vitiello and Catherine Brinkley, “The Hidden History of Food System
Planning” Journal of Planning History vol.13, no.2 (May 2014): 99-100.f

[2] Layla Schlack, “The Settlement Cookbook: 116 Years and 40 Editions Later,”
TASTE, July 14, 2022.

[3] Andrea Roberts, “The Farmers’ Improvement Society and the Women’s Barnyard Auxiliary of Texas: African American Community Building in the Progressive Era,”
Journal of Planning History 16, no. 3 (2017): 225

[4] Andrea Roberts, “The Farmers’ Improvement Society and the Women’s Barnyard Auxiliary of Texas: African American Community Building in the Progressive Era,”
Journal of Planning History 16, no. 3 (2017): 225

Industrialization and 19th Century Community Food Systems 

At the turn of the 19th century, industrialization would influence the surge of urban populations around the world, leaving planning for local food systems to community residents and stakeholders. In U.S. cities such as Chicago and New York, European immigration and rural-to-urban migration patterns would create densely populated, and oftentimes unregulated, living conditions for the urban poor. In response to the poor living conditions that many families faced, U.S. Settlement Houses arose as a solution. These institutions would provide food assistance and education programs that taught neighborhood children about healthy foods through developing school gardens, fed local residents through community kitchens, and taught immigrant women how to cook locally grown produce [1]. The latter can be seen in The Settlement Cookbook compiled by Lizzie Black Klander, one of the best selling cookbooks to be published at the time, which aimed to teach immigrant women the proper etiquette for serving and cooking family meals [2].

In addition to the urban community agriculture initiatives, the Progressive era was pivotal for U.S. communities located in the rural south as well. In the late 19th century, rural African American communities would begin developing mutual aid networks, such as the Farmer’s Improvement Society, that centered around community development and economic mobility. Developed in 1890, by Robert Lloyd Smith, the Farmer’s Improvement Society (FIS) began as an agrarian uplift movement for rural African Americans in Texas following Reconstruction [3]. A period where sharecropping often characterized the reality for many African American communities, these self improvement ideologies and community lending institutions would create socioeconomic momentum for participating African American residents. As a result, throughout the Progressive era, local African Americans would go from owning only two percent of land in 1870 to owning 31 percent of Texas’ agricultural land by 1910 [4]. In addition to land ownership, residents would also benefit from FIS establishing its own school in 1906, known as the Farmer’s Improvement Society College, which would act as a work-study institution for highschoolers– teaching young men practical agricultural and business skills and teaching young women important household skills, such as cooking, gardening, and sewing [5].

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Image:  Young children who are a part of Chicago’s Settlement housing gardening program, as they pose with fresh produce in

Source: Chicago Daily News, 1917
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Image: Farmer’s Improvement Society College in Ladonia, Texas
Source: The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Texas

[8] “History of the Community Garden Movement : NYC Parks.” History of the Community Garden Movement.

[9] Hauck-Lawson, Annie. “My Little Town- A Brooklyn Girl’s Food Voice.” Essay. In
Gastropolis Food & New York City, 77–78, n.d.

[10] “History of the Community Garden Movement : NYC Parks.” History of the Commu-
nity Garden Movement.

[11] Hou, Jeffrey, Julie M. Johnson, and Laura J. Lawson. “Greening Cities, Growing
Communities: Learning from Seattle’s Urban Community Gardens.” University of
Washington Press and the Landscape Architecture Foundation 29, no. 2 (January
1, 2010): 48–51.

20th Century Community Food Systems Planning 


While the 19th century demonstrated innovative solutions for addressing economic disparities and food inequality amongst both the urban and rural community food systems, throughout the 20th century community agricultural practices would be used as a means of neighborhood stabilization. In the early 20th century, U.S. cities would continue to use urban gardening as an avenue for feeding low-income families during World Wars I, II, and throughout the Great Depression [6]. During these decades of economic despair, urban commercial districts would be left blighted from a lack of investment necessary for maintaining them. As a result, women living within urban communities would take on the role of cleaning and maintaining these commercial areas. One of the ways they would practiced their roles as community caretakers were through transforming vacant lots into landscaped gardens [7]. While the use of gardens during this time focused more towards landscaping as a mechanism for revitalization, gardens would become a mechanism for achieving both social and environmental justice in the latter half of the century.  


This reality is most prevalent in the evolution of New York City’s community garden network, known as the GreenThumb Program. The history of this initiative begins in the 1970s, following a time when economic decline and blight plagued the landscape of many neighborhoods throughout New York City. As an act of mobilization, community stakeholders, such as Liz Christy, and community organizations, such as the Green Guerillas, would take a radical stance in addressing this disinvestment [8]. Through the use of seed “bombs”–a combination of seeds, soil, fertilizers, and glass Christmas ornaments–vacant lots were transformed into inviting green spaces [9]. It would be these acts of early community resistance that the foundation for New York City's illustrious community garden network would be developed into the, now known, GreenThumb Initiative. This Garden Preservation program is now one of the largest community garden networks in the nation with roughly 550 community gardens preserved and over 20,000 garden members [10]. 

Another city that is well known for its community garden network is Seattle, Washington, where its P-Patch Program offers community members in all neighborhoods an opportunity to grow produce using organic practices. Organized by community members in the early 1970s, the P-Patch Programs’ found its name after the Picardo Farm, which is the land that the first community garden was built upon. Due to the gardens’ ability to successfully act as a community asset, the city would develop this program into Seattle's own “publicly administered organic community garden program.” Today, this garden network holds 90 community gardens on roughly 15 acres of land [11].

[5] Mason-Gray, Jov-van-ta. “The Farmer’s Improvement Society College, 1906-1947.”
East Texas History.

[6] Domenic Vitiello and Catherine Brinkley, “The Hidden History of Food System
Planning” Journal of Planning History vol.13, no.2 (May 2014): 101.

[7] Isenberg, Alison. “Chapter 1. City Beautiful or Beautiful Mess? The Gendered Origins of a Civic Ideal” In Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It, 24. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

The Outcome of the Environmental Movement 

These efforts of local environmental organizing would come just a decade before federal and state policies would address the deterioration of natural resources through national efforts to preserve and conserve environmental assets [12]. Through the use of public institutions such as land trusts, open spaces and natural environments, in both urban and rural areas would be preserved for the ecological benefits they provide to surrounding ecosystems. This was a win for community gardens, seeing as land trusts are often used as avenues for community gardens to find permanent uses within the urban fabric across the U.S.. Today, cities such as Philadelphia partner with local nonprofits to help preserve community gardens that are valued by local residents yet face the pressures of encroaching development. Organizations, such as Neighborhood Garden Trust (NGT), initiate this work through partnering with cities to secure long-term leases or land ownership over the property that the community garden sits on–creating a greater opportunity for the preservation of green spaces, natural resources, and long-lasting community food systems [13].

[12] Daniels, Thomas L. “A Trail across Time: American Environmental Planning from City Beautiful to Sustainability.” Journal of the American Planning Association 75,
no. 2 (March 27, 2009): 186.

[13] “Preservation.” Neighborhood Gardens Trust. Accessed February 19, 2024.



As the garden season begins again, community gardens will, once more, begin the cycle of evolving into a place that harbors history, health, and sovereignty. In conclusion, community gardens serve as an anchor in developing local food systems. From grassroot organizing to being the foundation for city-wide programs, the correlation between neighborhood stabilization and the evolution of community gardens still remain relevant today. Under the protection of organizations such as the Neighborhood Garden Trust and GreenThumb, communities are able to see the preservation of their gardens and their ability to create a sense of place. Allowing residents from all cultures and walks of life the opportunity to connect to their local environment and food. 

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