PLANNERS CAN PLAN TO PLANT Community Gardens Fill Green Gaps in New York City

by Ellen Kirby

New York City has the largest urban parks system in the United States. Covering some 26,000 acres, these parks serve a constituency of almost 9 million people, and provide park space equivalent to an eleven-foot-square plot for each citizen.

Nevertheless, New York has fewer acres of green space per capita than any other major American city. This relative lack of green space is partly the result of the grid plan of 1811, which first imposed a Cartesian order on Manhattan, and was later extended to the other boroughs as the city grew. Not only does the gridiron not allow adequate space for parks, but its long, narrow blocks provide less room for back yards or apartment house common areas than is generally the norm in other major cities. Large, planned open spaces like Central Park in Manhattan or Prospect Park in Brooklyn are exceptions the grid plan didn’t originally envision.

The speed with which many neighborhoods were developed also discouraged setting aside space for parks and green space. Many areas were transformed from farmland into dense urban neighborhoods in just twenty years’ time. The need for green space was only recognized after the entire area was completely settled.

Many New Yorkers have compensated for the city’s relative lack of green space by planting gardens in empty lots. Of the roughly 14,000 empty lots, 10% of them are currently used for community gardens. In recent decades, community gardening has been invigorated by immigrants who cannot imagine living without a small kitchen garden or a casita for relaxing in the shade with friends on hot days.

Will the Gardens Survive?

Community gardens in New York City are suddenly facing an uncertain future. Sometimes supported through Cityprograms like Greenthumb, which leases empty, city-owned lots to gardeners and provides free or inexpensive hoes, rakes, and fertilizer, the city’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) is now putting these gardens “on hold.” During the past year, HPD has been reclaiming a large number of lots that were being used for community gardens.

Stating its intent to take back virtually all of the garden sites it has on hold, the City reminds the volunteers their use of the space was for an interim purpose only, until a time when the city could find a “more suitable” use. In most cases this suitable use, driven by escalating real estate values, is for housing and/or commercial development. Ironically, it is often the volunteer community gardening and greening efforts that stabilize and eventually increase a neighborhood’s real estate values in the first place.

The trend in this development is to build new low-density row housing for low-income owners, rather than to renovate existing old housing stock. While the volunteer gardeners strongly support and desire affordable housing in their neighborhoods, many complain that in selecting lots for development, the City neglected to consider whether a lot was actually empty or a thriving community garden. In a number of cases, lots with gardens are being bulldozed for development while similar, but actually empty lots nearby are left alone.


How Can You Put Some Green in Your Plans?

• Start by joining a community garden in your area or participating in sponsoring organizations. See for yourself the difference a community garden makes in the viability of a neighborhood.

• Examine the other uses (and misuses) of vacant lots. Think of ways that the need for housing and greening can be joined. Review and examine situations where housing or commercial development replaced green space. Was the result beneficial? To whom?

• Join the American Community Gardening Association or state or local advocacy group. Get more informed about community gardens in specific places but also as a nationwide movement.

• Finally, use your skill and creativity to speak up, write about and design communities where people and plants and earth and creatures have a chance to live healthily together!

–Ellen Kirby


The trend of sacrificing gardens for residential and commercial development is by no means limited to New York City. At last year’s annual meeting of the American Community Gardening Association, garden preservation across the United States was one of the hot topics. Charlie Hales, City Commissioner of Parks in the City of Portland, Oregon, stated:

    We will need to be more than opportunistic in finding polices to establish community gardens. If a city is to be well-planned, compact and prosperous, community gardens located on underutilized privately-owned land will gradually be lost. So we must be strategic, and set about systematically adding dedicated community garden space to our neighborhoods. Whether as a planned part of new housing, or by acquisition and development in the city’s own capital improvement program, we must consider neighborhood parks and community gardens part of the necessary ‘green infrastructure’ of a healthy city.

Planning and Planting Go Together

Public policy that supports green space may be the only means to assure the protection needed for green space. It is crucial that planners and policy-makers recognize the values of greening and community gardening. Again, look to Portland with its more than 200 parks covering 10,000 acres, including large public showplaces but also small neighborhood parks. Portland enjoys these benefits today because of its history of valuing the natural landscape. These local traditions shaped growth management policies, such as Oregon’s Senate Bill 100 which, 20 years ago, established the first statewide land use planning system in the United States. This plan included requirements that:

  • Every city and county must adopt comprehensive land use and zoning plans… and then stick to those plans.
  • Every city and metropolitan area must draw an Urban Growth Boundary to delineate where growth can and will occur and where farm and forest land will be preserved.
  • Cities must prepare for future population and housing needs, so that growth carries out the plans rather than erodes them.

Support for such policies and their effective implementation by grassroots organizations, along with leadership by visionary public officials, is the key to more livable, sustainable cities.

Seeds of Hope

Here in New York, we have a long way to go to convince everyone of the value of planning that includes adequate green space. Yet despite the seemingly dim prospects for community gardens here, many seeds of hope have been planted and are now taking root:

  • Twenty gardens were preserved as city parks in 1997. More will be moved into this category, including those that are the most highly developed with strong neighborhood participation.
  • The Cornell Cooperative Extension is initiating a community gardens benefits study to research the multiple uses and benefits of urban community gardening.
  • More school gardens are being developed in association with Board of Education Chancellor Rudy Crew, himself an avid gardener and an advocate of the benefits of community gardening as part of the multi-curricular open classroom. More than eighty public school teachers attended a day long training event co-sponsored by the Board of Education and city greening groups.
  • Coalitions are evolving to flex some political muscle on the community gardening crisis. Included are borough specific groups along with citywide coalitions.
  • A New York City Council subcommittee chaired by Council member Tom Duane held hearings on the community garden crisis in 1997 for the first time.
  • Community gardens are becoming more viable as centers for urban food production. The 17th annual “Making Brooklyn Bloom” at Brooklyn Botanic Garden drew over 300 people last March to a conference on “Growing Food in the City.” A new program, “The City Farms,” is being organized by a host of citywide urban gardening programs.

Efforts like these are fertilizing many communities’ desires to use gardening and greening as tools for preserving and developing sustainable communities and cities – cities where there is ample affordable housing, reinvigorated neighborhood-based commerce, improved education, and a real connection of people to the land that can sustain our neighborhoods for generations. Plan to plant!

Ellen Kirby is Director of Brooklyn GreenBridge at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

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