ESLARP East St. Louis Action Research Project
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

LA 437/465 Fall 1994

East St. Louis -- The Garden City

"A community garden is a place to go ...
To learn and educate;
To feel as part of the natural earth 
  (the bricks and mortar are the elements of the environment 
  that create anxiety and pessimism);
To develop a mechanism for communication, information sharing and networking;
To preserve and provide for the highest and best use of valuable resources;
To reduce the expenditure of cash for food and exchangeable materials;
To have peace of mind.
A community garden is a place to go to communicate 
  with earth, nature and oneself." 

"You need to give these youths a better perspective on life itself, and there's nothing better than growing things."

"Working on a garden not only beautifies the neighborhood and makes it safer, but teaches youngsters the value of hard work and improves their outlook on life."

"The garden has become an instrument of power that enables them to make the neighborhood safer and more beautiful."

"There's something nice about planting something alive. I really feel like I'm making a contribution to society. That's a big problem in contemporary life. Everybody just takes and takes and takes. You buy things. You're constantly in a consuming kind of situation. With the garden, I really feel like I'm changing things. I feel like I'm adding something."

These are some of the feelings that exist regarding a gardening program in a deteriorating community. Such a "Community Gardens" program has already been started in East St. Louis that aims towards using work force from the community for the production of vegetables and flowers, which can later be sold in the farmer's market.

Unlike other towns, where there is a shortage of land, this city faces the problem of having a large area of abandoned or vacant land. The other physical challenges for planning in this city are the location of the entire town in the flood plain along the Mississippi river and contamination of soils with heavy metals, especially lead, due to the many industries that existed here.

Why a community garden?

Surveys done in the 1980's, show that the financial benefits of gardening rank first on a list of reasons for planting home and neighborhood gardens. Although there is widespread skepticism about the amount of food that can be raised on a community garden plot, the figures show that a family can save a significant amount of money on its food costs by eating vegetables grown in these gardens. In the last decade, the national average for savings was $250 per 600 square feet of garden (i.e. 56 square meters). Many such gardens and larger gardens can be utilized to grow vegetables both for consumption by the community as well as commercial production. This activity can bring in appreciable amounts of revenue as well as employment for the people of East St. Louis.


Gardening programs provide an opportunity to occupy abandoned and other derelict properties which is something that is needed in this community to discourage criminal activity from taking place. This would not only provide employment to the people in the community, it would also help in bringing greater interaction amongst the members of the neighborhoods. An interaction between the members of the community will will result in safer neighborhoods; where children could again play outside their homes. Another advantage of this alternative is that one does not have to locate large tracts of land, but rather a few adjacent vacant lots could be utilized for this activity. This localized activity can provide a livelihood for old people, children, and single mothers with young children who could have otherwise not been able to travel to a far-off distance to work.

The sites that will be identified will form a hierarchy of spaces that would vary in their scale in terms of the numbers of people working in these gardens, ability of people to commute, demand of a particular type of crop, etc. (home-based, neighborhood/ community, or commercial production), identified all over the city with a centralized unit managing all these sub-units for marketing the produce. It would, in addition, have other activities like training programs for gardening and other skills like canning and food preservation which would equip the community with skills related with the primary occupation of agriculture.

Identification of vegetables

The challenge that we face here, is that of low-lying land, with a high water table and sites that are contaminated with heavy metals such as lead, mercury, etc. There is hardly any data available about the distribution of contaminated soils over the city, except for the CERCLA sites that have been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as superfund sites that need to be cleaned up. Running soil tests is not a very feasible solution because of the high costs, as well as time involved in the process. Hence, we have to look for approximations and suggest alternative plantings that can achieve one of the following:

Site Selection Criteria

For siting the three levels of garden sites that would enable us to achieve our objectives, certain site selection criteria were spelled out. These can be summarized as follows:

The Design

The design process consisted of the following steps:

1. Landuse feasibility study - In this the potential sites were identified after running an analysis using the Geographic Information Systems tool ARCINFO

2. Some potential sites in a neighborhood were identified.

3. Site Design - At this level, a site was identified within a neighborhood which was detailed out conceptually to illustrate what one of the options for development could be.


The community garden program has reached such a stage when more and more people have started responding to it favorably. At this point, as planners, we should make an attempt to facilitate this program and help provide employment opportunities for people. This would bring about a positive attitude and optimism amongst the community of East St. Louis.


Document author(s) :
HTML by :
Last modified:

LA 437/465 Fall 1994

East St. Louis Action Research Project
Refer to the ESLARP mailing address on the ESLARP home page