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Guest blog: Community Gardens as a Third Place

Linda Appel Lipsius, Executive Director of DUG (Denver Urban Gardens), Denver, CO

Now that most of our gardens have closed for the winter, in this time of joyous celebration and quiet reflection, I’m thinking a lot about community resilience. I take special delight in knowing that DUG’s (Denver Urban Gardens) community gardens and food forests provide a precious “third place” for gardeners and neighborhoods throughout the growing season.

A “third place” refers to social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home (“first place”) and work (“second place”). My introduction to the idea came during a group project researching Starbucks, back in business grad school. Most people think Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s primary mission was to sell Italian-style coffee to the American masses. In truth, Schultz sought to fill a growing void in American culture — to establish his coffee houses as a much-needed American third place.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term in his 1991 book The Great Good Place. The third place concept stuck and resonates around the world. Rebecka White, Editor of New Zealand Geographic explains that  “Your third place is where you relax in public, where you encounter familiar faces and make new acquaintances.” Health & Place, a Holland-based Elsevier scientific journal, points out that third places “generate social surplus: collective feelings of civic pride, acceptance of diversity, trust, civility, and overall sense of togetherness within a locale through sustained use and connection among residents.”

If you participated in a community garden this past summer, you might have a personal harvest of third place stories. I do. Take a moment to think about your garden – the people you met and friends you made, the shared joy you all found preparing the garden, reveling in the miracle of the growing season, sharing tips, and working together to put the garden to bed to rest and regenerate for the coming year. 

As classic third places, community gardens offer opportunities to grow food and, even more importantly, cultivate friendships and connections, no matter what formal role you might play in the garden.

Today, third places are even more essential. We face what the US Surgeon General has declared “an epidemic of loneliness.” Not only does loneliness impact mental health; but loneliness and social isolation increase the risk of premature death by 26% and 29%, respectively. That’s the same risk posed by smoking 15 cigarettes a day! Lack of social connection increases the risk of heart disease by 29%, and stroke by 32%, as well as making us more susceptible to viruses and respiratory illnesses, as well as to anxiety and depression.

Fortunately, science also suggests a potent antidote: A 2011 study shows that community garden participants reported an increase in social connections, with 71% engaging in more social interactions and 59% developing new friendships within the community. More recently, a 2023 study demonstrated how community gardens decrease stress and anxiety levels, with those who came into the study most stressed and anxious seeing the greatest reduction in mental health issues.

Here in the Mile High City, winter is cold! It’s unlikely most of us will be visiting our gardens for the next four to six months. That’s true across much of North America. Even where the climate is warmer, most gardeners take a break.

No matter where we garden, however, I challenge us all to keep cultivating those unique third places we create in our community gardens, even when our gardens are closed and the weather outside is frightful. Let’s keep visiting one another and celebrating. Let’s commit to expanding our glorious garden third places to our homes, dinner parties, coffees, and meetups. Reach out. Be curious. Connect. 

Linda Appel Lipsius is the Executive Director of Denver Urban Gardens (DUG), one of the leading urban community gardening organizations in the US. Learn more about DUG . DUG is a member and longtime supporter of ACGA.. Linda's original post was first published on Linked In. Read the original, with citations, there or at Medium. You can enjoy more of Linda’s essays at The Appel Tree on Medium.

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