Case Study: Planning for Gardens in Seattle


With a four-year waiting list in some neighborhoods, Seattle’s community gardens, affectionately known as P-Patches (for the Picardo family which allowed an activist to teach gardening to kids on their farm), are a hot commodity. Some 66 gardens with 2,000 plots serve 6,000 families. Yet, despite the high demand and strong environmental ethic found in Seattle, numerous community gardens have been lost to development. Over the past 30 years, approximately 15 gardens have been lost- at a rate of one every other year. That’s a hard loss for gardeners and community activists, who have put a lot of time and sweat into building the soil and community.

Uncertain land tenure for community gardens is all too common across the country. Witness the bulldozing of the South Central Farm in Los Angeles in the summer of 2006. In Seattle, fifteen years ago, activists sough to make P-Patches permanent land uses, by placing community gardens as part of the city’s land use plan.

In 1992, the city’s land use plan was up for community input. Barb Donnette and Nancy Allen, co-managers for the P-Patch program, decided that the plan would be a great tool for building support for their gardens. They identified some ideal numbers for gardens, and because of their status as city employees under the Department of Housing (where the P-Patch program was located) were able to convince amenable planners to include language in the draft that mandated one garden per 2500 households in “Urban Villages.” (Urban villages are neighborhood-based areas, centered on business districts, where growth is supposed to be focused.) When the draft went out for review to the public, Susan Casey, the President of GROW, a non-profit sister organization, spent a lot of time meeting with city officials to ensure the inclusion of the following provision:

“One dedicated community garden for each 2500 households in the Village with at least one dedicated garden site. Same as for Urban Center Villages. Same as for Urban Center and Hub Villages.”

This language was not a cure-all, however. As Barb Donnette states, “We never defined how big the garden would be. The downside is that one very small garden with few plots could meet that requirement, without alleviating resident demand for P-Patch space.”

So, fifteen years later, what has been the impact of this legitimation of community gardening? Rich MacDonald, the current manager of the P-Patch program notes that it has been a useful tool in justifying the creation of more P-patches. “Whenever we advocate for more gardens and ask for more money from the city or other funders, we always affirm that P-Patches are part of the comprehensive plan.” Recently, they were able to get funding for two more gardens as part of the neighborhood planning process in part because of the comprehensive plan provision.

Since then, the city has supported community gardens in other ways. The budget for P-Patch program has increased substantially to over $550,000 with 5.5 FTE staff. A 2002 resolution by Seattle City Council states that the city will include P-Patch in the evaluation of priority use for surplus city property; encourages city department cooperation to support p-patches; and encourages the expansion of the P-Patch program.

Perhaps the most important outcome of this short but simple provision in the Comprehensive Plan was, in the words of Nancy Allen, “It just gave credibility to P-Patches, and erased the concept of P-Patches as an interim use of land.”

Updated 12/2010