Designing Community Gardens for Social Cohesion

Caroline Ayres

Event: If You Build It, They Will Come. But Will They Stay? PMI SF Bay Area Chapter, Sustainability Program, Feb. 24, 2021

In February, the PMI-SFBAC Sustainability group hosted a presentation by Mei Ling Hui, urban agriculture and community gardens program manager at San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department. While the presentation was very specific and focused, I was able to take away valuable lessons that I can apply to my work as a program manager. With greater social cohesion and a sense of community, my team will be more motivated, have more fun and we will get much better results at work.

Mei Ling Hui has been managing the community garden program for the past three years and has brought the program from a focus on how much food is produced by each gardener to a focus on community. The program moved from having many abandoned garden plots to a program that is very popular with a long waiting list for garden plots.

When Mei Ling started managing the program, she investigated reasons as to why the community gardens were being abandoned and found that some gardens weren’t very safe. They didn’t have good fences, safe pathways, lighting, and ways for people to gather. When conditions got worse, people didn’t know how to solve the problems.

Of the 41 sites about 10 were abandoned or partially abandoned in 2017

Of the 41 sites about 10 were abandoned or partially abandoned in 2017

Other sites had great social cohesion, and what they had in common was a high-quality table or gathering space, wide, flat paths that can be safely navigated by people of all ages, room for mulch to be delivered, and shared spaces where there could be moments to make friends and room for workshops. Her conclusion: the wrong metrics were being considered as metrics of success, and social cohesion should be the goal of the program. To change this, Mei Ling implemented two rules:

  1. Rule #1: Follow the zucchini bread rule: Are we building something that will increase the possibility of social connection? Or are the policies punitive, and do they decrease social interaction? Make it easy for the community to succeed both by making the physical structures easy to deal with and by having opportunities to share with neighbors and interact with people so that people can make new friends. Remember that community gardening is a social experience—not a private experience. What people get out of the experience are social benefits.
  2. Rule #2: Have social consequences for behaviors that are not desirable. Have a nice sign like “Good neighbors pick up after their pets.” Have social consequences, which more strongly guide people than legal or financial consequences in critical decision moments. Connected to this is required workdays, and a management structure that requires people to know each other.
After applying the new rules

After applying the new rules

This very interesting talk has led me to focus on opportunities for more social experience with my teams at work. By changing the metrics to “How many times can we get people together?” and “How can the community solve a problem?”, a whole new understanding of success is enabled.

For more information about education with gardens, please see the Master Gardener website: You may also volunteer by contacting the volunteer division: email at [email protected].

Note from VP of Sustainability: Please join us at our next event on 24 March, Climate Change Affects Us All with Adrienne Pierce.