Policymakers, nongovernmental organizations, and community activists increasingly promote urban agriculture as a solution to a wide range of often interrelated social and environmental problems, including limited food access, poor health outcomes, the decline of social networks, and habitat loss. Urban agriculture as intervention is supported by a growing body of research, but the design of that research may limit its analytic range and power and its potential to effect change in policy and practice. A review of the recent literature indicates that studies of community gardens in the United States often have a relatively narrow disciplinary focus. They may assess health and diet-related outcomes, social outcomes, or ecological outcomes in isolation or sometimes in pairs, e.g. social and ecological outcomes, but never the impact of gardens on all three types of outcomes simultaneously. Regardless of their disciplinary focus, studies have also been almost exclusively cross-sectional in design. Instead of directly measuring change in socionatural communities, they may, for example, rely on informants’ retrospective reporting of historical conditions or compare the ecosystem services provided by sites of different types, e.g. community gardens and vacant lots, at a single point in time without considering the history of site development.
In this presentation, we discuss an ongoing project in which we are leveraging a new community garden in Greater Providence, RI, to develop a methodology for conducting interdisciplinary research on the longitudinal impacts of urban agriculture. The project’s unique design expands the range of research questions that can be addressed and serves as a potential model for future studies. The project is a natural experiment with the garden as the treatment. By engaging both new gardeners and nongardeners in a neighborhood with minimal prior exposure to community gardening, the project supports intergroup comparisons and assessment of the diffusion of garden impacts. Collecting baseline and, on an ongoing basis, follow-up data permits the direct measurement of change in a wide range of social, ecological, and health and dietary parameters. Its longitudinal design, in combination with its interdisciplinarity, strengthens the inferences that can be made about the impacts of community gardening and the dynamics of human-nature interactions mediated by the garden.
We believe that the potential contributions of this approach--to policy, practice, substantive knowledge, and theory--outweigh its challenges, including high resource demands and the threat that participant attrition poses to the generalizability of results.