The REALTOR® Guide to Community Gardens

Growing and consuming food in the U.S. has changed drastically over time, beginning with personal gardens to the supersized supermarkets of today. Due to the nature of urban environments, economic downfalls and a longing to get back to our roots, community gardens are popping up in large cities throughout the country like New York, Dallas and Los Angeles and increasingly, Chicago. Whether by increasing property value or providing those in need with meals, community gardens continue to positively impact the surrounding homes and neighborhoods.

What is a Community Garden?

Community gardens are plots of land for growing fruits, vegetables and/or greenery that are tended to by community members and volunteers. Many gardens provide community members with food at little to no cost, especially those from low-income backgrounds or in times of need. Some gardens partner with local businesses to provide food and educational opportunities. They are a convenient and fun way to create volunteer and leadership opportunities, and they help to encourage neighbor-to-neighbor discourse.

Why Community Gardens?

Community gardens often flourish out of necessity, whether to beautify the neighborhood or to eliminate food insecurity. Community gardens are a simple and economically-sound solution to many modern food issues, such as rising supermarket prices, food source consciousness and food deserts in urban environments.

Solution to Food Deserts

In September of 2017, new legislation passed requiring the state of Illinois to track food deserts. A food desert is classified by the City of Chicago as an area located more than a mile from a food establishment larger than 10,000 feet. Chicago is home to over 240 grocery stores; unfortunately, these are not evenly distributed, leaving many of our neighborhoods without easy access to food, let alone healthy choices. A recent study found more than 500,000 Chicago residents live in food deserts. By developing communal gardens in these areas, residents can have access to healthy food options at an affordable price or at no cost.

Nutritious Sustenance & Improved Health

While the price of fresh fruits and vegetables continues to rise, incomes aren’t necessarily keeping pace. Because of this, families are often forced to make food choices that align with their budgets: processed, high in calories and overloaded with sugar and sodium. Gardens appearing in food deserts allow community members access to healthy options and nutritional education. Studies have shown that community gardeners on average consume more fruits and vegetables than those not involved with gardening. More than 56 percent of community gardeners meet the national recommendations of fruits and vegetables compared to 25 percent of non-gardeners.

Clean, Sustainable Food Source

According to Green Matters Community Garden in Minnesota, food travels an average of 1300 miles from farm to fork. Producing food locally reduces greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel usage. Plants make city living greener by restoring oxygen in the air, helping reduce pollution and improve overall air quality. Gardens soak up rain water to reduce soil erosion and runoff, lessening flooding in the city. To be able to make the long treks between the source and the store, food is often modified or sprayed with pesticides in order to be fresh on arrival. As a society, we continue to become more conscious of our food sources and what’s in it. Growing locally allows community members to know exactly where their food was produced, down to the type of seed that was planted and who tended to it.

Impactful Education

Community gardens offer education to residents of all ages about food, its source, nutrition and community building. Gardens often pair up with local schools or organizations to educate kids about fruits and vegetables, learn new gardening skills and take produce home to their families. This, in turn, helps entire families improve their health and knowledge of food.

Increased Property Value

Home buyers don’t just want to purchase a house; they want to find their community. Communal gardens bring life to neighborhoods by providing new and fun opportunities, like volunteerism, neighborhood bonding, fresh food and an overall more beautiful landscape. Studies have found that community gardens not only improve community members’ health, but increase the value of surrounding properties as well. A study of gardens in New York City found that one neighborhood with a community garden raised their property value by 9.4 percent within five years of the gardening opening. As community gardens appear in more neighborhoods throughout Chicago, buyers will likely be more drawn to them. When pointing out key features of the neighborhood, don’t forget to mention surrounding gardens and the opportunities they provide. And it’s not just empty lots that provide opportunity for community gardens – rooftop farming is becoming an increasingly popular commodity for high-density urban neighborhoods. Increased property value also allows city taxes to be better allocated in low-income areas, as well as provide more funding for green spaces like community gardens.

How Can a REALTOR® Get Involved?

As a REALTOR®, you have a unique advantage in that you see tons of properties in a variety of neighborhoods around the city. Every community has a variety of public spaces, mostly recognized as parks, streets and plazas. But, public spaces such as alleys, neglected courtyards, stairways and land awaiting redevelopment could be the city’s most underutilized and potentially valuable assets. Improving deteriorated or underutilized spaces will increase their usage and usefulness – which in turn, can strengthen and enrich a community. You can help by identifying spaces and their potential for the benefit of entire communities. Community gardens have the potential to beautify vacant lots, augment local food supplies and enhance the urban environment. They increase the availability of fresh, healthy produce in neighborhoods, in addition to providing space for recreation and socializing for citizens. Next time you’re in between showings, check out the green space. Identify empty lots, or sites ripe for development. You can also work with developers to see if there’s space for community gardens in their planned developments. Many tenants and buyers see community gardens as a plus – the addition of green space plus the ability to grow one’s food aligns naturally with rooftop decks and grills, as well as communal kitchens. But it’s not just rooftop and backyards; community gardens can work into the landscape of a variety of neighborhoods. Neighborhoods that have experienced blight or are in the midst of food deserts are excellent examples of how a community garden can transform a community. Blighted lots, cleaned up and given the structure of a community garden, can lead to rejuvenation of the neighborhood, as well as increased development interest and property values. Neglected or vacant spaces in your community have the potential to be transformed – permanently or even temporarily – into a community garden, which is a benefit to your clients, your community and your brokerage’s service efforts. PETERSON GARDEN PROJECT Peterson Garden Project was founded by Lamanda Joy based on the conviction that learning together in the garden and kitchen puts fresh, nutritious food on the table, builds stronger communities, strengthens cultural heritage, improves public health and creates a more sustainable, resilient city. The way Peterson Garden Project accomplishes their mission is several-fold. Their Pop-Up Victory Gardens are established throughout the city to teach people in urban settings that they can grow their own food. These gardens are less about installing permanent green space and long-term gardens, and more about cultivating long-term gardeners. Their Grow2Give and Food Security program teaches everyone to grow and cook their own organic food, removing the mystery behind the origin, availability and safety of their food. And, PGP’s Community Cooking School calls upon home cooks from all cultures to lead classes and workshops on ethnic cooking, as well as explores the role of food in various cultures. C.A.R. BICENTENNIAL COMMUNITY GARDEN Today, dozens of community gardens have taken root in neighborhoods around city, with more developing every year. Watching greenery, fresh fruits and vegetables pop up in our backyards is exciting, and knowing many gardens are partnering with local food pantries and shelters to help our fellow Chicagoans makes them even more necessary. With all the benefits that community gardens bring, we decided to celebrate Illinois’ 200th birthday by partnering with the Peterson Garden Project to revamp and improve one of their existing community gardens. The C.AR. Bicentennial Garden will feature seeds typical to our states founding, and the food will be donated to community members and organizations in need. We hosted a volunteer day in the fall; look for more opportunities to get involved in the spring!


NAR’s Center for REALTOR® Technology (CRT Labs) has developed some resources you can take advantage of, including maps of food deserts and area community gardens. They have kindly made these available for our members. If you can’t find a garden to join in your community, you can start one. Lamanda Joy, director of the Peterson Garden Project, published a book on the subject: Start a Community Food Garden: The Essential Handbook. If you or your clients have some familiarity with gardening, but would like to join a community garden, Fearless Food Gardening in Chicagoland, by the Peterson Garden Project, is an excellent resource to guide your efforts. The Chicago Park District also has a wealth of resources available, including guidelines, petitions, applications and liability waivers.                  

Check out the results of our first Volunteer Day at the C.A.R. Bicentennial Garden!