Population growth, the increased density of built infrastructure, and the reduction of vegetation cover are extending regional urbanization across landscapes [1
]. The decrease of natural habitats in urban areas can result in the deterioration of human well-being due to the loss of ecosystem services, including regulating (e.g., climate regulation), provisioning (e.g., food), and cultural services (e.g., recreation), among others [2
]. Urban people often live in environments with low biodiversity, food insecurity, and social alienation due to urbanization. In response, urban planners are carefully considering how to integrate green spaces so that cities can grow sustainably and to support the benefits to society provided by these spaces [3
Increasing green space availability dually supports the biophysical functioning and sociocultural services of city landscapes to improve environmental sustainability. Green spaces can, for example, reduce surface and air temperatures [4
] and thereby reduce urban heat island effects [5
]. At the same time, resident exposure to the natural environment through active engagements such as gardening, for example, can reduce the stress and anxiety associated with urban life and provide mental health benefits [6
]. Moreover, urban green spaces can provide physical health benefits through increased physical activity which can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease [8
] and type 2 diabetes [9
], and exposure to the outdoors that can also boost immunoregulation [10
] and lower mortality risk [8
]. Therefore, urban green spaces contribute to physical, mental, and social dimensions of human well-being [12
The multiple benefits of green spaces should make these areas more attractive and amenable to visitation by urban residents, especially in built environments with high levels of impervious cover [13
]. Moreover, they may provide an important space for individuals to obtain these benefits who lack access to private green spaces of their own [13
]. Unfortunately, often urban residents who have little to no access to private green spaces also suffer from a deficit of public green spaces [15
]. These residents may be the most disadvantaged in terms of social and economic opportunity within the population [15
]. Thus, access to urban vegetation is highly influenced by socioeconomic factors [20
], and improving green space availability and access across social advantage gradients may be the key to promoting both well-being and environmental justice in cities [22
Community gardens are a popular green space where urban residents grow fruits, vegetables, and flowers either individually in allotments, or in collective schemes [23
]. Gardens can increase fresh food access [25
], support mental and physical health [26
], and build community cohesion and social networks [29
] through outdoor recreation. While the social benefits of community gardens are well documented through specific place-based case studies [23
], we still lack information about how community gardens provide well-being benefits to people across urban areas and socio-environmental gradients. We know less about how these gradients influence gardeners’ use of, and experience within, community gardens, and the importance of community gardens for green space well-being benefits to users. Moreover, it is not known if time spent in gardens is a function of landscape surroundings or social opportunity. This is necessary information because there are growing concerns that, as with other green spaces, the benefits of community garden access and participation are not equitably distributed among urban residents [34
]. Depending on social and biophysical neighborhood context, some gardens may be considered ‘vital urban spaces’ for residents if they indeed provide nearby green space to those who generally lack access [36
]. Therefore, it is important for urban policy and planning to consider where and how gardens are allocated and used in city landscapes to promote the benefits associated with gardening as well as equity among communities.
The present study examines garden use and the well-being benefits derived within community gardens along social and biophysical landscape gradients. The goal of the research is to investigate how self-reported garden use and well-being benefits vary in relation to the social opportunities (e.g., in housing, education, and environmental quality) of the neighborhoods and biophysical features (e.g., urban form, and natural land cover) of the landscapes in which the gardens are embedded. Specifically, we investigate whether (1) time spent in gardens is related to neighborhood social opportunity or surrounding landscape biophysical features, and (2) there is a relationship between the derived well-being benefits from gardens and the neighborhood’s social and biophysical features across multiple study regions.
A total of 182 gardeners were surveyed in the 18 gardens. Urban land cover around gardens was generally greater in San Jose County than in Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties, which were surrounded by more natural, open (e.g., urban parks and green spaces), and agricultural land cover (Table 2
; Table S2
). The ROI domains were quite variable across neighborhoods in the counties. Generally, natural and open land cover tended to be associated with higher health and environmental quality (neighborhood healthcare access and health of the environment) and civic life (neighborhood social and political stability) social opportunity domains. Agriculture land cover around gardens tended to be associated with better housing opportunities (neighborhood availability of affordable housing). Urban land cover and education opportunities (neighborhood provision of educational needs and education quality) were not associated with other biophysical or social opportunity gradients, respectively.
3.1. Self-Reported Well-Being
Fresh organic food was the most frequently cited contribution to gardener well-being across gardeners (58.2%), followed by mental health (36.3%), connection to nature (23.1%), family (20.9%), physical health (19.8%), hobby (17.0%), personal satisfaction (14.8%), sharing (13.7%), learning and knowledge (12.6%), community (12.1%), and culture (6.6%). The NMDS, constructed from a well-being distance matrix, revealed that well-being responses fell along the gradients in neighborhood biophysical features and social opportunity domains (Figure 2
). Reported well-being benefits were neither significantly different between (ADONIS model: F = 0.84, R2
= 0.10, p
= 0.61) nor within the three counties (ANOSIM model: Global R: 0.04; p
= 0.349). Biophysical features and social opportunity domains were not statistically significant in the analysis of variance tests for predicting certain well-being outcomes (Table 3
); however, we display how well-being benefits varied along social and biophysical landscape gradients in Figure 2
and qualitatively describe general trends.
One major axis along which well-being responses tended to vary was land cover in the surrounding landscape; however, not all types of responses varied. For example, in gardens surrounded by more natural and open (i.e., green space) land cover, gardeners more frequently cited connection to nature as a benefit to their well-being. In the words of the gardeners: “It is very peaceful and relaxing. Gets you back in touch with nature”; and “because I get to be in a magical place surrounded by birds and hawks. To be in nature just to be”. Gardeners in these landscapes also more frequently stated personal satisfaction was an important benefit. As one gardener said: “it has given me an outlet to be productive”. Another gardener further specified: “I like being outside. I make suggestions to others, I like being helpful”. Finally, these gardeners cited mental health benefits associated with nature connection and described gardening as a means to “relax, decompress, and think the day over, almost like walking through the forest—very therapeutic”. In contrast, gardeners in neighborhoods surrounded by more urban land cover in the landscape tended to cite family time and connection in the context of growing food. In the words of gardeners: “spending my time with my children and teaching them gardening”; and, “my older daughter likes to come and help. I like spending time with her and showing her how to garden”. While some gardeners in gardens surrounded by more urban land cover said that gardening is “a part of our family tradition”, others stated that “as a family we have a new found appreciation of the hard work that goes into growing our own food”.
Another major axis along which well-being responses tended to fall was social opportunity. Gardeners in neighborhoods of greater education opportunity tended to cite community benefits and sharing. For example, a gardener in one of these neighborhoods stated: “I’ve met like-minded people here and community members who I wouldn’t have met otherwise”. Another gardener further emphasized the unique social community of community gardens: “Community is the biggest thing—there’s a sense of community that you don’t find in other places”. Gardeners in neighborhoods of greater housing opportunity, but also of more agricultural land cover more frequently cited physical health benefits. For example, one gardener voiced that gardening is “good physical exercise for me, getting out in the fresh air, makes me feel happier”.
Some well-being responses were not associated with biophysical landscape features or social opportunity. In particular, the well-being benefits of food production that were frequently reported by gardeners in all sites did not vary depending on land cover surroundings or neighborhood opportunity. Moreover, many gardeners brought up cultural benefits but were not more or less likely from one type of biophysical landscape or a certain spot along social opportunity gradients. “Talking to people from different ethnicities, learning about culturally appropriate foods”, was expressed by one gardener in this group, while another shared that the garden improves their well-being because they are “surrounded by a nice place with flowers and people from my country”. Cultural benefits tended to be associated with other well-being benefits, like learning and knowledge. As said by one gardener in this group: “I don’t want to lose my habits and ways from my original land”.
3.2. Self-Reported Garden Use
The number of hours that gardeners spent in gardens varied with biophysical landscape features and neighborhood social opportunity. The model that best predicted mean garden use included urban land cover and housing opportunity (AICc = 78.72, df = 4). Gardeners spent on average 6.8 h per week at their community gardens, but gardeners spent more time in gardens surrounded by urban land cover (Figure 3
= 0.07) and in neighborhoods of lower housing opportunity (Figure 3
= 0.004). Gardening hours generally declined in gardens surrounded by more natural land cover (Figure 3
b). Yet, gardening hours did not vary in relation to the health/environmental quality of neighborhoods (Figure 3
d) despite that differences in well-being benefits reported tended to fall along this axis. A majority of gardeners lived within 1.5 km (42.4%) or within 16 km (86.3%) of their community gardens, affirming the use of 5 km as a buffer in which to analyze landscape features and to use the ROI domains based on US census tract data.
Our investigation into community garden use and benefits shows the importance of urban gardens in the provision of well-being benefits across a range of biophysical landscape and social contexts within the Central Coast of California. We show that urban gardens can play different roles for supporting community members’ well-being and that garden use also correlates with levels of urbanization in the surrounding landscape as well as housing and environmental availability in the surrounding region. These results support the common view that community gardens are essential urban green spaces in rapidly urbanizing landscapes. They are also important for supporting ecosystem services such as enhanced resident well-being and increased provisioning of food products (i.e., provisioning services) to gardeners [25
], in addition to a suite of other less tangible cultural services to their users [23
Fresh organic food production was stated as the primary benefit of urban gardening (58%) and, unsurprisingly, this was consistent across counties and gardeners as the primary activity of an urban garden. The importance of food for all gardeners in this system is clearly evidenced by food’s location in the middle of the ordination plot (Figure 2
) and furthers the argument that community gardening can increase fruit and vegetable provision [25
]. However, a number of other notable benefits were highlighted such as mental health, connection to nature, family, and physical health. Many of these benefits relate to and are being investigated within the current research on the benefits of urban green space [7
]. Thus, gardeners do not only identify their time in the garden as a time for food production, but they report a variety of ways in which they gain additional benefits. This is evident in the multifaceted ways in which gardeners perceive well-being improvement through their survey responses. Similar to community garden literature in other regions, the responses especially illuminate how these green spaces are important for social relations by facilitating interactions among family and friends [33
], cultural heritage values by growing culturally significant food plants [59
], and educational values by providing a space to share and teach agricultural knowledge [26
Although well-being benefits are not spatially confined to a county, particular types of well-being benefits tend to be situated along social advantage domains and landscape gradients. This suggests that gardens provide specific services to groups of people in relation to their urban experience, and that this in turn may be informed by the social and biophysical amenities that people experience in their neighborhoods. In our study, we show that people who are surrounded by greater urban and less natural land cover tend to spend more time in the gardens, whereas those that have more natural land cover surrounding them tend to spend less time in the gardens. This interesting finding suggests that gardeners’ use of garden space is either consciously or unconsciously mediated by the availability of landscape-level natural land cover. Moreover, because more urban areas in this region are also associated with lower social opportunities and therefore likely worse well-being, our findings suggest that gardeners in these areas may have a greater need for well-being benefits and thus use gardens more.
Based on self-identified well-being benefits and garden use behavior, we see that at one end of the spectrum there are gardeners that tend to live in more natural landscapes and choose green spaces like community gardens in which to spend their free time. Many state that they glean benefits from gardens, including personal satisfaction, mental health, and connecting with nature. Community gardening builds relations between humans and nature, develops nature appreciation, and expands environmental awareness [61
]. In addition, previous studies also demonstrate that individuals with higher reported connections to nature spend more time in both private and public urban green spaces [62
] and that nature orientation can affect multiple aspects of people’s green space visitation behavior [15
]. Interestingly, however, we found that these gardeners actually reportedly spent less time in these gardens compared to gardens in more urban landscapes. While these gardeners may nonetheless have a higher preference for or access to natural landscapes in which to live and recreate, less reported time in gardens may be because gardeners’ time is spread across many public and private green spaces in their surroundings, rather than concentrated within gardens.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are gardeners who live in more urban areas with less access to public green spaces, natural land cover, and private green space. These neighborhoods also generally have less access to social opportunities relative to more natural landscapes, suggesting that these residents also have worse well-being to begin with. In these areas, community gardens are potentially the only access urban residents have to green space and to receiving the ecosystem services and human well-being benefits in a built landscape. It therefore makes sense that gardeners who spend more time in their community gardens also live in areas with more urban cover and less housing opportunity. This indicates that surveyed gardeners are likely more limited in access to urban green space (both public and private) because of fewer and smaller private yards or reduced open green space based on densification and housing costs. Here, gardeners living in these urban areas with relatively poor well-being may have a greater need for the well-being benefits derived from gardens, and consequently visit and spend more time in these gardens. As voiced by one gardener in a garden in a dense urban context, one key benefit to the garden is “access to land now that we live in an apartment—land that we can play and experiment with”. Shown here, gardeners in these neighborhoods indicated that they appreciate and use their gardens as a green space (i.e., for its biophysical or natural features) but also a space to connect with family and as spaces for learning and knowledge exchange. This suggests that these spaces are vital and unique for social and community relationships and thus social well-being. This finding supports conclusions that green spaces in urban situations where vegetation and common areas are sparse, are critical for mediating social contact and cohesion among residents through frequent visitation and use [36
]. Thus, community gardens in more densely built landscapes with little private green space are likely to be more multifunctional in their uses and diverse in their impacts on well-being.
Gardens are important spaces for community and education. Gardens can provide safe areas for community building and cultural exchange by incorporating cultural events for socializing [63
]. Moreover, these are important places to pass on and foster knowledge of ecological systems and skills such as food production to future generations [60
]. Our research supports these findings, as some gardeners highlighted the importance of these areas for “family” interactions, tradition, and knowledge learning. Krasny and Tidball [60
] place learning in community gardens as a form of civic ecology education based on intergenerational community engagement and environmental stewardship. Our results are evidence of these linkages with many gardeners stating that community and sharing are key well-being responses along the education opportunity domain gradient. This suggests that those gardeners that live in more educated neighborhoods use gardens to further develop their own and others’ education through knowledge exchange in a communal environment. These gardeners envision gardens as spaces to share ideas and grow food as a community, and may put more emphasis on—and get more benefits from—the community gardens as a collective endeavor.
In this study, we investigated the self-reported use of community gardens and well-being benefits derived by gardeners from community gardening across biophysical and social opportunity gradients, and show that gardener responses tend to vary in relation to their neighborhood biophysical and social context. Yet our analysis is limited to the scale of the gardener and to the scale of census tract data, meaning that our results may not be generalizable to all gardeners within a garden (particularly where we accessed only a small number of the garden population) or to other populations as we did not use quantitative well-being metrics. Moreover, while a majority of surveys were given orally by the research team (78%), using different techniques (e.g., other gardeners’ language assistance) to increase our sampling effort to, for example, non-English speakers may introduce a conservative sampling bias in our results. In addition, we only surveyed garden plot holders to answer how gardeners use and benefit from community gardening, yet future work could access non-gardeners in the neighborhood to explore how garden presence in an area may have spillover benefits by improving the broader community well-being of many other residents [65