Using Urban Food Gardens to Create Community


Mary Caesar

Feb. 15 2018

My scholarship is in Waterloo, Canada. This is an ideal city for contemplating the role of food in local communities. There are several community organizations and academic researchers working on various aspects of food. The Kitchener-Waterloo (KW) region is an ideal place to learn about the role of urban food gardens. During one of many engagements with community members and colleagues, I found that there are urban food gardens on, for example, church grounds and municipal property. The harvest from these food gardens are for private use as there are regulations in place regarding the sale of food including vegetables from local urban gardens. The size of these gardens and individually-owned plots indicate that yields are minimal and periodic, considering the time from planting to harvesting. Between and in addition to their personal harvests, people continue to access food using supermarkets and fresh produce markets. Thus, why do people continue to spend time with these urban food gardens? One of the non-nutritive reasons for urban food gardens is their use as vehicles for building community. In recent years, the KW region welcomed more than a thousand refugees as part of the Federal Government of Canada’s international commitment to resettle individuals from war-torn countries such as Syria. Some neighbourhoods and community organizations involved in urban agriculture in the KW region found that involving Newcomers to Canada in urban food gardens serves as a way of integrating local communities, initiating and maintaining connections among people, and creating a sense of home. Listening to these accounts and visiting some of the urban gardens on this side of the world, made me reflect on that side of the world, green space, or rather, neglected green spaces in Mitchell’s Plain, Cape Town.

Mitchell’s Plain is a suburb about 32 kilometers from the centre of the City of Cape Town. It was designed during the 1970s by the Apartheid government primarily to accommodate Coloured people displaced from their homes following the implementation of the Group Areas Act. By 1989, 33,000 residents called Mitchell’s Plain home. Later, it also became a place where Coloured people could purchase property. In 2001, six years into the new democratic South Africa, there were 398,650 residents. At last count (2011 census) the total population of Mitchell’s Plain was 310 485.

In 1980, my family was one of many who moved into a new neighbourhood with a thriving green space, as a playground, at the end of the street. Most of the neighbourhoods in Mitchell’s Plain were constructed with these green spaces (Map 1). For a few years, municipal workers were responsible for their maintenance by cutting the grass and securing the wooden barriers that prevented cars from entering these spaces. Over time, neglect turned these into mini-desolate spaces even though the maps continue to identify these spaces as “green” (Image 1).

Reflecting on the use of urban green spaces in the KW region, i.e. as food gardens for community building and creating a sense of home, made me wonder what these neglected ‘green’ spaces in Mitchell’s Plain could become. Or, if they could serve a similar function as the ones in KW. As micro-scale urban food gardens, the KW urban gardens do not feed households in a sustainable way and hence, it seems that their symbolic function is more important. The Mitchell’s Plain green spaces came into being under conditions of violence, exclusion and discrimination. As political violence enveloped the country throughout the 1980s and 1990s, official and unofficial care of Mitchell’s Plain’s green spaces fell by the wayside.

Now, more than twenty years after the establishment of a democratic South Africa, parts of Mitchell’s Plain experiences violence and high unemployment rates. It continues to re-imagine its identity as the City’s erstwhile step child as some organizations and individuals work towards creating a thriving community. Is there perhaps a role for these neglected green spaces among these community development efforts? Can the City and the neighbourhoods reclaim these green spaces and learn from KW by constructing urban food gardens not primarily to feed people, but to nurture the earth to nurture the community?

Urban agriculture is a difficult undertaking in Cape Town. The soil conditions on the Cape Flats is only one difficulty. Urban agriculture is also time consuming and too labour intensive for poor and unemployed people who need to feed their families today, not once their gardens yield any vegetables. In other suburbs of Cape Town, school-based vegetable gardens, like the KW urban gardens, suggest the act of tending to a garden yields community-building results (Images 2 and 3). Perhaps this is where the City of Cape Town and Mitchell’s Plain should look in order to reclaim its green spaces.

Map 1: Green spaces indicated on map of one neighbourhood in Mitchell’s Plain


Image 1: “Green” neighbourhood space, Mitchell’s Plain


Image 2: Ikhaya Food Garden, Isikhokele Primary School, Site C, Khayelitsha


Image 3: Kwanfundo High School, Khayelitsha.



Rodriguez, Dean, Kirkpatrick, Berbary, Scott. (2016). Exploring experiences of the food environment among immigrants living in the Region of Waterloo, Ontario. Can J Public Health, 107 (Suppl.1)eS53-eS59.

Crush et al. 2017


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