Transition towards urban sustainability through socially integrative cities in the EU and in China


1. Purpose(s)

Broadly speaking urban gardening points at achieving various environmental, economic and social goals.

In environmental dimension, urban gardening is aimed at contributing to create green spaces and infrastructures, enhance natural capital and increase biodiversity, so as to help regulate urban ecosystem and improve urban microclimate, which could not only improve the quality of living environment but also mitigate human impact on climate change at city and community levels.

In terms of economic issues, urban gardening intends to provide economic opportunities for urban farmers and further income for disadvantaged people, as well as increasing property value which benefits from the improvement of landscape quality of urban places. In particularly, urban gardening is developed with the purpose of addressing economic disparities that stem from food access. In the current food system, the urban farmer plays little to no role in the food supply chain. By getting urban farmers more involved in food transactions, they are able to generate income through the sale of high value crops such as fruits and vegetables.

Concerning the social respect, urban gardening comes to dealing with health inequality, as well as enhancing social capital and civic engagement.  Urban gardening provides access to fresh fruits and vegetables, which can lead to an overall increase in nutrition. It allows for physical activity, especially for the elderly, as well as benefits in mental health, so as to promote active ageing. The sharing of knowledge and cultural values and skills gained through gardening serve as a social bridge to increase social interactions between citizens consequently foster social inclusion and reduce social problems.

Different from urban farming that has the main purpose to produce food, urban gardening mainly focuses on social goals. Therefore, participatory gardening by community members contributes to renovate the vacant, derelict, or poorly maintained land in the community into community garden, with co-management and co-maintenance by the community, to improve the urban natural ecosystem and biodiversity, to promote neighbourhood health and well-being, to create space for community building, to strengthen neighbourhood interaction and bonding, as well as to create natural education opportunities and to cultivate the ecological and sustainable awareness of the public.

Key Words: urban gardening, community participation, social inclusion, public goods, active aging

2. Relevance and Impact

Participatory urban gardening is a relevant tool regarding socially integrative cities as fosters a better use of natural resources, strengthens the community social cohesion and intergenerational and interethnic social inclusion, and promotes collaborative models of decision-making and governance in the local community.

Participatory urban gardening tool was not tested in a specific case study during the project, but description of the good practice examples – Chuangzhi Community Garden, Shanghai and South Milan Agricultural Park (Italy) – and the list of references quote several case studies done in Chinese and European contexts.

The impacts of participatory urban gardening could be assessed from several perspectives (see McEldowney 2017; Piorr et al. 2018).

From an environmental point of view, participatory urban gardening contributes to improve the urban natural ecosystem and biodiversity; to safeguard the territory (the constant presence of gardeners protects from degradation and removes unwanted activities); to recovery derelict land; and to create green areas. Moreover, it fosters a better use of natural resources due to the short food supply chain and it offers natural education opportunities and improves the ecological and sustainable awareness of the public.

From a social point of view, the impacts of participatory urban gardening are relevant for the health and well-being of the community members, for the community social cohesion and inclusion, and for food security as well. Participatory urban gardening is occasion for physical activity and it offers opportunities for intergenerational and interethnic social aggregation, for strengthening the sense of community (people experience to overcome difficulties together, exchange seeds and recipes, mix cultures and traditions) and the neighbourhood interaction and bonding. It also impacts on the access to nutrient food, because urban gardening offers the opportunity to grow healthy fresh food, which is not usually eaten by people with low income because it is more expensive than industrially produced food. This fact also has positive effects on the health and quality of life.

From an economic point of view, participatory urban gardening represents a partial economic support for families (due to food integration and sale of garden produce).

From a planning and decision-making process point of view, urban gardening, relying on participatory mechanisms, can empower local community in the management of public goods, promote shared responsibilities for obtaining the best possible environmental, social and economic outputs, and foster new models of co-decision-making and co-governance in the local community.

3. Strenghts

The strengths of participatory urban gardening could be elaborated from several perspectives.

From a cost-benefit point of view, participatory urban gardening is a means that sets low threshold for the participants. It requires a relatively small amount of space and investment, since it could be applied in backyards, vacant land, public right-of-way and boulevards or rooftops. Meanwhile the technology threshold of participatory urban gardening is relatively low, as it’s easy for community members of all ages to learn and operate. Low maintenance cost also makes it a more sustainable activity for the public. At the same time, participatory urban gardening could have a quick effect in environment improvement for a short time, therefore, participants are able to reap health benefit while simultaneously gaining a sense of accomplishment, which could help encourage continuous devotion into it.

From the economic perspective, participatory urban gardening is beneficial to the regeneration of residual space, as well as the improvement of the efficiency and quality of space resources utilization. By replacing the vacant or derelict land with green space, the land value of residence in derelict districts could be increased. In addition, some disadvantaged participants could probably make a profit from the yields of the gardens as well.

From the ecological perspective, during the process of participatory urban gardening, some household wastes or idle items could be reused, which is beneficial to community material recycling. In some cases, those gardens that have been built can serve as buffers between otherwise incompatible urban land so as to provide a friendlier and healthier environment for all age groups.

From the social perspective, participatory urban gardening can be attractive to the public, especially to children and the elderly, who may be the key groups in community involvement, so that it may further help promote public engagement. Through the experience of sharing knowledge and labour, interaction between different community members can be enhanced. Parents and kids, the elderly and the young, are able to have the opportunity to work with, communicate with, help and teach each other. Solidarity between generations can be rediscovered during the process. Moreover, in need of continuous maintenance activities, it can further contribute to the deepen of neighbourhood bonding.

Last but not least, participatory urban gardening can contribute to improving both physical health and mental health of participants. It provides the opportunity for participants to encounter among people for rediscovery of biological times, since they get to know how to wait and enjoy the culture of slowness during the process. Through day-to-day gardening, participants can get closer to the nature and redevelop the perception of space and time in the urban living environment.

4. Weaknesses

Despite the environmental, social and economic benefits related to participatory urban gardening, there are several weak points and limitations (see McEldowney 2017; Piorr et al. 2018).

First of all, there could be health issues for food growers because of the exposure to pesticides and herbicides and to dumps waste and because of the use of contaminated soil. Health risks could also arise for consumers because “urban produce” could contain high levels of heavy metal and chemicals as a consequence of cultivating contaminated soils or of the incorrect use of pesticides and herbicides due to lack of skills and competences of food growers.

There could be also environmental issues, because unsustainable urban gardening practices could cause negative externalities such as soil, water and air pollution (due to animal waste, use of chemicals, smell or noise nuisance, etc.).

Also from an economic perspective, several weak points can be pointed out. Participatory urban gardening has start-up and maintenance costs (water, permits, infrastructure, etc.) that must be correctly managed. Therefore, a lack of experienced skilled management poses several risks to the economic sustainability of the participatory urban gardening projects. Most of these projects, focused on social goals, are carried out through public funding than through food sales, this creates a dependency on public funds, grants, donations, etc.

Moreover, food cultivation in the city has also many critical legal profiles, such as labour law issues, permits and licenses regulation, food safety legislation, food sales legislation and rules on the use of pesticides. One of the most critical legal issue is the access to land in the city, in particular the access to vacant land.

The access to land is also relevant from a planning perspective, which faces several challenges such as the lack of a clear designation for agricultural use in urban planning, insufficient communication and coordination between the planning community (planners and architects) and the urban agriculture movement, the fact that urban gardening takes place in settings of land scarcity, which causes conflicts between different types of land uses. Therefore, at institutional level, there is a strong need for intersectoral coordination of the activity of different sectors and actors. At community level, it is necessary a truly engaged and dedicated group of community members since the beginning of the project. A lack of participation poses a threat to the success of urban gardening initiatives.

5. Good practice examples

Chuangzhi Community Garden, Shanghai, China

The Chuangzhi Community Garden is located in the Chuangzhi Tiandi Park in Yangpu District, Shanghai (map). It was a typical vacant open space left in rapid urban development. Since 2016, with the funding and support of the government and developer of this area, a non-profit organization named "Siyecaotang" renovated the land into the first community garden in Shanghai, with the main idea of Permaculture with widely community engagement (Figure 1).

First of all, the government integrated resources to create a platform for equal dialogue among relevant enterprises, residents, and social organizations, and reached a consensus on a rational division of work and balanced development. With the technical assistance from Siyecaotang, community members were encouraged and organized to participate in an inclusive design process of the target area, in which the habits of residents in using the space and the residents’ common memory of the community were deeply rediscovered. Subsequently, in the process of participatory construction, management and maintenance of Chuangzhi community garden, a communication platform was established between the professional organization, enterprises, the government, and residents to form a stable network of relationships.

Chuangzhi Community garden has now become a community public space integrating leisure services, public activities, community agriculture and landscape, promoting nature education, neighbourhood communication, and community resource sharing (Liu et al. 2017; 2019).

South Milan Agricultural Park (Boscoincittà and Parco delle Cave), Milan, Italy

Over the last years, the environmental, economic, and social benefits of urban agriculture, both in the form of urban farming and in the form of urban gardening, have been recognized by the city of Milan (map). The interest in urban agriculture has resulted in designing new policies and reviewing existing ones. In 2012, in order to facilitate the creation of new urban gardens, the City Council of Milan adopted guidelines for entering into agreements with non-profit organizations (Ruggeri, Mazzocchi, and Corsi 2016). Then, in 2015 the city of Milan promoted the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, which is an international protocol engaging cities for the development of more sustainable urban food systems (MUFPP, BCFN 2018). Up to now, the Pact has been signed by 210 cities.

In 2015 the city of Milan also adopted its Urban Food Policy, where urban agriculture plays a relevant role.

The South Milan Agricultural Park is an interesting example of people’s involvement in the management of the city suburb. The Park is a regional park established in 1990 (the Italia Nostra association began to develop it from the 1970s), with the aim of protecting and enhancing the natural environment, landscape and agricultural activities of the Milanese irrigation plain. It is 47,000 hectares wide and made up of clearings, paths, waterways and urban gardens. It is managed by the Centre for Urban Forestry, by civil service objectors and volunteers.

The park is composed of different areas such as agricultural land, cascine (farms) and local city parks.

The urban parks, Boscoincittà and Parco delle Cave, are part of the South Milan Agricultural Park.

Boscoincittà covers over 120 hectares of land and contains about 150 allotment gardens, available for Milanese citizens. It is managed by Italia Nostra association, with the support of volunteers.

Parco delle Cave, also located in the western Milanese suburb, occupies an area of 135 hectares. It is characterized by the presence of four lakes, a legacy of sand and gravel mining that began in the 1920s. It also contains a system of urban gardens. The park is managed by the Municipality of Milan.

6. References

Liu, Yuelai, Keluan Yin, Min Wei, et al. 2017. “Community Garden Practice in High-density Central Cities: A Case Study of KIC Garden and Herb Garden in Shanghai.” Landscape Architecture, 9:16-22.

Liu, Yuelai, Junli Xu and Keluan Yin. 2019 “Participatory Construction of Community Public Space in High-density Cities: A Case Study of Community Gardens.” Landscape Architecture, 6:13-17.

McEldowney, J. 2017. "Urban agriculture in Europe. Patterns, challenges and policies." Brussels: European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS), Members' Research Service. PE 614. Available at:

Ruggeri, Giordano, Chiara Mazzocchi, and Stefano Corsi. 2016. "Urban gardeners’ motivations in a metropolitan city: The case of Milan." Sustainability 8(11): 1099. Available at:

Piorr, Annette, Ingo Zasada, Alexandra Doernberg, Felix Zoll, and Wiebke Ramme. 2018. Research for AGRI Committee-Urban and Peri-urban Agriculture in the EU. European Parliament. Available at:

MUFPP, BCFN, Food & Cities. 2018. The Role of Cities for Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Available at:

7. Author(s) of the article

Pamela Lattanzi (UNIMC), Jiayan LIU (THSA)