Can I plant some vegetables in the vacant lot nearby?

Advice on how to make the world better.
Aug. 5 2009 9:26 AM

Garden-Variety Activism

Can I plant some vegetables in the vacant lot nearby?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to, and Sandy will try to answer it.

Dear Sandy,


There's a vacant lot near my home that's been sitting empty for a long time. I'm interested in trying to start a community/co-op garden. It would be an attractive place instead of an empty lot. We could possibly get some local businesses to donate equipment and topsoil. People could grow their own organics and, if they sell some, put a percentage of the money back into the co-op. People without a cash investment can contribute their time instead. The city could add this to one of its "green" spaces. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of time to organize this, I'm relatively new to the community, and I grow nice houseplants but know almost zilch about farming.

I think it's possible to enlist the city and some local businesses, and I really don't think it would be difficult to sign up participants, but I'm not sure how to start. Any suggestions?

—Amy, San Francisco


Woman gardening.
Gardening can be a communitywide activity

First, a disclosure: I've been known to kill cacti. Office plants have been removed from my desk by caring colleagues. And I have a balcony's worth of dead succulents.

Still, even with my black thumb, I know that there's more to community gardens than the locavore hype. Studies show that every $1 invested in a community-garden plot yields $6 worth of produce. Community gardens can help raise property values, reduce crime rates, and improve the health of those who participate. They also help provide food for neighborhood residents and surplus produce that can be donated to local food banks and shelters.

You're lucky. San Francisco happens to be one of the very best places in the United States to start a community garden: There are apparently more than 5,000 vacant lots to choose from and a robust urban gardening community. The city manages 40 gardens (and that number is growing), while the American Community Gardening Association lists another 12. San Francisco even has a one-acre demonstration garden with free or low-cost classes on urban composting and gardening.

The city's Recreation and Parks Department has a one-page how-to sheet on how to start a community garden. It's specific to San Francisco, of course, but its basic advice applies to pretty much any urban area. It lists three necessary ingredients for success: space, funding, and interest.


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