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The Top Ten Reasons for Planting Communities Green

By Carl Wilson, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension agent, horticulture, Denver County

 Three cheers for those who keep our communities green!

Throughout Denver and across America, people create gardens, develop parks and plant trees to combat the spread of concrete and the increase in traffic. They exchange fresh vegetables in community gardens and share plant information with neighbors.

Since 1759, when the first community garden was started in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Americans have been greening the countryside.

What motivates people to invest time in planting their communitites?

Most would say it makes them feel good, it keeps the concrete at bay or it's the right thing to do. Recent research has better defined the benefits of community greening and will make it easier for community planners and decision makers to support community open space positions.

Researchers Brogan and James write in the American Journal of Community Psychology that plants contribute substantially to psychosocial health. Gardens provide people an important opportunity to maintain their cultural heritage through growing plants that are important in their culture's food or rituals.

A wide range of psychological studies have found that exposure to green plants can relieve stress, especially in urban areas where excessive noise and movement promotes tension. Plants and green spaces provide the human mind with a rest allowing the expression of creativity and an increase in productivity.

Playing and learning in green spaces is important in child development. A garden can teach children how food is grown and what it looks like before it reaches the grocery store shelves. Children also learn important lessons about the cycle of life by watching plants respond to the seasons. The lessons of patience naturally derive from waiting for a fruit or vegetable to ripen -- appropriate reminders for both children and adults in our fast-paced society. For older youth, community greening projects can provide entry-level job experiences.

Community gardening can be the first step in self-sufficiency for the homeless. Vegetables from community gardens help feed people and save money. For those who have plenty, planting and maintaining plants can burn more calories in one hour than doing some aerobics.

Urban trees often have been called "the lungs of the city," keeping urban air cool and clean. City officials also take the opportunity to recycle fall's huge leaf harvest through composting and returning the broken-down organic material to the soil.

Community greening helps people learn neighborhood and civic participation. They gain skills in working with others and their elected officials, and access to public policy formation, social interaction and economic resources. Formerly marginalized urban residents become engaged with their neighborhoods. Indeed, community greening grows leaders. Those who assume the responsibility for nurturing plants learn to lead others to ensure that their planting efforts come to fruition.

The greening of Denver

While the City of Denver develops large-scale park spaces along the Platte River, the efforts of a multitude of community-based groups are equally important. These groups are now implementing their plans and engaging volunteers in building their dream green spaces. Examples are the projects in a growing number of Denver Public Schools.

Like most schools in Britain, Canada and the United States, Denver children face barren schoolyards during every recess. Canadian environmental educator Edward Cheskey recently calculated that a child spends 257 days in the schoolyard by the end of the sixth grade. He cites mounting evidence that the typical barren schoolyard design with the emphasis on surveillance and team sports, compounds discipline problems, promotes aggressive behavior and translates into miserable experiences for many children.

Many of Denver's public schools have independently mounted efforts to turn their barren schoolyards green with grass, gardens and trees. Examples include Greenlee, Samuels, Dennison, Park Hill, Steele, Cheltenham, Stedman, Fairview, Harrington, Valdez and Wyman elementary schools among others. DPS facilities maintenance should wholeheartedly support these efforts.

Neighborhood organizations plant trees and compost leaves. Non-profit organizations supporting families and youth are planting gardens as places to gather and nourish the positive in people. Examples include Mi Casa, Family Tree, Fresh Start, the Troy Chavez Foundation and Eagle Lodge. The Denver Urban Resources Partnership, a collaboration of federal, state and local agencies, has funded and provided technical assistance to 80 such school and community-based greening projects in the six-county Denver metropolitan area in two years.

Denver Digs Trees annually raises money and involves volunteers in planting trees citywide. Denver Park volunteers help cultivate flower beds and Denver Botanic Gardens volunteers help maintain a 23-acre island of green. Denver Urban Gardens continues to add to the 50-plus community gardens and develop garden leaders.

Colorado State University Cooperative Extension trains Master Gardeners to provide sound plant growing information to their neighbors and community. Denver Recycles educates Master Composter volunteers to teach people how to recycle yard clippings and prunings. The Colorado green industry supports these groups with plants and seeds.

The green oases nurtured in our neighborhoods by these groups form important patches in the quilt of our lives. The groups mentioned and others working on growing a green community deserve recognition for their efforts. Watch for their planting activities and stop to appreciate what green means to our community.

Photograph courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010