Madison Water Access and Community Gardens: Research and Recommendations

UW-Madison Task Force Members:

   Savannah Williams, Department of Agricultural Business Management 
   Anna, Department of Community and Environmental Sociology 

Scenario | Abstract | Introduction | Methods | Benefits | Results | Limitations | Conclusions | Citations | Acknowledgements | About the Authors


The City of Madison has been approached by the Gardens Network because of issues with water access in community gardens. Specifically total water bill costs for community gardens in the city are unsustainable and low income participants are disproportionately burdened by these costs. The City of Madison has tasked us with the job of researching how other cities have dealt with water fees in their community gardens, specifically non-water consumption fees that make up about 70% of the Madison water fee. We will look at other communities and their planning process with green infrastructure to have successful community gardens.


The purpose of our research is to help the City of Madison, WI come to a conclusion on how best to deal with the cost of water utilities for community gardeners. We take the time to explain the benefits of urban agriculture from the perspectives of community, food costs, and environment and also the challenges that urban agriculture can present. In order to form some recommendations for the City of Madison, we used previous studies on or related to the topic, searched municipal websites for rules and regulations, and used information from community organizations that have been involved with the urban agriculture movement. We found that there is not a lot of information specifically on the details of water usage policies in other cities, but that is not to say that they are not dealing with the same or similar issues.


In the past, many cities and neighborhoods started community gardens out of necessity. These gardens were set up to provide food for blue collar families and help mitigate poverty during the industrial revolution (Cabral 2017). The United States has a history of promoting community gardens; during war times households were encouraged to provide food for themselves as a patriotic effort, they promoted these so called “victory gardens” (Burgin 2018). Many first lady’s have also made efforts into putting gardens onto the white house lawn. Community gardens have had significant positive effects bringing increased food access and food justice to communities. The goal of these gardens was to allow marginalized people living in poverty the opportunity to grow their own food which often saves them money and improves their health (Broadway 2009). As population increases, urban areas expand and encroach on rural farmland. This is a problem because this farmland is used to feed the ever growing population. This is one of the reasons why urban agriculture, specifically community gardens, are increasing all over the world. But, it is often quite difficult to establish a community garden or urban farm in a city. Citizens often face many barriers not just to start a community garden, but also to keep it successfully running from year to year.

Urban gardeners in the City of Madison,WI are dealing with some barriers to access regarding the high costs of water for garden members. We research this issue in other cities and present the City of Madison with some recommendations regarding water access and water costs so that marginalized communities are no longer excluded from the benefits of urban agriculture.



Urban agriculture does more than just provide fresh, healthy, and local food to its community. Community gardens can be a source of stress relief for gardeners. These gardens also provide a social network in low-income neighborhoods which brings a sense of community and neighborhood pride that may not have been there before (Broadway 2009). Several examples of successful urban farms have kid programs and cooking classes that engage the community and teach them how to use the produce that they purchase (Broadway 2009). Community members can also learn important job skills that will help them to become financially stable.

Community gardens also create a space for community members to grow produce that is culturally appropriate to them (Burgin 2018). Many times, the foods that people grew up eating, especially for immigrants, is not accessible in supermarkets, because it is not part of the mainstream U.S. diet. When people have the chance to grow these traditional foods, they reconnect to their roots and are able to pass these lessons down to their children or become closer with other community members who can share their experience (Burgin 2018).


Growing your own food can drastically reduce the amount of money spent on food annually. In a study on vegetable output and cost savings in San Jose, Ca, researchers found that gardeners saved about $435 per plot (Algert 2014).  For a low income family, this is a lot of money. Calculating cost savings is tricky for community gardens because most of the produce grown is not being sold on the market and, there are several different ways to measure the amount of food produced. Studies have shown, though, that on average, gardeners save two dollars per pound and are able to produce more vegetables than a conventional farm would given the plots being the same size (Algert 2014). This not only means that community gardeners are saving money, it also means that they are consuming more vegetables because they are investing in them and growing them and can afford to eat them.

Community and urban gardens also benefit the local economy. Small scale farming operations are more likely to buy local inputs and sell locally as well increasing access of local foods for even more people. Research also shows that the presence of an urban garden increases property values and this trend is often found in the most underserved areas (Broadway 2009). This means that neighborhoods that were once isolated, abandoned or ignored can begin to make a name for themselves and create a sense of community, changing their reputation. When city officials see these changes, they will be more likely to understand the importance of urban agriculture and the positive impacts it can have on a city.


Urban farming can also have huge positive environmental impacts that in turn benefit everyone living nearby. Often, farm space is located on abandoned building sites or areas where there used to be a large factory (Broadway 2009). Putting in an urban garden requires the removal and cleansing of the space and as a result cleans up toxic waste sites and renews the functionality of a space (Broadway 2009). A toxic waste site in Massachusetts was cleaned up and transformed into 15 community garden plots revitalizing land that was not being used and causing toxins to be leached into the ground (US Environmental Protection Agency). In addition to revitalizing old land, farms in urban environments decrease the amount of impermeable surfaces which helps to absorb rain water and decrease flooding or toxification of groundwater because it can be filtered through the ground (Meenar 2017). The increased vegetation cleans the air and in some cases can provide shade. With food and people traveling less and less inputs and heavy machinery used to grow the food, it take far less energy to produce and market than a conventional farm (Hendrickson 2012). Lastly, increased vegetation in the city invites more wildlife and insects in and creates habitats where they can flourish, increasing and preserving biodiversity (Freehill 2015).


Case Study 1: Milwaukee

Milwaukee has been one of the leading cities across the country in implementing urban agriculture. The city developed a sustainability plan, “Refresh Milwaukee” which emphasizes the implementation of community gardens in the city (Growing Milwaukee 2019). Through the HOME GR/OWN program, the City of Milwaukee has developed a system for residents who wish to convert vacant lots into farming spaces and guidelines for the sale or long term leasing of vacant land for commercial growing purposes (Growing Milwaukee 2019). With the support from the city, resident’s access to developing and joining community gardens is drastically increased.

Milwaukee also paired with Groundwork USA, an organization that works to increase the amount of green spaces in cities across the country. Groundwork USA aims to bring about, “the sustained regeneration, improvement, and management of the physical environment by developing community based partnerships that empower people, businesses, and organizations to promote environmental, economic and social well-being” (Groundwork USA 2019). One of the main goals of Groundwork USA is equity and inclusion, bringing these areas the much needed attention and support they deserve (2019). Creating community garden space or urban farms that aim to include those that can benefit most from those resources is what the City of Milwaukee is trying to do. Costs related to the gardens tend to be a big issues for these residents once the garden is up and running. It lies mainly in the city’s hands to determine certain fees, such as the water fee.

There is limited information regarding the specific details of the deal the city has with the gardens, but we do know the base fees for hydrant use and some alternatives to this option. Irrigated garden plots in the City of Milwaukee that have access to a hydrant pay a service charge of $70.00 per connection per season (Fig 1). In addition, they must pay $26.00 per 1,000 sq ft. Non-irrigated or hand carried water from hydrants carries the same service fee of $70.000, but costs are lower at $10.00 per 1,000 sq ft (MKE Water Works 2014).

Garden Plot Fees
 Irrigated Sites    $70.00 service charge per hydrant connection per season
    $26.00 per 1,000 square feet or portion thereof
 Hand-carried Water    $70.00 service charge per hydrant connection per season
    $10.00 per 1,000 square feet or portion thereof

Fig 1.This table shows the charges for unmetered water from public hydrants used during the growing season for garden plots in the City of Milwaukee

The information on the Milwaukee Water Works page is unclear whether the gardens also have to pay hydrant use charges or sewer flushing and lining charges (Fig 2). There is also a chargeable hose connection fee which may or may not be billed to community gardeners who irrigate via hoses, this charge is $1,020 per temporary hose request and seems to not be related to community gardens (MKE Water Works 2014).

Fig 2. A chart of water costs depending on the size. It is unclear whether this charge and others are applied to the community gardens.

Community gardens, according to the City of Milwaukee website, should contact Groundwork Milwaukee to obtain a hydrant permit for the hydrant closest to the plot. Groundwork Milwaukee is not the only non-profit group that assists with water access in Milwaukee.

Reflo, a rainwater harvesting organization working in the city has partnered with several community gardens in Milwaukee and helped to build different types of water collection systems so that the garden is independent of city fees. Reflo mainly builds large underground water cisterns and has worked closely with the City of Milwaukee to create new codes that benefit urban agriculture and water access (2019).

Alice’s Garden in Milwaukee, Wisconsin was created after a study from 1997 came out addressing food availability in economically distressed areas in Milwaukee. This study showed that there were few supermarkets in the area which led to people shopping at local convenience stores. This is a problem because there is a very limited selection sold at these convenience stores with a lack of nutritious offerings and often sold at higher prices (Broadway 2009). Around one third of this garden is used by Hmong refugees. Community gardens are helping these Hmong refugees have space to grow the produce they know and sell it at local farmers markets helping them economically. In 2018, Alice’s Garden paired with Reflo and over 150 volunteers and built an underground 20,000 gallon cistern in only two hours. By creating a bioswale, or a natural drainage slope, from a nearby school, the water runs directly into the cistern whose pumps will soon be powered by solar panel (Reflo 2019). Reflo works with all sorts of organizations and schools to mitigate waste, utilize grey water and harvest stormwater. By building these water catchment systems and working with the city, Reflow is creating sustainable, practical solutions to issues that are difficult to address.


These two options seem to work well for the city of Milwaukee and it is important to note that both are working under the support of non-profit organizations that are acting as liaisons between the gardeners and the city government. These more organized institutions can be a direct asset to gardens, especially if they are all being supported under one common group that can take on the larger roles and responsibilities.

The City of Madison and the water department should work together with the community gardens in Madison and come up with either one or a few different water prices depending on a set of factors such as location (park, city owned land, private property, etc) average income of the area or of the garden members, type of water hookup available, etc. Having a clear line of how gardens will be billed, like the City of Milwaukee does will help community gardens be up front with the pricing for the users and not get behind on payments. These fees can either be collected as an organization by Community Groundworks if they choose to become the umbrella organization for all of the Madison community gardens, or each garden will need to have a designated person in charge of these finances.

Partnerships with non-profit organizations such as Reflo prove to have large impacts on community gardens. If the gardens were able to be commandeered by Community Groundworks as a whole, more opportunities like this could come to Madison. Rainwater harvesting systems can be really great in low income areas because they greatly decrease the water fees. If an opportunity like this arises, low income areas should be served first. The city can work with Community Groundworks to find and fund these types of changes.

Case Study 2: Tucson, Arizona

A community garden is defined in the City of Tucson Land Use Code as, “An area of land operated not-for-profit to grow and harvest food crops primarily for the use of its members who typically cultivate individual garden plots” (Tucson Water 2018). As an incentive for these gardens, The Tucson Water Department is offering the Community Garden Pilot Program. This program is offering community gardens a set water rate, waiving the system fee and the CAP water resource fee, no upfront costs, and reduction in sewer charges. These incentives have been put in place to encourage the use of community gardens as well as make them more affordable than without this program.

Fig 4. An image of Borton Primary Magnet School community garden in Tucson

Qualifying gardens can apply to receive a garden water rate if they already have a designated irrigation meter that provides water for the garden only (Tucson Water 2018). One thing that is unique about this program in particular is that the garden’s without an irrigation meter will be provided financing to install the meter and backflow device for gardening water. Then once the meter is installed, the garden will be eligible for the flat garden water rate.

One problem with this specific program is that the flat rate stated is expensive for a community garden in Madison. The rate the Tucson water department has determined is estimated to have a savings of approximately $0.74/ccf from the next lower water rate. It makes sense that Tucson’s cheapest water rate they can offer is still expensive by City of Madison standards since Tucson is in a desert and Madison is surrounded by water. If the City of Madison were to implement a similar program, their flat rate would be lower than Tucson’s and cultivate a savings for majority of the community gardens in the city.

About How Much Will it Cost to get a New Service?

New Service and meter installation cost:


Installation of a backflow prevention device and permit:


CAP Resource Fee:


Fig 5. Table that shows the costs to get a new service implemented in Tucson


One of the biggest problems discovered about the billing issue in the City of Madison regards to community gardens is that these gardens are not all under the same classes. This means that some gardens are in the stormwater class, some are in the municipal/gov., and one is in commercial. It appears most common for community gardens in other urban area around the United States to be placed in the parks department and get placed in that class for water billing.

The set water rate seems to work well for Tucson and it is important to note that the water department is the one putting this program together. The City of Madison, non-profit organizations, and the water company have not been working together efficiently in the past. It is essential for all three of these groups to work together in order to solve the problem their community gardens are facing. The City of Madison should work with the water companies to make sure all these gardens are in the same water billing class and find an economically feasible set water rate. Then they should include non-profit organizations, like Community Groundworks on a plan on how to finance the gardens who still need to install the specific meters needed.


Finding a perfect feasible solution for the community gardens water billing in Madison may be more challenging than expected. Due to the size and all the layers of this solution, it took us many meetings to understand the problem. There needs to be some reconstruction and reorganization to have a full solution, which we did not have time to study completely. Another limitation to our study is the lack of information on other cities’ water billing with community gardens. This made it difficult to compare how other cities are charging water usage in their community gardens to what Madison is doing.


Not only are more people living in these urban spaces, the space allotted per individual is also decreasing. After the 1980’s allotment sizes have decreased a substantial amount from before the 1980’s (Burgin 2018). Often times, city and urban planners want to make use out of their city limits. There has been a history of city and urban planners wanting to rebuild or renovate already empty spaces and buildings in hopes of bringing more business to the area. Rebuilding deserted buildings is not the only option for these spaces. Community gardens bring about social and environmental benefits and have the power to transform the lives of those that use them (Broadway 2009). This is why it is important for green infrastructure planning to take place. Green infrastructure planners will request these abandoned and open areas to not be considered as part of a sectoral planning (Pomes et al. 2017).


Community gardens in Madison and even Community Groundworks are often under shifting management. When people do not stay for long, they cannot have significant impacts and things take longer to accomplish. Further, information gets lost when there is unofficial leadership in gardens and no real records of when or why things were done. This is a big problem when it comes to figuring out why things are the way they are. Money is a limiting factor in non-profit management because high salaries cannot be offered and these positions require a lot of time and energy with little monetary reward. Further, we learned from our time meeting with members of the Madison Food Policy Council, that roles within gardens such as treasurer or manager are often voluntary and therefore have lots of turnover for similar reasons.  Our case studies and suggestions imply steady and quality management of gardens which is nearly impossible. With overall support from an organization, like Community Groundworks for Madison, record keeping can become comprehensive and cohesive so that new leaders can quickly catch up on rules and regulations.



There has been a history of community gardens being created out of necessity. Community gardens have experienced a recent resurgence bringing about positive impacts such as food accessibility, food justice, and even decreased food costs for participants. Community garden’s resurgence has not come without challenges, though. Cities are often not prepared to deal with the needs of community gardens such as affordable access to water and space to grow. The City of Madison is trying to address the needs of its community gardeners and decrease barriers to access by finding a solution make water fees more affordable, benefiting the most marginalized users of gardens. When looking to other cities for solutions to this issue, there was difficulty finding details and it seems like an issue that many cities are currently facing, not just Madison.

Based on our findings from cities that do seem to have successful community gardens, we recommend that the City of Madison create a Community Garden classification so that there is consistency within the gardens and what fees they are paying. Different gardens should not be paying a different assortment of fees like they are now. To make this change happen, and to get gardens on the same page, the city, water department and community organizations that work with the gardens should be working together to waive fees for a certain period of time like the City of Tucson did to get everyone at a good starting point. The city and the water  department can develop a method of pricing the water based on local water usage fees for non-commercial water use. Whatever the decision is, there needs to be clear consistency across the gardens and a strong, sustainable partnership among the key players.


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We would like to thank the many members of the community and of the Madison Food Policy Council for taking the time to educate us on the issues community gardeners in Madison are facing. Thank you for all of your hard work on this issue. We would also like to thank Michel Wattiaux and Bailey Fritsch for all of your help this semester.

About the Authors

Anna Dawley is a senior studying Community and Environmental Sociology.

Savannah Williams is a senior studying Agriculture Business Management.

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