Building a Green Community on a Suburban Street

A small, shared garden offers chance conversations and purposeful connections in a green community for mutual benefit in the suburbs.

Reader Contribution by Jan Spencer
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by Unsplash/Tim Umphreys

We are seeing a steep spike in interest nationwide in gardening. Where I live in Eugene, Ore., I am seeing new front yard gardens here and there in my neighborhood a mile northwest of downtown. The local business that makes compost and garden soil at an industrial scale has become a very busy place. Instead of driving right up to make an order, you have to wait for 6 or 8 vehicles in front of you in line. Meanwhile, vegetable seeds are hard to find in area stores.

Historically, gardens have been a wonderful feature for homes, but with so much disruption caused by the coronavirus this year, gardens are looking like a better idea than ever. Our neighborhood is already known in the area for its many gardens, but we want to see more.

Neighborhood Association Advocates Container Gardening

“We” is our neighborhood association. The River Road Community Organization (RRCO) is affiliated with the City of Eugene. There are 25 neighborhoods in Eugene. Our neighborhood has a website, a monthly e-newsletter and, in normal times, monthly meetings about important issues relating to the neighborhood. RRCO also has a positive history and standing in the neighborhood.

I serve as one of eight neighborhood associated Board members and we have agreed to reach out to the neighborhood to encourage more gardens. We sent out the garden initiative notice in our monthly newsletter and each of us sent out the same message to our own contacts in the neighborhood.

A Google Form identifies what we are offering and provides a way for people to indicate their interests. We are offering several approaches to making homes and lifestyles more green and resilient. First, we are making available 3-gallon nursery containers filled with a soil mix, at cost, ready to plant. We see containers like this as garden “training wheels.”

A month later, nearly 400 containers have gone out! Some people wanted two or three — one fellow has 25. Our local Head Start program took 200. We had a big work party out front of my house to fill the Head Start containers with garden mix. Those containers will go out to many less privileged kids and could be the start of a lifelong friendship with plants and gardens.

New Connections on the Street

We also started a micro community garden on the property of one of our neighbors. Five people share a large raised bed. Several of the participants did not know each other before the garden, including a woman who recently bought a house down the street. We all water the entire raised bed as needed. It’s great to see the plants thriving and new friendships forming. Building social relations are just as important as the tomatoes, strawberries and beets.

One day, I was passing by the garden on my bike and saw one of our garden members. I pulled in and we had a great conversation about the garden and various chit chat. After a few minutes, the woman who owns the property with her husband came out and we all had a great conversation that lead to her giving us a tour of her garden closer to her house a short walk away.

She had a beautiful garden with paving stone raised beds — it looked like a mini Versailles. Their home would make for a nice feature in a garden magazine. She explained how she was away for a week 10 years ago and when she returned, her husband had built all the raised beds to make her garden work more comfortable for her at 65 years of age.

She also asked us to be aware that they had an efficiency apartment for rent and described the kind of person they would like to rent to. We had a very nice tour as we all learned more about each other in a very casual way.

Becoming Acquainted with a Familiar Place

I have met a number of new people on my suburban street and have seen several backyards and small gardens for the first time. There are all kinds of interesting details we don’t normally see, even on our familiar street — until we take the time.

Another day while out for the mail, I saw one of our garden group members, and we talked for a while. It turns out that he had told his girlfriend about the nearby apartment for rent. They had seen it and she will move in next month, making their seeing each other much easier. She will join the garden group. Another couple of neighbors over my backyard fence are very interested to make big changes to their large and sunny backyard, and they want me to help design and guide them through the multi-year process.

A chance front yard chat yesterday with another neighbor brought me up to date. After several years of unanticipated distractions, he is now returning to the task of reclaiming his half-acre property from invasive blackberries and producing more of his own food.

We now have a site tour planned for my home in a few weeks. There is a lot to see – grass to garden front and back, edible landscaping, rainwater catchment, passive solar, a tiny detached house, and much more. The idea is to show and tell and encourage others to adapt smart ideas to take into their own lives and property.

Imagine two parallel rows of eight houses and a street in the middle. And then imagine lines connecting those houses that represent spontaneous chats, sharing a tool, trading a plant. These are all small beginnings of more robust interactions that changing economic, social, environmental, and now public health circumstances will call for — people connecting more and more for common cause.

It’s so much fun and very satisfying to make connections with neighbors. There are so many benefits to be gained. We all have stories to share and relationships to build. We have more assets to work with to create a more green and resilient place to live, be they the neighborhood association or our own properties.

That makes me think: We should have a promenade on the street and then meet at the park for a picnic.

Jan Spencer has been transforming his quarter-acre suburban property for 15 years. The project shows what home economics and suburbia can look like — taking care of more needs closer to home. Read Jan’s book, Notes from the Suburban Frontiercheck out his YouTube channel, and find community-building resources at Suburban Permaculture.He is available for making presentations about transforming suburbia, economy and culture. 

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