As we enter 2014, many Americans have health at the top of their New Year resolutions. Those who join the gym or start the latest trendy health diet are the minority compared to many Americans who cannot afford to pay for fitness nor healthy food. Even for those who can, it takes extra time, work and money to maintain a healthy lifestyle. What if our urban communities and neighborhoods could be designed to promote healthy lifestyles easily and naturally? Typical American communities have primarily been built with profit in mind where every square foot of land is only designed for housing. Such designs have not only lacked the vision for the well being of residents, but have simultaneously discouraged healthy lifestyles.

There are new builders and designers taking action to change this worn out, insufficient scenario. Rather than designing a 250 acre parcel of land to fit as many houses as possible, they are preserving 50 of those acres. In place of more houses, they are creating parks, trails, bike paths, play grounds, community gardens, orchards, edible landscapes and even small working farms. It is about time! Green urban community design incorporates the health, fitness and well being of the residents into both the living and natural environment. In doing so, these communities are promoting healthy lifestyles which effortlessly afford these residents daily opportunities for free fitness, connecting with nature, access to fresh food and a stronger, enjoyable, shared sense of community.

Many studies have shown that people who live in urban communities disconnected from one another and from nature are prone to depression. Further studies reveal people who move to greener areas show not only a significant improvement in their mental health, but this improvement also has long term implications which increases physical and emotional health. Depression affects millions of people worldwide, and is the main cause of disability. Thus, a return to nature with greener environments provides a sustainable solution to maintain health and well being.

Living in harmony with nature is a gift to us and the environment. We can improve our health, and support the planet with sustainable food in growing our own gardens or in community gardens. Our own garden fresh food far exceeds the nutritional value of purchased food at the store. As well, urban gardens increase the quality of our soils and water, beautify our environment, create biodiversity and help save energy. Here is a photo of one of my garden beds starting to grow with a unique type of cabbage, beets, arugula and Hopi yellow beans.

new garden

Not only can you grow herbs and all your food, but you can also grow medicinal plants which you can eat or make tea and tinctures. In short, be your own doctor as you allow your food to be your medicine.

If you are interested in becoming an urban gardener, you will need to become aware of your local, current zoning laws or ordinances regarding urban agriculture. Unfortunately, many zoning laws are horribly outdated which can result in unpleasant legal conflicts and confusion. Recently in the news, residents in nearby Miami Shores were forced to remove a front yard garden they had going for 17 years. A neighbor complained, it went to court, and despite no zoning laws forbidding front yard gardens, the law was enforced to prevent any future complaints. Be sure to check your local ordinances before you put hard work and sweat into a garden. And if you can do a front yard garden, design it to be aesthetically pleasing so as to avoid a grumpy neighbor’s complaints.

As urban gardening continues to generate interest and grow, zoning laws will soon have to adapt to meet this demand. If you are limited to garden space, you can grow many vegetables in large pots, window boxes or hanging baskets, sprout seeds in large flat trays or even do raised beds on a rooftop. Herbs, or veggies like squash or strawberries, can be planted in sunny front yard beds in between landscaping. Your best option may be to find kindred gardening spirits with whom to create a community garden. Many cities are starting to consider a vacant lot for use as a community garden.

While there is hope for more design of new, greener communities, it will take some work to recreate established communities and neighborhoods with urban gardening, trails, bike paths and edible landscapes in mind. There are too many laws which restrict the right of homeowners to create gardens in lieu of lawns. Lawns, which require huge amounts of water, labor, fertilizer and chemicals, can be replaced with beautiful, useful, eco-friendly, healthy gardens and limit the need for high maintenance, environmentally unfriendly grass. The more involved we all become in our demands for greener urban design and gardens, the sooner zoning laws will have to change.

Here is a list of resources from the Mercola site for the urban gardener so you can get growing.

American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) – Devoted to community gardening and greening up communities across the nation. The organization has local chapters across the country.
Sustainable Cities Institute – Research and innovation about how to make cities more sustainable, including planning and zoning for urban agriculture
Practice Urban Agriculture (March 2010) – Information about urban agricultural zoning; lists a good number of government initiatives, plans, and ordinances that are up for vote in the near future
Food Not Lawns – A sustainability movement focused on getting rid of lawns in favor of more eco-friendly alternatives; also has chapters in nearly every state across the country
Lots 2 Green – Provides technical assistance to communities in order to facilitate their using vacant lots and other urban properties for community gardens and farms

Watch this video to help you think outside the box!