Thoughts on Sustainability or How to Grow Vegetables in the City

Community Garden in Bundang

Community Garden in Bundang, Korea
The sign reads: No gardening. The land is owned by Korea Land Corporation and will soon be sold and developed, therefore any cultivation is forbidden. No compensation shall be made for any damages to illegally cultivated goods. May 2005. – Korea Land Corporation

It is said that what is everybody’s is nobody’s. When something lacks ownership it tends to be abused or neglected.

This long Chuseok weekend, I finally had a little extra time to explore my neighborhood. I live in Bundang, which is one of 5 planned satellite cities (link in Korean) created to house the ever-growing population who work in Seoul. It is one of the better ones with a lot of (interesting) open space running through the rows and rows of mind-numbingly boring monolithic slab apartment blocks. I live in its far corner which ain’t all that bad, at the foot of some nearby hills with hiking paths.

On my walk, I noticed a empty plot of land, where people were growing vegetables, in the adjacent lot next to where my 3 block apartment complex stands. There are signs scattered across the plot which forbid any cultivation. I passed by without thinking too much, but this plot of land lingered in my mind long enough to form a series of questions what bubbled up to consciousness:

1. Why was it empty?

In a place like Bundang, where land is so precious, and high-valued, there must be a good reason why it is empty. According to records, it been zoned for residential development and is owned by the Korea Land Corporation, which is the government organization that developed Bundang. Signs on the land state that it will be developed soon, but it’s dated 2005. I’m not sure why it’s being left intentionally empty.

2. What was happening in this empty plot?

It was being cultivated as a community garden. Elderly residents of the nearby apartment blocks have taken over the land, and have planted all sorts of vegetables used in common Korean cuisine.

3. Why was this happening?

What is interesting here is that a vacuum is being filled not with abuse (e.g. communal trash heap) but with productivity (communal vegetable garden). Koreans, especially elderly ones, have a very strong attachment to the earth. My dad has it. He’s always been fostering a romantic dream of retiring to a house on a small plot of land where he can grow his own vegetables. I have never seen him grow anything in my years as his son.

4. What does it have to do with sustainability?

There are 3 components to sustainable communities in the broadest sense: Economic, Environmental and Social. The environmental is the middle sibling that gets all the media attention, but it cannot exist without its two companions.

In my mind, the example of elderly Koreans appropriating empty land for vegetable growing is on a small scale and example of sustainability in practice. It’s obviously environmentally sustainable. It’s also economically sustainable. Elderly people live on meager stipends, with a fixed income, so these people growing their own vegetables close to home make economic sense. But what is equally important is the social sustainability. No sustainable practice can be truly be sustainable without a strong social component: Growing their own vegetables give elderly people a sense of purpose and self-esteem. They are less apt to nag their kids because they have something to do, and it gives them a good reason to invite friend and family over to enjoy the food, or to invite themselves over, to bring over homegrown vegetable to their no-time-for-real-food kids who are too busy scraping a living together. It also provides a generational bridge for grandchildren to work alongside grandparent, not to mention all the knowledge sharing that occurs between gardeners.

In short, the 3 components together create a loop that enriches lives of all residents. A sustainable community.

I’m wondering why more housing developments don’t just create communal vegetable plots with their communal land, which most often suffers from bad landscaping or in worst cases, just cemented over to lower maintenance. Each resident could be assigned a plot of land in the communal garden. If they don’t care for gardening they can lease their land for a fee or freely to those who do care. It’s like guaranteed parking space.

I never cared much for growing things myself, but I can see why people do. I must be getting old.

Community gardening has been formalized in the US and UK, but from my shallow internet search (Naver, Google), there doesn’t seem to be any formalized grassroots (nice pun!) organizations in Korea as yet.

[update 2008-09-18] Found an entry on Urban Agriculture on Wikipedia (my italics):

Urban farming is generally practiced for income-earning or food-producing activities though in some communities the main impetus is recreation and relaxation. Urban agriculture contributes to food security and food safety in two ways: first, it increases the amount of food available to people living in cities, and, second, it allows fresh vegetables and fruits and meat products to be made available to urban consumers. A common and efficient form of urban agriculture is the biointensive method. Because urban agriculture promotes energy-saving local food production, urban and peri-urban agriculture are generally seen as sustainable practices.

Given that soon 50% of the world’s population will be living in cities, and many of the new residents would have migrated from agriculture, it would seem to make sense for rapidly growing cities to reserve land around the city for agriculture. This would also form a natural buffer to resist urban sprawl and promote density in urban areas.

To feed a city with a population of 10 Million (Seoul, New York etc), you need to import 6000 tonnes of food each day.


In the past couple of days, they (Korea Land Corporation) walled off the community garden in the photo, with a big sign saying it is being leveled to make way for new housing. Inevitable but still sad.

2009-08-03 has an article about the growth of neighborhood farming practices in the US: Urban farming takes root in surprising new ways.

  • Green Sustainability Advocate

    I wish we could garden on empty plots in our city. Rather, the city council recently ordered all small gardens on city land to be taken down. Why? No idea, they cited some law and “right of use” clause. Obviously, we don’t have the most forward thinking leaders.

  • soik

    i found your blog.. what a world!

    see this,
    sprawltown, by ingersoll

    he is greening urban sprawls with city farms. provocative. exhilarating.

  • Matt

    I also live in Korea (Changwon). I can see how urban gardening has a definite social use, as you said. However, I was surprised to learn from one of my co-workers that their garden actually costs them more money than it would take to just go to the grocery store and buy the vegetables. It seems that growing vegetables only really gets cheap when it is done on a large scale, such as by big farms. This was surprising to me. How does this affect your analysis of urban gardening, if it does at all?

  • namho

    That is the dilemma of urban farming. It is not romantic, nor is it cheap. There is a good TED conference presentation by Louise Fresco on that very issue that may be good to take a look at.

    But I would ask your co-worker, which part of maintaining the garden is most expensive. That would be interesting to know: fertilizer, seeds, irrigation, plastic used in protecting the plants, cost of leasing the land?

    The motivation for most I think is more the sense of attachment to nature and the knowledge of where your food is coming from than the financial gains.

    My father has a good friend who consistently gives us a share of his crops from this farming activities in Soo-jee not far from Bundang. He gets a very high yield from his plot only because he does a lot of research and experiments regularly. He’s an exception of course. Also exceptional is, in his case, he went to the trouble of contacting the landlord and getting permission to farm on the land. He made an agreement to vacate the land without condition when the decision was made to develop the land. In turn he had the other local residents wanting to use the land sign similar agreements with him.

    The point I was trying to make in the article I guess was that the local government should make similar deals with the community, especially if it is land the government owns, or even put broker agreements such as the one mentioned above with landlords who are not ready to develop their land. That way the local residents can feel a little more sense of community and the land doesn’t go to waste.

  • Makiwa Philip Jumo

    I find your article and other readers’ comments interesting reading. I live in Harare capital city of Zimbabwe. Urban agriculture used to be frowned upon but in the last twenty years I have noticed an increase in the number of people involved in urban agriculture. It used to be only visible in the low income suburbs, but recently even empty pieces of land in the affluent suburbs are taken up by some crop. The main crop that is often seen is maize which is grown during the rainy season (November to March). Sweet potatoes, green beans and green leaf vegetables are also grown. Leaf vegetables are grown throughout the year.

    The City Council used to send hired hands with slashers to tear down the maize planted in open spaces. The reason given was that it was unsightly, helped the spread of mosquitoes and was illegal. (I grew up on my father’s farm some 200km away from Harare, so I find the summer green attractive and not offensive and I think many locals agree with me.) But year after year (particularly nowadays with increasing economic difficulties and increasing poverty)the area being planted has grown despite the stance taken by the City, and, it looks like the City has come to realise residents will not stop come what may and are now turning a blind eye. They now seem to be discouraging stream bank cultivation which causes soil erosion. I have the feeling that the City will eventually come up with more humane ways of controlling urban agriculture rather than discouraging it altogether.