Economic Development News & Insight


The Higher ED Blog: The return on investment of community gardens

Susie Cochran / September 11, 2017

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The Higher ED Blog: The return on investment of community gardens

Food. We all need it. But getting it to our tables is getting more complicated all the time. Carolyn Steel claims food is “one of the greatest forces shaping the world.” As populations concentrate in urban areas and the agricultural industry faces mounting environmental pressures, urban farming is stepping in. Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, and other major Canadian cities are seeing urban agriculture grow by leaps and bounds.

Despite this growing interest, however, the value of urban agriculture is rarely expressed in a way that fits into the dollar-focused language of the boardroom. My research is hoping to change that.

I quantified five potential outputs of one form of urban agriculture (UA)—community gardens—and conducted a municipal-level return on investment (ROI) for a case study garden in Kitchener. I wanted to find out whether an ROI analysis was feasible with the data available, but also whether ROI was an effective way to communicate a community garden’s value. I found that my case study garden would be ROI-positive within three years of operation.  

Money may not grow on trees, but municipalities can achieve significant returns on investment in community gardens.

Community gardens commonly occupy underused urban spaces to grow food or ornamental plants. They serve as hubs of social, environmental and economic returns including food budget savings, increased neighbourhood property values, environmental services such as stormwater management, increased community wellbeing and improved individual health.

I considered five potential community garden benefits using the Kitchener case study site, estimating their dollar value while deducting the approximate city-incurred costs for establishing and maintaining the garden. Those benefits are shown in the table below.

Social Economic
Food Security Produce Value
Mental health Property Value
Neighbourhood Safety and Crime


For example, several studies have identified improved food security as an output of community gardens. I was able to quantify food security by obtaining food insecurity rates in Waterloo Region, applying a study on the healthcare costs of food insecure versus food secure households, and assuming participation at the community garden enabled one household to move from severe to moderate food insecurity. Avoided food insecurity-related healthcare costs amount to $600 per year using these calculations.

Most of the studies on community gardens cannot be applied to other contexts given how different each community garden is. Also, there is very little data available at the local level. Thus, these estimates are just that, estimates, rather than comprehensive calculations.

Even as ballpark figures, however, this small set of  potential benefits of a community garden are sufficient to yield an estimated $28,000 in returns over a 5-year period based on the case study site. That leaves a lot of wiggle room for error. And that’s not even including the long list of potential garden benefits that I wasn’t able to include due to the lack of data.

While limited in their ability to capture complex social and environmental variables, return on investment analyses are useful in providing a familiar language to gauge the viability of a project. They are therefore an important starting point in communicating the significance of community gardens in an economic system mediated by the common exchange value of money. Local-level data must be expanded to enable more accurate ROI assessments of community gardens, as it is clear that their potential contributions to economic, community and environmental wellbeing is significant.

An aging agricultural labour force, shrinking agricultural lands and mounting environmental pressures are all challenges that affect our access to healthy food. Meanwhile, community gardens creatively make use of available spaces for food production where demand exists. Municipalities across Canada can now transform underused spaces into productive plots of land, bringing food closer to home and fostering more resilient neighbourhoods. My research has shown that community gardens can also yield economic returns.

Are you reaping the harvest?


About the author

Susie Cochran is a master’s student at the University of Waterloo in the Faculty of Environment’s Economic Development and Innovation program. Her research was supported by Dr. Leia Minaker in the School of Planning. It focuses on the role of community gardens in local, sustainable food systems, and on translating their benefits into a quantitative form through return on investment analysis. Susie is excited to dive into community development efforts in Waterloo Region upon completion of her master’s this fall.

About the series 

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1987, the Master of Economic Development and Innovation (MEDI) is one of the only graduate programs in Canada focused exclusively on economic development. Students learn economic development theory and practice, and are exposed to leading edge knowledge, tools, and approaches to address contemporary challenges in cities and communities across Canada and internationally.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

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