On my recent visit to New York City, I found a number of schools housed in seemingly lifeless rectangular-shaped concrete buildings. School windows are protected by steel window bars, school grounds are surrounded by a high iron fence, and a metal detector welcomes you at the entrance. Unfortunately, this utilitarian design isolates education taking place in schools from the richness of the local context, cultures and communities.
School gardens, however, can help teachers establish the link between schools and surrounding communities. I visited several public schools in NYC in early March 2020, to interview teachers about the goals of their urban agriculture education programs. Several schools featured gardens along their perimeters. Each year starting from mid-spring, local residents can peer through the school fence and see students planting seeds in raised beds, collecting eggs in chicken coops, growing vegetables in greenhouses, and composting organic matter.
Sometimes, schools invite community members including pre-K children to volunteer and learn in their gardens. After harvesting, students sell fresh vegetables to community members. In this way, they raise money for their gardens and provide fresh produce for residents who find vegetables difficult to access. Some teachers encourage their students to donate vegetables grown in school gardens and indoor hydroponic systems to nursing homes and soup kitchens, thus helping some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.
Lately I have been reading a lot about civic engagement. I was struck by how school gardens can help students learn how it feels to engage in civic life – helping their schools become a vital part of communities, and welcoming local residents to participate in students’ education. Through my research with educators in New York, I hope to better understand how gardens can foster collaboration between communities and schools. I also hope that more teachers, students, and parents will use school gardens to not only foster learning, but also to address problems of public health, nutrition, access to green spaces, sustainable urban design, disaster preparedness, and connection to nature. Stay tuned for updates on what my research partners and I discover. http://civicecology.org/urbanag