Research News

Urban gardens are good for ecosystems and humans

Community gardens and urban farms positively affect biodiversity
March 21, 2023

Traditionally, it has been assumed that cultivating food leads to a loss of biodiversity and negative impacts on an ecosystem. A new study from researchers at multiple universities, including The University of Texas at Austin, defies this assumption, showing that community gardens and urban farms positively affect biodiversity, local ecosystems and the well-being of humans that work in them.

The U.S. National Science Foundation-supported study, published in Ecology Letters, looked at 28 urban community gardens across California over five years and quantified biodiversity in plant and animal life, as well as ecosystem functions such as pollination, carbon sequestration, food production, pest control and human well-being.

"We wanted to determine if there were any tradeoffs in terms of biodiversity or impacts on ecosystem function," said Shalene Jha, lead author of the paper. "What we found is that these gardens, which are providing tremendous nutritional resources and increasing well-being for gardeners, are also supporting incredibly high levels of plant and animal biodiversity. It's a win-win."

Previous assumptions by scientists about the negative effect of food production on biodiversity have been almost entirely based on intensive rural agriculture enterprises that tend to grow only one or two types of crops, often at a massive scale. Urban community gardens, private gardens, and urban farms and orchards tend to grow more types of plants in smaller areas. This new study is the first to explore the effects of urban gardens across a wide range of biodiversity measures and ecological services.

"It's estimated that by 2030 about 60% of the world's population will live in cities,” Jha said. "And urban farms and gardens currently provide about 15%-20% of our food supply, so they are essential in addressing food inequality challenges. What we're seeing is that urban gardens present a critical opportunity to both support biodiversity and local food production."

The study also found that the choices that gardeners make can have a large impact on their local ecosystem. For instance, planting trees outside crop beds could increase carbon sequestration without limiting pollinators or decreasing food production from too much shade. And mulching only within crop beds could help improve soil carbon services, while avoiding negative effects on pest control and pollinators.

"This study shows that engagement of people from local communities in managing urban gardens has many potential benefits in terms of food sovereignty and security, stakeholder engagement and participation, and the biodiversity and function of the surrounding ecosystem," said Steve Dudgeon, a program director in NSF's Division of Environmental Biology.