As someone who’s worked inside, and alongside, law enforcement for the past two decades, I’ve spent some time witnessing and thinking about successful communities and crime prevention strategies. You wouldn’t think gardening would make the list, but I think it does. Here’s why.

Victory all around

During World War II, 1,500 community gardens were born in Chicago – then known as Victory Gardens. The Victory Gardens started when Chicagoans created 500 community gardens, and at the same time, 75,000 people started home gardens. In 1942, 55% of fresh produce in Chicago was home grown. In 2010, the urban gardening concept was pioneered again – this time through the non-profit organization, The Peterson Garden Project (PGP). Its goal was to put in five community gardens in Chicagoland, help 7,500 people learn to grow their own food and donate 5% of the food grown to food and nutrition programs in Chicago.

Short-term lease, long-term effects

The concept behind the PGP is to take over vacant lots for a short amount of time. With even just a two-year lease, people can learn to grow food and a neighborhood can transform. For a mere $75 lease for the year, the 8 x 6 foot plots are in hot demand with long waiting lists. While the red tomatoes and strawberries have been delicious, the cucumber and zucchini vines that have overtaken many gardens have been a frustrating issue, according to program participants or gardeners! But the real eye-opening experience hasn’t been the increase in my farm-to-table dinners a la my very own kitchen, but rather the social change I have witnessed. While gardens on private property certainly add beauty and value, public community gardens can transform a neighborhood – and literally overnight.

Fruit, vegetables and friendship

As the PGP founder stated, “I know that gardens are one of the key neighborhood features that bring people together: they fight crime, make friends out of strangers, beautify…and this doesn’t even include the fresh food or environmental impact.…The famous permaculturalist Geoff Lawton said it best: ‘All the world’s problems can be solved in a garden.’” A garden plot neighbor echoed that thought at the early onset of our new garden this spring: “It’s like we’ve become an instant neighborhood watch.” I can’t think of too many other ways an instantaneous neighborhood watch pops up practically overnight. Since the pop-up garden moved in, those in the community seem less fearful to walk by the garden area that was once a vacant lot full of loitering and criminal activity. Now, on any given morning, noon or night, members are tending to the garden and in essence, watch over the area as an extra set of eyes. Neighborhood folks walk by constantly to inquire and ask how and where they can sign up too! This once-urban eyesore is now a luscious and vibrant greenspace full of fruit, vegetables and friendship.

Gardening and the broken window theory

One can also liken Lawton’s belief to the “broken windows theory” conceived in 1982 by two social scientists who suggested there was a link between disorder and crime. They described the “broken window” as a symbol of unaccountability. If one window in a building is broken and left unfixed, they argued, it is likely that the rest of the windows will be broken soon too. People – and potential criminals – base their behavior on the surroundings they see, the scientists continued. They also likened it to litter – the more litter on a block, the more likely the litter will keep increasing. The police also have studied this theory and some have used it when strategizing about how best to fight crime. If you have seen a Victory pop-up garden in Chicago and haven’t stopped to visit, you should do so sometime. The gardening season is winding down soon but we will be back out planting again next spring. Notice the smells and the green beauty. But also notice the transition in the neighborhood. And hopefully you’ll also notice fewer broken windows and less litter. And I am guessing you’ll see a few gardeners solving at least some problems in the garden!