Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Geography and Sustainable Communities


Community gardens are widely promoted for their community building and educational capacities and they are equally criticised for their capability to perpetuate neoliberal logics of self-reliance and responsible citizenship. This thesis takes a relational approach to community gardens, focusing on community gardens in a relatively affluent and gentrifying urban area. It does so through examining community gardeners’ practices in three community gardens in the inner west of Sydney, Australia, and the ways in which through these practices gardens are connected to the wider urban environments in which these spaces are situated. Rather than prioritise institutional relationships or practices which generate social capital, as community garden scholarship tends to do, this thesis focuses on community gardeners’ practices, examining how community gardens relate not only to Council policies and interventions, but also to domestic garden spaces, infrastructure, non-human organisms and so forth. Community garden practices and relations were studied through participant observation at working bees and community garden meetings, and through twenty-four indepth interviews with community gardeners and neighbours. Fifteen interviews included a walk from the participant’s home garden to the community garden. This broader approach opens up ways of knowing the practices through which gardeners come to understand themselves as individuals in a group. A key finding is that garden communities come into being through their members’ practice which in turn respond and shift according to the nonhuman agency of technology and plants, and the values and objectives of individual gardeners. In these responsive practices, gardeners constantly balance personal experiences and values such as feelings of ownership and accomplishment, and community objectives such as reciprocity and inclusiveness. This finding is supported by three empirical threads. First, the thesis focuses on gardeners’ propertied relationships to land in the form of plots and fences. This thread troubles understandings of community gardens as commons and explores the various overlapping kinds of work private and communal property do in these community spaces. Second, the thesis analyses gardeners’ practices in relation to the food that is produced and harvested in the garden. This thread demonstrates how gardening practices and attachments to plants take shape in relation to personal objectives and that a sense of community is partly generated through gardeners’ relationships to plants. And finally, the thesis pays attention to gardeners’ individual and collective water management choices and practices. The focus on water practices and infrastructures emphasises the importance of external dependencies, such as domestic spaces, and values and expectation around fairness and economic rationale, in shaping community garden practices. Each of these empirical focus points sheds light on how gardeners are engaged in a complex set of relationships which allow them to invest in the community project for the sake of their personal goals while also creating a community space. In developing this relational approach to community gardens with a special focus on ownership, the thesis offers the insight that community gardens understood as spaces that build community, and community gardens as spaces that encourage self-reliance, are not mutually exclusive. Rather, it shows that depending on context, the concepts of ownership and community can be practised in socially inclusive and exclusive ways. The thesis encourages an opening up of questions around how community might function in a central, dense and relatively affluent urban area such as Sydney’s Inner West. It also offers insights into community formation that are useful for policy makers who wish to encourage community belonging either through community gardening or through other social activities such as markets, festivals, political participation or volunteering, that encourage people to generate a sense of community in relation to their material and social contexts.



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.