StudentTalks: Ciska Ulug about social innovation in community gardens

Snakkerburen 2

09 okt StudentTalks: Ciska Ulug about social innovation in community gardens

Connecting resourcefulness and social innovation:
Examining conditions and processes in rural, peri-urban, and urban community gardens

In the past few years, the city of Groningen and the Netherlands has seen a surge of community supported projects and collectives. Among these, community gardens are emphasized, not only as way to support community resilience and empowerment, but also as a way to look for creative solutions towards community food production. With socially-based goals and involvement from a range of citizen-groups, community gardens can also be categorized as social innovations, or ideas and initiatives that attempt to meet social needs through changing pre-existing rules and relations and result in a “better” alternative. By altering relations around food system practices, involving and educating local communities in food production, and providing access to fresh and healthy food, community gardens potentially reconfigure ideas of food in an environmental, social, and economical way

Resourcefulness is a concept that can help better understand how citizens organize socially innovative projects at a community level.  Resourcefulness can be defined as a community’s organizing capacity, or how a community uses material resources (such as land and seeds) and nonmaterial resources (such as knowledge and social capital) in their environment to further societal goals. While social innovation and resourcefulness overlap in their commitment to contributing to social change, they also strengthen one another by looking at local level initiatives that could be up and out-scaled. In order to investigate how this occurs in various social and spatial contexts, this project researched three community gardens in rural, peri-urban, and urban contexts, looking at how each case uses available material and nonmaterial resources in order to contribute to socially innovative elements in the initiative.

Each case study greatly differed, whether through relationships with governmental institutions and community groups, their organizational structure, or other side-activities. The Pluk en Moestuin (“Pick and Vegetable Garden”), located in the more rural village of Eenrum, diverts from, perhaps, more “traditional” rural allotment style gardens, by collectively cultivating a plot of land using permaculture methods, and teaching students in a neighboring school garden. The second garden, Doarpstun Snakkerburen, situated on the fringe of the city of Leeuwarden, grows produce using organic methods, to be sold at a garden shop, also run by volunteers. This garden broadens its impact by hosting community activities, such as festivals, concerts, educational projects, and an annual summer musical. Lastly, Toentje, the urban garden, is a collaboration between the Municipality of Groningen and the local food bank. This initiative attempts to not only address issues of fresh food access through a volunteer-based garden, but also emphasizes a circular economy approach through “climate-friendly” closed-loop techniques, using renewable energy sources. Comparing across these three scales and contexts highlights the diversity of community gardens and each garden’s unique contribution.

Social innovations seek solutions to societal needs through empowering communities. This research explored how community garden collectives engage with their resource base in differing contexts, ultimately identifying four methods through which resourcefulness stimulates social innovation in communities:Eenrum School Garden 1

  • Clear goals and motivation – When initiators narrowed their goal to a specific contribution, the collectives gained a clearer direction for goal-setting. Having a clear motivation also prioritized local environmental needs and stimulated organizations to embed themselves in their direct community.
  • Diversity in garden resources– Organizational diversity was seen through funding sources, initiative participants, and other ventures of the garden collectives. As a result of this diversification, initiatives were able to expand their networks, creating new, and, perhaps, more effective connections to meet their socially-based goals.
  • Experimental knowledge processes – A key aspect of social innovations is the “innovative” and creative process that they promote. This was seen through participants’ actual work in the garden (ex. planting tomatoes in buckets when those in the ground were infected or learning new permaculture gardening methods), as well as in their planning organization and collaborations (ex. altering lessons at the school garden based on the previous year or making changes to the annual plant and seed plan). Constantly reflecting on organizational and learning processes in the gardens illustrates both, processes of innovation and resourcefulness.
  • Strong internal support – A strong internal network provided a social support system within each collective, compensating against potential negative outside feedback. Nevertheless, backing from the community also had strong implications for social innovation in the space, as when a community supports the garden, it can also reap the benefits, through the physical space of the garden, or the social networks embedded in it.

Additionally, these results emphasize that resourcefulness, in contributing to social innovation, should be stressed as a process and as place-based. Processes of resourcefulness show how a community can be resourceful and how they learn, instead of safeguarding pre-existing conventions. These processes have the potential to redistribute control to communities, increase their capacity for innovation, and empower communities to address local needs.

The three case studies also emphasize the place-based or contextually-dependent nature of resourcefulness. While the gardens varied in size, scope, and motivation, all organizing collectives exhibited strategic processes, which were best suited to fit the needs of their garden and community. Thus, resourcefulness is not only a process, stemming from the immediate community, but these processes also hinge on the physical space in which they are based.

While community gardens may seem to be small and, perhaps, insignificant to some, their value is enhanced when framed as a social innovation. At the core of social innovation is the idea that “new” practices and relationships facilitate potentials for “bettering” society. When such experimental practices increase in scope, they also strengthen their potential societal impact. Each initiatives researched attempted to up or out scale practices at the gardens, whether that means to physically extend the garden property (at Doarpstun), branch out and create satellite gardens in other locations (at Toentje), or reach different populations through community and school educational programs (at the Pluk en Moestuin). Given these examples, researching techniques to enable social innovation through resourcefulness provides insight into how social innovations contribute to food system planning and the potential of citizens in the process.


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