Community gardens improve personal and neighborhood health, CU-led research finds

Community gardeners eat more vegetables, exercise more, weigh less and feel healthier than nongardeners -- and even home gardeners -- in the Denver-metro area, researchers led by scholars from the University of Colorado have found.

Further, community gardeners are more attached to and protective of their neighborhoods.

Community gardens are parcels of land divided into plots in which neighborhoods grow vegetables, herbs and flowers. Aside from anecdotes, scientists have collected little evidence that gardening fosters human and neighborhood health.

A team including CU researcher Jill Litt is changing that. Its findings have been distilled into a film, "A Garden in Every Neighborhood," that has been shown locally and may be viewed at vimeo.com/21818738.

The team's most recent findings were published this summer in the journals Social Science and Medicine and The American Journal of Public Health.

Denver-area community gardeners consume an average of 5.7 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, compared to 4.6 servings for home gardeners and 3.9 servings for nongardeners, the team found. The average body-mass index for community gardeners is 24.2, compared to 27.2 for nongardeners. (A BMI of 25 or higher suggests that the person is overweight.)

Community gardeners engaged in 720 minutes per week of moderate-to-vigorous exercise, compared to nongardeners, who reported 570 minutes per week. The surgeon general recommends 150 minutes per week.

Denver residents are more active than average Americans, but Denver gardeners are even more active than average Denverites.

Litt, an associate professor at the Colorado School of Public Health and an assistant professor in CU-Boulder's environmental studies program, noted there are ample studies in the United States and abroad that illustrate the beneficial relationships between nature and health, but few studies focusing on community gardens and health.

Litt's team was funded in 2004 to begin to fill this gap in evidence. Litt's team included students and faculty from epidemiology, anthropology, public health, sociology, urban planning and architecture.

The goal was to explore how neighborhood environments influence health and well-being and whether community gardens were a viable strategy to promote health at the neighborhood level.

"To understand the meaning of gardens, we interviewed about 67 gardeners across 29 garden sites in Denver," Litt said. "In those interviews, we asked residents about how they came to gardening, their experiences in the garden, the social relationships developed in the garden, and the experiences between the garden and the neighborhood."

In addition to Michael Buchenau of Denver Urban Gardens, Litt's research team included James Hale and Julie Marshall of the Colorado School of Public Health, Corrine Knapp, University of Alaska, Nicole Comstock of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Fahriye Sancar of the College of Architecture and Planning, Miriam Dickinson of the University of Colorado Denver, Mah-J Soobader of Statworks in Canton, Mass., Mark Turbin of CU-Boulder's Institute of Behavioral Science and Lisa Bardwell of Earth Force.

The team's research was supported by grants from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Health Protection Research Initiative and by the Colorado Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute.

More on this story will appear next month in Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine at artsandsciences.colorado.edu/magazine/.

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