Tucked away beyond the bustling Reading Road in Avondale, Cincinnatians learn about a new crime fighting strategy that takes shape in the form of marigolds and daikon radishes. For years, workers at the
Civic Garden Center
(CGC) have been teaching city residents how to address social, emotional and nutritional needs through urban gardening. As it turns out, those efforts may also decrease littering and discourage crime.
Since its establishment in 1942, the CGC has been dedicated to improving Cincinnati communities through gardening. “We want people to be empowered to garden no matter what their circumstances,” says Ryan Mooney-Bullock, who coordinates the Green Learning Station at the CGC. “Studies have shown that as sections of town with blighted property are beautified, crime and littering go down.”
The CGC not only provides residents with encouragement, but also all the tools necessary for success. People who participate in the center’s programs have access to free resources like startup materials and classes. “We offer tons of classes at the Civic Garden Center to just give people a basic idea of the key things that you need to understand about how plants grow,” Mooney-Bullock says.
One such resource is the center’s Community Garden Development Training Program (CGDT), a free, 12-class series that teaches how to successfully organize, plan and sustain a community garden. The course is geared toward groups or individuals who wish to improve their neighborhoods by participating in the center’s Community Gardens Program.
Created in 1980, the Community Gardens Program started out as a small garden called the Over the Rhine People’s Garden. Today, the CGC facilitates around 45 community gardens across the city. “The Civic Garden Center has been active in the community gardens movement for over 30 years,” says Peter Huttinger, the Community Gardens coordinator. “The gardens create a nurturing refuge, for adults and children, often in places where there are no other parks or green space available.”
Huttinger says that the community garden movement in Cincinnati is continuously evolving. “At first, the gardens were mostly started by neighbors wanting to clean up vacant lots and create a place to grow healthy food,” he says. “Over time, some gardens have evolved into projects that service specific populations like home-bound seniors, at-risk youth and food pantries.”
And the practice’s purpose continues to expand. “Most recently we are seeing new urban agriculture projects coming into play that are hybrids of the traditional collective community garden model and a for-profit market garden,” Huttinger says. “Fresh Start Foods is a collaborative urban agriculture project combining the efforts of St. Leo the Great Parish, the City of Cincinnati's Urban Agriculture Program, Findlay Market and the Civic Garden Center.”
A city-owned, 1.25-acre plot on Westland Northern Boulevard, the Fresh Start Foods garden sits in a community with a large number of Guatemalan and Burundian immigrants who have roots in farming. The garden gives them an opportunity to put their skills to work while generating a profit. The fruit and vegetables grown at Fresh Start Foods are shared among participants and sold at the Findlay market’s Local Farmer Shed to support the program and growers.
Huttinger believes that collaborative efforts such as this utilize a groundbreaking approach to community gardening and urban agriculture as they connect diverse populations with avenues of support. From his perspective, Fresh Start Foods is living proof that community gardens positively impact the lives of Cincinnati residents.
Across town at the Walnut Hills Community Garden, volunteer administrator William Hawkins has also witnessed the transformative power of community gardens. “It really makes the area stand out and look beautiful,” says Hawkins. “Some people call it a diamond in the rough. To look up and see all those vegetables is truly a beautiful sight.”
According to Hawkins, urban gardens provide Cincinnati residents with benefits that are much more important than the tangible items they produce. “It helps community members to get to know one another,” he says. "You just get the feeling that we’re really doing something.”
• Go shopping online
. Get a new calendar, fleece vest or "compost happens" onesie and support the CGC.
• Read a good book
. Visit the CGC's public Hoffman Library for book club, free wi-fi, computer access, gardening books and children's books, plus lots more.
• Take a class
. Whether you want to start a community garden or learn what plants are tough enough for city living, you'll find a free or minimal cost class at the CGC to nurture your green thumb.
By Jamie White
White, a winter 2011 graduate of the University of Cincinnati, wrote this story as part of her Journalism capstone seminar, Communicating Sustainability. Look for more of her work here on Soapbox, and look for more Communicating Sustainability stories as well.