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Designing Community Gardens for Social Cohesion 

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 the community. The program moved from having many abandoned garden plots to a program with a long waiting list that is very popular. 


Out of 41 sites, 10 were abandoned in 2017

When Mei Ling started managing the program, she investigated reasons 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 problems together.


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 that social cohesion should be the goal of the program. To change this, Mei-Ling implemented two rules:


Rule #1: Follow the Zucchini Bread Rule: Are we building something that will increase the possibility of social connection? Or are the policies punitive, decreasing social interaction? Make it easy for the community to succeed both by making 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.


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 are required workdays and a management structure that requires people to know each other.