01/14/2013 09:58 am ET Updated Mar 16, 2013

The State of a City: Building a Community Garden in Bridgeport

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

In last Wednesday's address to the state, Connecticut Governor, Dannel Malloy reminded citizens that, as we begin the new legislative session, 2013 is a year for strengthening our communities, focusing on what brings us together, and honoring and caring for one another. Malloy's theme of togetherness surfaced at a time when Connecticut tops the charts with the largest per capita budget deficit in the nation, a struggling economy, a fractured public school system, the highest achievement in the nation, and a year that ended with unforetold natural disasters and human tragedy. As I think about the year ahead, Margaret Mead's old adage that opens this article would seem hokey and over used if it weren't so true. Instead, it serves as a reminder that we all have a role to play in making our communities better places to live.

Bridgeport, one of Connecticut's largest cities, sadly ranks as one of the country's most unequal cities and boasts the largest achievement gap in the country. Reservoir Community Garden, Bridgeport's first urban farm, is one effort to mend this trend. The initiative is led by Green Village Initiative (GVI) and their mission to, "activate community change." Their recent efforts to build an urban garden on the corner of Reservoir Avenue & Yaremich drew more than 300 volunteers.

Monique Bosch, one of the initiative's founders, led a small group of educators into the 1.5 acre plot that GVI has leased from the city of Bridgeport. When we visited the gardens they were covered in snow. Still, there were lettuces and other greens pushing their way up through the layer for frozen white. Even in winter, the garden was producing tiny seeds of evidence that this formerly vacant lot is being transformed into a productive agricultural and educational zone.

The community garden is part of GVI's efforts to create what Monique calls a "hub and spokes model" for a community garden. In creating this model, GVI has positioned a central community garden that will support the 15 school gardens that they have built since they began their efforts in 2010. This hub will not only supply food to 150 member CSA, but it it will also provide starter plants, leadership training, and will serve as a learning hub for the 26 interns that GVI supports. For broader impact, the team has partnered with Common Ground School to create a partnership that will support teachers and develop curriculum. Monique offers a swathe of experiences that led her to this work and helped her to recognize, "the importance of gardening and agriculture in community building."

Community gardens have been a part of urban revitalization since the 1970s. And stories and research, like Gerry Marten's Eco Tipping Points have shown community gardens to be an affordable tool with spin off effects that can reverse environmental and social degradation and be a pathway out of squalor. Garden initiatives across the country have been documented to help communities to improve their environment, nurture community space, grow healthy food, buffer air and water pollution, contribute to food security, reduce crime, and increase land value. In schools, gardens have become a main stream tool to address everything from the achievement gap to nutrition and obesity to developing and appreciating an ethic for hard work.

What seems like a tall order is best taken with a firm reminder that community transformation is best understood as an incremental process not a lightning bolt of epochal change. While, we know that there is no magic bullet for bringing our communities closer together, we are all increasingly invited to roll up our sleeves, get to work and to cheer on the people in our communities that are leading the way.