A sense of community itself goes a long way towards building the kind of trust and equality necessary for safer and more just communities.  Indeed, many of today’s social improvement programs, from arts to sports, to jobs, housing and political forums, are choosing to base their efforts on community cultivation, as strong communities are often springboards for social and economic well being. 
But what if this kind of trust and community could be built while simultaneously undertaking another type of cultivation, the kind where individuals work gently and carefully together to cultivate the land. What would the benefits be?
Is it possible for a humble seed and a patch of soil to be the catalysts for stronger, healthier, more equal urban communities?
Harvest at Namu Natural Farm in San Fracisco (photo: P.M. Lydon, Final Straw | CC BY-SA)
Countless studies have shown — and frankly if they didn’t, then common sense should show — that through cultivating a relationship with the land, individuals and communities learn how to be better connected to each other, and more appreciative of life at a basic level. [3, 4, 5, 6, 7]
To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.
— Mahatma K. Ghandi
In the years we have spent producing the Final Straw film, my partner Suhee Kang and I have seen repeatedly, that in the community garden in general — and the natural farm mentality specifically — there is an understanding of self paired with an appreciation for all life which can not be learned anyplace else. As an active participant in this learning where we create harmonious relationships and nurture other living things, individuals are also, sometimes unknowingly, creating the building blocks for a society which has far less crime and conflict.
In communities and schools with active gardening programs, youth are not just ‘off the streets’ after school, but out in the field, working with the land, learning valuable life lessons from the land, working with each other, seeing, experiencing, and tasting the fruits of their work, and the miracle of life on this earth. That’s a whole lot to fit into an educational package! Yet community and school-based farms around the world from Edible Schoolyard to Veggielution are getting it done. [8, 9]
It is an experience that completely changes perspective of those who become involved with it, and not only perspective, but changes their ability to be self sufficient, to feed themselves with good, healthy food. How’s that for social impact?
What other kind of community program can say that it’s helping to solve social wellness, crime, health, and hunger in a single action, with nearly ZERO budget?
Planting a seed of life and having a teacher help you guide that seed through months of growth into maturity, and harvesting it, enjoying the taste of something you helped grow, and then finally saving the seeds, seeing the multiplication of this miracle of life on this earth, and planting them back into the soil again.
Rice planting by hand in Hongcheon, South Korea (Photo: P.M. Lydon | Final Straw)
With such an experience, you’ve not just read about what life is, you’ve not just read a formula, or a theory, or been told a story, you’ve lived it, you’ve taken part in cultivating and caring for a living part of this planet… and you begin here, to see that you, yourself, are also not so different from the plant.
Not that you are literally a plant, but that you are a living, growing part of the planet earth who needs to be nurtured just as well.
You begin to see that you, yourself, and all of the people around you have a right to grow, and also a need to be nurtured, and that you, having just gone through the process of nurturing a living thing to maturation, having learned by experience how to have compassion and reverence for a simple living plant, you yourself start to see how you have a responsibility to all life on this planet, to the humans around you, a responsibility to also be compassionate and reverent for their lives.
Even without being in a social club, or having a high social standing, or having money, or new clothes, or fancy things, here in the garden you see that you, like the plant you have helped grow, you have the right to be a living and growing part of this planet just as much as anyone else.
Where does crime fit into that?
Harvest Festival at Namu Natural Farm in San Francisco (photo: P.M. Lydon, Final Straw | CC BY-SA)
You see, you’ve just taken a whole lot of anger, angst, hatred, and you’ve started turning it into calmness, peacefulness, and compassion, and that is why, more than just the food that you are growing, the healthy, delicious food, and more than just the economy you are creating, the robust, local economy, and more than the lessons of social and ecological mindfulness, more than all of this, you, with a simple community garden, are creating a fountain of well being which will sprinkle its influence upon every single aspect of the community in which it is placed.
A community with a new kind of primary economy which is aimed at social and ecological benefit.
A community where peace, prosperity, health, and happiness are the rules, not the exceptions.
A community where we all chant to ourselves and our local elected officials: let the gardens grow! Because the gardens teach us how to live, and live well.
If you are living in a neighborhood where a local garden could help, we encourage you to pass these thoughts on to your local politicians and your friends. If you are living in a community where a local garden already exists, share the delight and effect of that garden with others. These might seem like small acts, but they can have great impact.
Together, our small actions can change the world.
- Where Trust is High, Crime and Corruption are Low | http://www.pewglobal.org/2008/04/15/where-trust-is-high-crime-and-corruption-are-low/
- Strong Cities, Strong Communities | http://www.huduser.org/portal/publications/pdf/huddoc.pdf
- A Difference-in-Differences Analysis of Health, Safety, and Greening Vacant Urban Space | http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2011/11/11/aje.kwr273.full?keytype=ref&ijkey=9pNc5FdhqLOAvbU
- What is a Good Community Garden? | http://www.nationalgardenmonth.org/index.php?page=storyline02
- The Urban Garden as a Crime Fighter | http://nextcity.org/daily/entry/the-urban-garden-as-crime-fighter
- Vacant Lots = Violence | http://nextcity.org/daily/entry/vacant-lots-violence
- Benefits of Community Gardening | http://www.gardeningmatters.org/sites/default/files/Multiple%20Benefits_2012.pdf