Is Urban Gardening a Social Innovation?

Over the last decade, “urban gardening” and “urban agriculture” became increasingly popular among public policy makers and civil individuals (Ernwein, 2014: 77). Those community-based initiatives are acknowledged for a wide set of reasons. For instance, they seem to promise a response to urban degradation (Kurtz, 2001: 656) and are believed to offer a potential for contributing to sustainable food systems (CoDyre et. al., 2015: 71). Moreover, urban gardening is perceived as a way to deal with social fragmentation by promoting social inclusion in a shared open space (Ernwein, 2014: 77). Thus, urban gardening projects appear to be civic bottom-up initiatives that meet different social needs. An increasing number of political administrations in Western countries are developing urban agriculture policies that include all practices of growing food in and near cities (e.g. community gardens). Those public policies can be understood as a part of a policy-making trend that focuses on enabling civic initiatives “to empower and to promote the renaissance of the cooperative movement” (Bock, 2016: 553). Those initiatives can be subsumed under the term “Social innovations”. They can be distinguished from economic innovations along several key factors. For instance, social innovations include social entrepreneurs, initiatives, and movements as contributing actors whereas economic innovations rather rely on companies and research institutes (Rehfeld et. al., 2017: 7). Most important, the objective of social innovation is of social character which stands in contrast to the economic objective of economic innovations (Rehfeld et. al., 2017: 7). There exist numerous definitions of social innovation and no explicit scientific or public consensus on the exact meaning has been reached yet (Bock, 2016: 553; Bornstein et. al., 2014: 4). Following Bock (2016), this essay will go with the definition of the European Comission (2011):

“Social innovations are innovations that are social in both their ends and their means. Specifically, we define social innovations as new ideas (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs (more effectively than alternatives) and create new social relationships or collaborations. They are innovations that are not only good for society but also enhance society’s capacity to act.” (European commission, 2011: 9).

On different administrative levels, it is widely accepted  that urban gardening can be considered as an example for a social innovation. The question at hand is if, or to what extent, this holds true when social innovation is viewed according to the definition introduced above. This essay aims to address this question by looking at the urban gardening project at the “altes Tramdepot” in the city of Berne and by discussing how urban gardening may or may not contribute to social inclusion.
In the city of Berne, various urban gardening projects are in place at different locations (Stadt Bern, 2017). One of them is the project at the “altes Tramdepot” which is an urban gardening project that was initiated by the city’s administration and the neighborhood-association “Quavier” to allow the intermediary use of the area before it gets converted into a new housing- and business complex (Hämmerle, 2013). According to the responsible policy-makers, the goal of this project is of social character: The urban garden offers the possibility for individuals to meet without obligations which meets a need of the local neighborhood (Hämmerle, 2013). Thus, this project meets a social need (social inclusion- and networking). However, it is not designed in form of a bottom-up civic initiative but in a form of a partnership between the public policy sector and a group that represents the interests of a local community. Therefore, in this example, the idea of urban gardening was formally institutionalized. This corresponds to the findings of Ernwein (2014) who mentioned that urban gardening projects are often embedded in the local politics of their respective administrative space (Ernwein, 2014: 77). Also, the goal of social inclusion- and networking needs to be critically assessed. Community garden projects differ greatly from each other. Their degree of social inclusiveness varies and depends on each project’s accessibility and their membership (i.e. the social and spatial framing of the project). Thus, not all community gardens act as „community catalysts“ (Ernwein, 2014: 77-79). Referring to the project introduced above, I hypothesize that the project might very well possess a certain degree of social exclusion because it was partly initiated by community-representatives of the neighborhood where the project takes place. It might be spatially accessible to a broader public but is designed for the specific needs of a specific community. Thus, social inclusion of community outsiders (e.g. individuals of near neighborhoods or groups with other needs) is not addressed by the project. Looking at the definition of social innovation of the European Comission (2011), I argue that the presented urban gardening project can be partially regarded a social innovation: It addresses a social need of a community, but it is questionable to what extent it promotes inter-communal relationships or collaborations. Nevertheless, the project stands for a joint effort of a community and the public policy sector which showcases that bottom-up initiatives can be recognized and supported by public administrations. However, the social and spatial framing of such projects are embedded in different interests and power-relations of different contributing actors. Thus, the social means and ends of similar projects will only be achievable as long as the interests are aligned.

Broader speaking, I question the potential of urban gardening for social inclusion since it meets the interests of specific communities and therefore also contributes to some sort of social exclusivity, based on where the project takes place and who can contribute to it.
Finally, it must be mentioned that urban gardening projects differ among each other. Also, as mentioned, there are many different definitions of “Social Innovation”. Thus, there might very well exist a project that can be considered as a social innovation when contemplating more than one definition. This circumstance displays the present challenge of working with the terms “urban gardening” and “social innovation”: With that many definitions and perspectives in use, it is becoming increasingly difficult to analyze project-based case studies because the applicability of both concepts can be argued in various ways with different outcomes. Consequently, also public administrators need to settle on well-defined approaches of social innovation and urban gardening (and how they meet each other) in order to lower the risk of policy-misalignments.

*The original version of this essay was written by the author in the lecture “urban and rural development theories” in Automn 2018 at the institute of Geography, University of Bern.


Bock, B. (2016): Rural marginalisaion and the role of social innovation: A turn towards nexogenous development and rural reconnection. Sociologica Ruralis, (56) IV, pp. 552-573.

Birnstein, N., Pabst, S., Sigrist, S. (2014): Zur Bedeutung von sozialer Innvoation in Wissenschaft und Praxis. Im Auftrag des Schweizerischen Nationalfonds SNF. W.I.R.E, pp. 1-78.

CoDyre, M., Fraser, E., Landman, K. (2015): How does your garden grow? An empirican evaluation of the costs and potential of urban gardening. Urban forestry & urban gardening, (14), pp. 72-79.

Ernwein, M. (2014): Farming urban gardening and agriculture. On space, scale and the public. Geoforum, (56), pp. 77-86.

European Comission (2011): Empowering people driving change: Social innovation in the European Union. Bureau of European policy advicers (bepa). pp. 1-176.

Kurtz, H. (2001): Differentiating multiple measnings of garden and the community. Urban Geography, (22) VII, pp. 656-670.

Rehfeld, D., Terstriep, J. (2017): A theoretical framework for the economic underpinnings of social innovation. SIMPACT working paper, (1), pp. 1-23.



Hämmerle, B.(2013): Jedem Berner sein Garten. DerBund. In <>. Access: <03.12.2013>.

Stadt Bern (2017): Urban Gardening. In: <>. Access: <03.12.2017>.


Picture of blog-post: A guide to urban guardaning. In: <>. Access: <13.05.2018>

3 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

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  2. Wallace Umfleet
    Wallace Umfleet says:

    There are some interesting closing dates in this article but I don’t know if I see all of them middle to heart. There is some validity however I will take maintain opinion till I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we wish more! Added to FeedBurner as well


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