The Trust For Public Land
Regional Newsletter, 1998
Green Cities
Working to Protect New York's Community Gardens Teens Use Gardens as Their Classroom

    Working to Protect New York's Community Gardens Since the mid-1970s, more than 750 community gardens have sprouted on vacant city-owned lots across New York City. While most began as simple spaces for growing vegetables and flowers, many have become informal community centers. Gardens host cultural events, serve as outdoor classrooms for local schools, and, like the best neighborhood parks, provide a place for neighbors to come together across barriers of age, income, and ethnicity. All this is accomplished with volunteer labor and minimal cash.

    Because these gardens are viewed as an "interim use" by city government, however, community gardeners have a tenuous hold on their land. Most operate under short-term licenses from the Parks Department's GreenThumb Program, and are subject to eviction with 30 days' notice. In late 1996 New York's community gardeners learned that hundreds of gardens were facing extinction. The city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development announced that it had targeted fifty GreenThumb sites for immediate redevelopment, and intended to cancel the licenses on all or most of the roughly 300 additional garden sites it controls to make way for more new housing.

    Over the past 20 years, TPL has provided technical assistance and financial support to more than 200 New York community gardens, particularly through its Neighborhood Open Space Management program. Funded by the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, the 10-year-old program provides garden groups with small grants, hands-on assistance, and organizational support. Because of its longtime work with community gardens, TPL in 1997 was asked to chair NYC Green, a coalition of nine New York open space organizations that is urging the city to consider the value of community open space when decisions are made about housing sites. TPL also helped create a Blue Ribbon Committee of funders and civic leaders who have come together to lend support on this issue. The groups point out that GreenThumb gardens occupy less than 10 percent of city-owned vacant land. Other lots that are not garden sites, they suggest, could accommodate the full number of new housing units that could feasibly be built.

    Andy Stone, director of TPL's New York City Program, accepts that some gardens may need to make way for housing but says the Housing Department's plan "raises the question of whether in the rush to make all sites immediately available for possible housing, the city is simply wiping out many valuable and irreplaceable open space resources." He stresses that "these gardens improve the quality of life in low-income neighborhoods that otherwise lack close-to-home parks. The city needs to widen its perspective to see community-managed open space, and not just units of housing, as a fundamental part of rebuilding our neighborhoods."

    Teens Use Gardens as Their Classroom On Manhattan's Lower East Side, people walking down 11th Street between First Avenue and Avenue A are treated to a beautiful sight: a large garden with lush planting beds, a pond, a greenhouse, composting bins, and solar panels--all on what used to be a contaminated vacant lot. This looks like the work of professional landscape architects but in fact is the loving creation of local teenagers working in the intern program, a partnership of TPL and Open Road, a New York City organization.

    The intern program provides high-level personal development and academic training to local teenagers. The interns get to use a great real-world classroom and lab--community gardens and playgrounds in New York City. They do design, construction, and gardening in gardens with which TPL works, and help with curriculum development for the Children's Gardening Program, which provides environmental education opportunities. For their efforts the interns receive a combination of pay, academic credit, and college scholarships.

    All the interns' work contributes to their academic life as well as giving them real-world experience. For example, they designed a composting bin now used in many community gardens, for which a patent in their names is now pending. The interns' experience with composting gave them the opportunity to do graduate-level research on composting gas emissions and temperature for Cornell University. In a more recent development, the interns have begun working on a design for a playground adjacent to the East Side Community High School, coordinating between the architects and students at the school.

    "This program has been great for me because it gives me a chance to use my own ideas," says Nando Rodriguez, an intern who is graduating from high school this year and plans to major in agriculture and business in college. "And it also gives me the chance to give something back to my community."

TPL regional newsletter, 1998