Community gardens in New York City serve the public in a variety of intersecting ways. From providing greenery and increased property values to enhancing social networks and ecological resiliency, they are strong models for open community space. Despite this, they exist in temporary status, and their volunteer caretakers struggle to prove their worth in measurable terms. How do gardens create impact and how can their volunteer caretakers prove it? On the second episode of Lots to Grow, we explore community gardens’ current functions and the research that captures their value.
We hear from the following individuals representing the following organizations and gardens:
For New Yorkers for Parks, this is Lots to Grow, the podcast about gardens and communities in New York City. I’m Jessica Saab.
Jessica Saab: What sort of vegetables or fruits do you in particular like to grow?
Arif Ullah: Oh wow, peppers, of course, right? I love arugula, so arugula. I grew—I’ve been growing turmeric, which, you know, you don’t think you can grow turmeric in New York, but you can.
This is the second episode in our exploratory podcast about New York City’s community gardens, unique open spaces created and maintained by volunteers. Last week, we dove into their history and the policies that helped to create them. Today, we’re talking about New York City’s current community gardens. This is Arif Ullah.
Arif Ullah: …Thyme last year, I dried out the time. And then, like, when friends had colds, or when my mom had a cold, like I gave her a bunch of thyme to do like breathing steams.
Arif is a community gardener in Corona, Queens. Across the five boroughs, there are over 20,000 individuals who care for and maintain over 550 community gardens. All come from different backgrounds and gardening traditions, but all are united by their love for nature. I interviewed over 35 individuals on behalf of New Yorkers for Parks to learn about how community gardens are adapting to the rapid growth and changes New York City is undergoing today. As more land parcels are bought, sold, and developed, these unique open spaces are increasingly at risk, even though they are vibrant community resources that give their neighbors stability, space, and fresh food.
Vere Gibbs: I’ve been able to grow the ever-present tomatoes. I’ve been able to grow callaloo. I’ve been able to grow long beans, which, as a Guyanese, we call bora. I’ve grown collards, kale, cucumbers, okras, and a variety of herbs.
That’s Vere Gibbs, a gardener in East New York, Brooklyn. She, like many others, has put hours of work into cultivating a piece of New York City, a city lot that may have once had housing on it, and that one day may be taken back by a city agency for that exact purpose, especially since East New York has been rezoned by the current mayoral administration to kick off more housing development. As you already may know if you tuned in last week, community gardens are community-made public spaces that exist with revocable government permission. This means that city agencies can allow groups of people to use their land for gardening, but if an agency ever wants its land back for something else, it is within its right to take back the land parcel within 60-days written notice. Whether or not a community garden lasts forever, it presents enormous opportunities for personal and community development while it’s still around, and can create impacts on all those who interact with it. As community-run spaces, they can struggle to calculate their impact in concrete terms, so today, we’re going to couple gardeners’ testimonies with the research that’s out there to explore how their activities and services are measured and quantified. To begin…
Let’s talk food.
Sandy Nurse: We’ve grown squash, lettuce, kale…
Owen Kennedy: I grow all kinds of vegetables. Collard greens, onions, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers…
Barbara Cahn: My plot is the kale farm, but I also have roses, and I also…
Amantina Duran: También el ajo, como la cebolla, la berenjena, cosas productos que ya…
Growing food is one of the biggest draws for gardeners and often the main reason for them getting involved. In low-income areas that have few supermarkets, fresh vegetables have become more scarce and expensive, and can often be of poor quality. Here’s Vere Gibbs again.
Vere Gibbs: 11 years ago, if not 12, I was concerned about my lack of energy and essentially attributed that to the type of food I was eating so I decided to go back to my roots. My grandfather was a farmer, my father—even though he was a school teacher, a principal, he also, you know, would rear and plant at home. And I thought I would do some gardening and I reached out to one of my acquaintances in the neighborhood who actually pointed out the location where I currently garden. It had been abandoned for maybe what I think is probably seven, eight, nine years, and that’s when I got started.
In case you didn’t catch that last bit, she said the garden she went to had been abandoned for a number of years, and that’s when she got started. Vere felt and followed the same impulse thousands of New Yorkers have had over the last fifty years. She wanted to grow food for herself, feel healthier, and connect back to her roots, and in doing so, she revived an abandoned garden, which has now given her bountiful harvests year after year. Most important, she has felt her energy return.
Vere Gibbs: You know, but we put good gas in the cars. Why won’t you put good gas in your bodies?
While gardening can be onerous, it is a rewarding practice in patience. Here’s Arif again.
Arif Ullah: You know, it slows me down. In a city that’s fast paced… I mean, I am a city person. I was born in a very very busy city—Dhaka, Bangladesh—migrated to a very busy city, so the city is in my blood, and what I love about the garden is it slows me down. The plants slow me down. I want them to come up right away, I want to harvest right away, but, you know, I know I’ve got to wait.
His garden, named in honor of human rights activist Malcolm X who once lived nearby, is owned by the Brooklyn-Queens Land Trust, which if you remember from last week, is one of the offshoot organizations created by the Trust for Public Land in the aftermath of the auction that was going to happen in 1999. The Malcolm X Garden is one of 114 spaces that was saved from the auction block to be preserved as open space.
Arif Ullah: Uh, it’s such a privilege to have access to a space like that, even though it’s a pretty small garden, it’s a sliver of a space, it’s just—we’ve got land, you know? And we’ve got land to grow food in. We’ve got land to have bees in. I mean, how many people can say that, right? In New York City? And when I say “we,” I’m talking about the community, anyone of course in the community, and it’s such a privilege and a blessing to have that.
As we explored last week, the 1970s in New York City were characterized by disinvestment and struggle. Between arson and abandonment, empty lots became an all-too-common sight, and while many lied vacant until they were bought and developed, many others were transformed by volunteers who went into them, cleaned them out, and planted fruits, vegetables, and trees. I heard from multiple gardeners that in the early days, their gardens were mostly dedicated to food production, where families had plots in which they’d grow vegetables for their dinner tables. Then as years passed and the gardens developed further, more ornamental plants were introduced and seating areas were added—more structures to support socializing became the focus of gardens, and food production, while still important and happening, became less of the central purpose. We at New Yorkers for Parks have studied two specific parts of the South Bronx in depth [Mott Haven and Southern Boulevard] to tally and catalogue their open spaces, and while there are some large parks in the area, we found that smaller playgrounds and community gardens had just as many people in them on a regular basis. We also observed that in the community gardens, more people were socializing in seating areas than actually gardening. Gardens today are spaces for relaxation and repose as much as they are sites of food production. So how much food is being grown in New York City’s community gardens?
According to a survey conducted about ten years ago by Grow NYC, over 80% of New York City’s community gardens are growing food. It is almost impossible for any regulating entity to keep track of all the output. In an attempt to capture and quantify urban harvests, a program called Farming Concrete was started in 2009. Designed by gardeners in partnership with the Design Trust for Public Space, it is an ongoing data collection project dedicated to logging all urban agriculture output nationwide. Farmers and gardeners create a profile and then log their crop and harvest yields online, as well as a variety of other data points. To date, over 140,000 pounds of harvested food have been logged on their online portal. Anyone can go in and download this information, and from my own analysis, I was able to find out that 217 different New York City gardens logged a total of 25,000 pounds of produce from 2010 to now. While this is an impressive amount, it only represents a fraction of what is produced as there are over 550 gardens and not all harvest amounts were logged consistently. So where does all of this food go?
Zach Williams: So all the food we’re growing is going directly to people, and that can be directly to the gardeners in the case of outdoors, or directly to the people most close to it, so in the case of this, you know, whoever comes in and wants something, they can walk out with a bag full of lettuce or herbs or whatever it is.
That’s Zach Williams, the Food Access Manager at Southside United HDFC – Los Sures, a community-based housing development corporation in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Zach manages multiple community gardens and two aquaponics labs, growing systems that couple hydroponics—growing plants in water—with aquaculture—raising aquatic animals such as fish—into one symbiotic loop, where both the plants and animals feed each other and help each other grow. One of these aquaponics labs works as a collaborative community café where volunteers work in shifts to tend to the fish and the plants and to serve free coffee and herbal teas to anyone who stops by. That’s where we spoke at, and where Zach said that anyone can walk into and leave with a bag of lettuce or herbs. Typically, food grown in community gardens is consumed by the gardeners themselves, distributed throughout their communities, or sold to restaurants or at farmer’s markets. Harvests are usually not quite enough to become a family’s primary source of food, but a study published in 2018 about gardens in East Harlem found that, to many gardeners, the process of growing their food from start to finish was more meaningful than the final quantity grown. The process increased their sense of ownership and responsibility and made them feel more attached to the garden itself. And even if gardeners are not getting the majority of their food from their gardens, studies have shown that interactions with garden spaces increase fruit and vegetable intake for both adults and children, so healthier eating habits can be achieved through gardens regardless of their output. This is good because not all gardens have the best conditions for growing edible plants, dealing with varying amounts of sun, soil quality, space, and different animals or bugs who might try to eat whatever they grow. To better these conditions, gardeners get creative with their garden bed layouts and churn up some homemade compost. Composting is the process of breaking down raw waste from plants, fruits, and vegetables into nutrient-rich organic matter. Gardeners then use this new material to till the soil, which makes their gardens healthier. According to that Grow NYC survey, two-thirds of New York City’s community gardens are composting in some shape or form. By reusing organic scraps, community gardens remove waste from the waste stream that would have otherwise rotted along with other trash in landfills. Some do it on the large scale, accepting scraps from their neighbors with established teams of volunteers, and others do it on a smaller scale, composting the plant scraps from their gardening activities and maybe from their personal homes. I spoke with one of the garden groups that does it on the large scale. They are a bicycle-powered composting nonprofit called BK ROT that operates out of a community garden called Know Waste Lands in Bushwick.
To date, BK ROT has composted 320,000 pounds of food waste, which is equivalent to about 105 mid-sized cars. They are open rain or shine every Sunday for residential organic waste drop-off, guaranteeing their garden a steady stream of visitors. I asked them to break down the process of composting for me. Here’s Sandy Nurse, the Executive Director of BK ROT and a garden member at Know Waste Lands.
Sandy Nurse: So we get food waste from households, and from businesses, small local businesses, and through people bringing their food scraps to the site on Sundays, and we break them down into smaller chunks and we mix them with wood chips and saw dust, and we put them through a compost bin, and then we run them through a compost windrow system, which is the mounds that everyone sees. And then when it’s—after about 10 to 12 weeks, all the food is gone and it’s broken down into an organic—into organic matter, and a material that has a lot of microorganisms in it and different levels of fungi that are beneficial for growing anything in, essentially. And we sift out woodchips, so that’s that big blue thing you see, we sift out the woodchips, and what’s left is the kind of fluffy compost, and then that material is available on site for anybody who wants to come for a sliding scale donation. They can take some, and we also sell a little bit of the compost to stores, like a very very small percent.
Being in a community garden is the perfect venue for showcasing their process. Here’s Renée Peperone, the Board Chair of BK ROT, explaining why.
Renée Peperone: Since BK ROT is demonstrating organics waste processing localized and also job-creating and also done by neighbors and people, sort of having it in open space like that makes it really accessible. So it gives us an opportunity to sort of have more hands-on participatory learning and engagement from other people in the neighborhood.
Demonstrating the process of composting helps others understand the purpose and encourages more people to begin to do it. The City had rolled out its own residential compost collection program in 2013, but halted it due to low rates of actual organic waste capture. According to the Department of Sanitation’s own figures, in 2017, 90% of the city’s organic waste was still going towards landfills. This was due, in part, to people not understanding what to put in their new compost bins. The program continued in the neighborhoods it had already reached already, which left others like Bushwick out of the loop. For residents determined to compost, the typical alternative is taking food scraps to a farmer’s market that hosts compost collection, which poses all sorts of constraints on time and day for drop-off. The other alternative can be a community garden. City initiatives and programs can be effective, but they can also leave a lot to desire, which means sometimes community gardens are the more efficient service providers since they operate at the hyper-local scale. However, it’s important to remember that the problems around waste, recycling, and consumption are international so solving them cannot be any individuals’ or community gardens’ responsibility—that falls on governments. As overwhelming as climate change, pollution, and other environmental issues can seem, community gardens provide spaces of reckoning, learning, and hope. Activities like consistent compost collection draw people in and make them recurring visitors. For neighborhoods like Bushwick, which we talked about extensively in our first episode, where there is one supermarket for every 30 bodegas or corner stores and only 26 acres of total open space, community gardens connect residents to fresh food, compost, and nature. I spoke with Kofi Thomas, a community advocate that founded a garden in Bushwick two years ago across the street from a senior center.
Kofi Thomas: When I started cleaning up that garden, a lot of seniors actually asked the manager to ask me if they could come garden, which made me super happy, that’s why we’re doing all that we’re doing. And I was like, “Yeah, of course, what do we need to do to get them out here?” So I put out a signup sheet, like, “Who wants to garden? Sign your name up and we’ll come by and give you like a space to plant in.” And then so many of them signed up that I was like, “We don’t even have that many plots out here yet built,” so I had to call up some friends over at Grow NYC, like, “Hey, I want to build more beds, there’s like—the demand is actually higher than originally thought.”
Soon after, seniors from the building were growing vegetables and socializing over technique. One senior, Mr. Santos, shocked Kofi when he got up to check on his plum tomatoes without the help of the walker he always used.
Kofi Thomas: I saw him roll out the building and then he got up off his walker and just walked to the bed, and I was like, “Yo! Wait a minute, so he can walk… like if he’s got something to go towards, like he can walk on his own.” And he was, you know, he was growing some plum tomatoes, and I was like, “Oh, this is what gets him moving and more active.”
Now this isn’t to say that gardening cures walking disabilities, but it does bring us to another important characteristic of New York City’s community gardens: their elderly populations. Since many gardens have been around for over 40 years, they’ve been passed down through generations of gardeners. The caretakers who have been there the longest hold important institutional knowledge about what’s been planted before, what’s been attempted, what’s worked, what hasn’t, and they pass that information on to newer generations. Kofi actually found out about the space where his garden is because elders from nearby gardens told him it was an abandoned spot. Community gardens are spaces where intergenerational exchanges occur, which can help shape lives and pass on culture. For some garden elders, engaging new generations of gardeners is now their most important task.
Sara Jones: I think the importance of grooming new gardeners, and new blood, and new people to get them interested in following the traditions and to get them interested in the activism that it’ll take to keep these spaces.
That’s Sara Jones, the Chair of LaGuardia Corner Gardens in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. I interviewed her along with Barbara Cahn, the Vice Chair. Both have been participating in their garden for years.
Barbara Cahn: Well, I’m a newbie, I’ve only been in the garden for eight years.
Jessica Saab: Eight years!
Barbara Cahn: Yeah, but that’s—that’s nothing. We have people—we have members who were there at the beginning and we have pictures to prove it.
Sara Jones: Yeah, that’s true. I think I was there in like ’94 or ’95 or something like that, 1994…
Barbara Cahn: But we don’t—our turnover is very slow because once you get a plot—I had to wait five years on a waiting list before I got a plot, and, you know, people really don’t give them up unless they just really feel like they can’t do it anymore, and even then some people, don’t, like—they just refuse to believe that they can’t do it anymore so they hang on to it.
Just blocks away from Washington Square Park and from a very active nightlife scene, their garden is a slice of peace and tranquility and a tool for engaging youth.
Sara Jones: The most amazing thing is that you can walk around the garden and you can see it from the outside but once you go inside and sit on the benches or sit anywhere in the garden, suddenly the sound experience is totally different. You can still hear the city but suddenly the birds are louder! Really louder, it’s really—it’s just—the smell is different!
Barbara Cahn: It’s cooler. It’s like the temperature inside the garden, in the summer when it’s very hot, the temperature inside the garden is cooler than outside, it’s kind of amazing.
Sara Jones: It’s truly, yeah, it’s—so for everything to be concrete, bricked up, and all the heat that that generates, we have to have a little air. It’s my favorite thing to say to the kids, “So what’s the most important thing plants give us? [Inhales.] Take a deep breath. Oxygen.” So let’s not only teach them how to grow things, let’s teach them how to breathe.
Many community gardens invite schools to host classes in them, which can enhance children’s understanding of science topics and begin to inculcate in them an appreciation for nature. A study in elementary schools in Texas proved that students got higher scores when they learned science lessons in an outdoor garden rather than in a traditional indoor setting. For New York City youth, community gardens and their knowledgeable elders can provide jobs and skills training for future employment in what’s being called the "green economy," the field related to sustainability and conservation of environmental resources. Academics have argued that since community gardens are often concentrated in the neighborhoods that saw the most disinvestment and abandonment in recent history, green economy jobs training is most appropriate in those neighborhoods, which often were also subject to heavy industrial use and have histories of grassroots environmental justice movements. Since community gardens already act informally in this capacity, they are especially poised to implement more structured training for youth. In our conversation, Zach Williams talked about how environmental justice and food access are relevant to youth today, and how government entities should foster these opportunities.
Zach Williams: But the city at the end of the day, needs to make sure that there are jobs there for them and that that’s part of curriculums in schools, ‘cause I would’ve gone to this class. I would’ve gone to the gardening class, if I could, not knowing it. You know, I think I would’ve. And it would cut down on the time kids are doing other stuff, especially when a lot of class is, let’s be honest, like, super important, education is super important, but not always relevant. And how do we know it’s not relevant to kids? Cause kids skip! Like that’s—the customer’s turning it away! So like how do you make education that’s relevant for people? Well, it should inform their life, it should connect them with things in their community, it should connect them to things they can be employed in, that you know, they want to be employed in, and we’ve had a lot of kids come into here and talk to us about growing things.
Whether or not New York City’s schools adopt gardening classes, over 550 community gardens exist right now, and their elders have years of growing seasons under their belts. They can pass knowledge on through garden work. This is something else Zach touched on.
Zach Williams: You know, same with the garden, I have a couple strong grandmas and older or middle-aged ladies and some older men, too, but like they can give direction and show that next generation, “Ok, here’s how you do this, now go do it fifty times, because my back’s blown out,” or whatever it might be.
This kind of intergenerational teamwork that happens in community gardens lifts the burden of work off the elders and gives younger generations valuable experience in both gardening and interacting with older individuals.
Zach Williams: You know, I grew up and my grandma lived in a different city. So if your grandma’s not around, which is the case for a lot of kids for different reasons, then where do you get that?
Like information, culture is another currency exchanged in gardens, as gardens often reflect their caretakers’ countries of origin through their structure, design, and plants.
Sonido Costeño fades in
From music to art to traditional foods, gardens are centers of culture. Immigrants looking to feel connected to their home countries can grow traditional foods and share those with their fellow gardeners. Here’s Arif again.
Arif Ullah: There are a lot of Caribbean folks who are gardens leaders, some of whom you may have already spoken with, and when you look at what people are growing at gardens, you know, it could be callaloo, right, and like people are bringing their own traditions. Like my mom, she’s a member of a community garden in Astoria and she grows stuff she learned about in Bangladesh. Some types of hot peppers and some types of okra, et cetera. And so I think that it’s interesting to see the immigrant footprint in gardens by simply looking at what people are growing in those gardens. A lot of us come from these traditions of farming and so we’re able to continue a little bit of that through these gardens.
“Guantanamera” by Sonido Costeño fades in
Gardeners decorate their gardens with flags of their home countries and other symbols that make other immigrants feel welcome and represented. Puerto Rican gardeners established a tradition early on of building casitas within their gardens, enclosed structures in which people can gather and hang out. There are many of these in the South Bronx, in Harlem, in the Lower East Side, and in Bushwick. They’re typically painted in bright colors, covered in ornaments, and reminiscent of little homes back in Puerto Rico. They serve multiple purposes being spaces for cultural and social events like holidays, parties, and everyday hangouts, and meeting points for political rallies, community organizing, and food exchanges. The casitas in gardens are so important to the culture of their neighborhoods, that a Bronx borough president even tried to get them historically preserved, but in the end, it didn’t happen. One casita in particular, founded in 1978, became one of the most well-known, stewarded by a man named Jose Chema. This song, by Tato Torres, is all about going to visit Mr. Chema’s casita.
The chorus says, if you’re going to the Bronx, go to Chema’s casita because there you’ll hear the drums playing bomba and plena music. Gardens with strong cultural roots and programming can be citywide destinations. Gardeners get to share their culture with others, who in turn teach the gardeners about theirs, all of which leads to inclusive and vibrant public spaces. Different art forms have also found homes in community gardens. Murals announce their presence and tell stories about the gardens themselves or about larger issues in the neighborhood and in the world. Sculptures by local artists decorate paths and garden beds. Performances draw people in and bring them together. Music rings out and garden members dance late into the evening. Creativity abounds in community gardens—in a garden in the East Village, I saw a tree stump decorated with mosaic tiles. Instead of removing the stump for another plant to take root, it became a beautiful tribute to the fallen tree. All of these interweaving interactions create successful public spaces that are absolutely unique and engaging. Other recurring garden visitors come in the shape of wild animals and insects, who use the green spaces as resting places on their migratory routes. Gardeners often deliberately plant native grasses and wildflowers to make havens for bees and birds. Here’s Barbara Cahn again describing the Greenwich Village garden she’s a part of.
Barbara Cahn: I haven’t been there the whole time, but my understanding is that when it started, it was more of a vegetable garden and more geared towards individual plots of everybody growing their own vegetables and over the years, I think that we’ve gotten more gardeners who are really interested in ornamentals and making a habitat for pollinators, specifically for butterflies and monarchs.
Barbara Cahn: We’ve started growing a lot of milkweed and other plants that butterflies like and so now we are like an official Monarch way station. And two years ago, in the fall, we had an amazing influx of monarchs. We had like hundreds or thousands of them—
Sara Jones: Thousands on the migration. The migration found us.
Barbara Cahn: It was like one weekend and they were just—it was the most amazing sight, like plants would be filled with Monarchs.
Sara Jones: Just moving.
Barbara Cahn: Shimmering, yeah.
Sara Jones: Just moving.
This brings us to another important aspect of community gardens: their ecological impact, something that can be measured in concrete terms. In 2015, community gardens together totaled about 131 acres of open space. It’s a lot, but to put it into larger perspective, it’s also just a fraction of the 840 acres that make up Central Park. Even with their small footprints, they affect the environment in multiple ways. At 131 collective acres, they absorb an estimated 21 million gallons of stormwater in a single year of rainfall. This helps mitigate the detrimental effects from combined sewer overflows, which are discharges of raw sewage and polluted stormwater into New York City’s waterways that happen every time it rains more than an inch. You don’t need to be a scientist or expert to understand that it’s a disgusting problem that harms marine life and makes waterways unsafe for human use. In total, every year, more than 27 billion gallons of this stuff gets into New York Harbor, so while the 21 million gallons of stormwater absorbed by gardens might not seem like much, it’s more than all the buildings, roadways, and sidewalks absorb, which take up much more space and simply deflect water, contributing to the problem. The greenery from community gardens also reduces the Urban Heat Island effect, which is a noticeable temperature hike in urban areas like New York City that are densely built out with little greenery interspersed. Heat gets trapped at the street level contributing to hotter temperatures in urban centers than in suburban areas. This makes businesses and residences use more electricity for cooling and makes those who don’t have air conditioning suffer more. Extreme heat can be deadly, as we in New York City witnessed just a few weekends ago. The plants in gardens also create oxygen and remediate the soil on which they grow, which can be polluted with toxins that seeped from trash, industrial businesses, and other waste. When it rains, plants filter the rainwater, cleaning it from any pollutants it may have picked up along the street. All of these things contribute to better health outcomes for people, animals, and the planet. For individuals, green and vibrant spaces can improve mental health. I spoke with Amantina Duran, a gardener in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, about her involvement in her local parks and gardens. She emphasized the effect greenery has on her health.
Amantina Duran: Teniendo jardines, teniendo—ver el desarrollo de los árboles, eso también—para mí personalmente algo que ayuda a la parte de la salud mental. Es algo bien importante para mí en la salud mental. Yo soy una persona que ir a un parque produce en mi mejor que tomarme diez pastillas porque mi mente, mi cerebro, todo mi corazón, mi ser, se regocija y mirando, puedo ver al cielo arriba, el aire, las nubes, como corren.
Translation: Having gardens, seeing the growth of trees—for me personally it’s something that helps my mental health. It’s really important for me and for my mental health. I’m the type of person that going to a park produces in me more good than taking ten pills because my mind, my brain, all my heart, my being, feels happy and looking, I can see the sky above, the air, the clouds, how they roll by.
A green space on a block can make its surrounding neighbors feel better mentally over the long-term. In 2018, a published study in Philadelphia proved just that. Over the course of three years, 442 Philadelphia residents reported on their mental health to researchers, who in turn upgraded vacant lots in their area in one of two ways: picked up trash and mowed the lawn regularly, or picked up trash, mowed the lawn, planted trees, and installed a wooden fence around the lot. Vacant lots near a control group were left unchanged. By the end of the experiment, those living near the lots that had been cleaned and maintained reported feeling—in the words of the study—significantly less “depressed” and “worthless” than those who were in the control group, with the results even more pronounced in areas with the lowest income and with the higher level of greening maintenance. The greened lots were simply planted with grass lawns and an occasional tree, so imagine what beds of vegetables and fruits, in addition to grasses and trees and programming, can do for a community’s collective mental health.
In terms of physical health, gardening is a stimulating exercise. Even the less strenuous activities, like weeding, trimming, and raking, can burn about 300 calories an hour. Just being out in nature leads to better health. A study published this year confirmed that those who spent at least two hours in nature a week reported better health and well-being than those that did not. For community gardeners, it’s common to spend at least two hours out in their garden, especially since Parks Department regulations require that gardens registered with their GreenThumb program be open at least 20 hours a week to the public during the growing season, which extends from mid-April to mid-October. To refresh your memory, GreenThumb is the community gardening branch of the Parks Department. Community gardens on both public and private land register with GreenThumb in order to have proper permission to garden. There are rules and regulations gardens need to follow, and while GreenThumb enforces those rules, it also aids gardens and guides their development. Every year, GreenThumb fosters connections between gardeners citywide at the multitude of events they organize. GreenThumb staff and gardeners teach other gardeners new skills and techniques. Workshops range from medicinal horticulture to chicken care to tools for best garden group organizing. GreenThumb also provides gardens with a bunch of materials and technical assistance to make their gardening activities as low-cost as possible. Some gardens with few members might struggle to be open for 20 hours each week, and this leads to one of the main misconceptions about community gardens, which is that they’re private spaces not accessible to the public. But many others have no problem staying open. Some even leave their gates open from dawn till dusk, even if there is no one inside to act as an attendant, placing their trust in the community. LaGuardia Corner Gardens is one such garden, and they made this choice when their garden space was at threat of being taken over by a nearby institution.
Sara Jones: We decided because of all the political pressure and the neighborhood was fighting so hard, we decided we’re opening the gate all season. Doesn’t matter if one of us is there or not, we’re going to pretend we’re a park. So therefore people will use us as a park. We have had the best results. We open in April. We open the gate, you know, depends on who gets up and goes to work early, but you know, like 9, in the morning. And close it at dusk. And every day from April till Halloween because Halloween’s crazy around here so that’s our last day… because of the parade, you know. So, but—the open gate policy; the whole neighborhood knows it. Now if you work in the neighborhood, you know you can go there for a nice quiet lunch, and feed the birds and sit there and meditate, some people study there, people read there. It’s really connected the neighborhood more with the space so it doesn’t become, “Oh it’s those—that club over there, or those gardeners,” or “I don’t know, I see people coming and going and the gate’s always locked.” The gate is always open. A lot a lot a lot of people from different countries come in and, you know, want to know, “What is this? What’s going on? Who owns this land?”
The presence of community gardens can change the way people travel through neighborhoods. People will take certain routes to pass by certain gardens, to look into them and see how the plants are doing. Here’s a piece of my conversation with Gerard Volel, a gardener and resident in Bushwick.
Gerard Volel: When I walk home from the subway, there’s paths that I can take to pass community gardens. When I walk around on a Saturday to do errands, I could take certain paths to pass community gardens and I’m meeting people in these community gardens and learning things that… they want to pass on and reasons why they garden and reasons why they think it’s important so that’s all very cool to me.
His garden, the Decatur Street Community Garden, is also one of those that opens in the morning and closes at dusk. It’s owned by the New York Restoration Project, which if you remember from last week, was the other organization that purchased gardens to save them from being auctioned off and developed in 1999. For years it exchanged caretakers and then was closed due to construction happening next to it, but it reopened recently and is now in its second growing season. Neighbors who have lived there long enough to see its evolution are happy now that the garden is open again for all to use.
Gerard Volel: We had some older family members, some people who have lived in Bushwick for—who own in Bushwick, who have lived there for decades, who are very happy to see the garden reopen and that the gates are open and they can walk in.
“Guantanamera” by Sonido Costeño fades in
From old timers to newcomers to new immigrants, from the elderly to the young, all demographic groups can be engaged in these community-run spaces. Community gardens typically function under a democratic structure, which leads to greater civic engagement, as well. Garden members collectively make decisions, plan for the future, and work together to address problems. This creates political empowerment, especially for those who were not previously affiliated with any similar organizations. Garden members are more likely to know about what’s happening on their block, in their community, and in their city, thanks to their group’s internal communications and external connections. A survey of more than 6,000 people by the Center for Active Design found that neighborhoods with community gardens or public art in vacant lots near their homes reported elevated measures of trust, participation, stewardship, and local voting. Studies have also linked the creation of community gardens to reductions in crime. Their presence makes people feel empowered, involved, and connected to their communities. While the democratic structure might mean there are more conflicts, some argue that this is all for the better in the long run. Here’s Zach Williams again.
Zach Williams: I tend to think that like if people are all in a room arguing, upset, with like some stake in the issue, that that’s actually a good conversation—like I’ve kind of tried to set up some of those situations so people can actually dialogue because, you know… if people are talking about things and there’s difficult questions and we’re talking about gardens, where the chickens should be, around shade or what we should grow, then that shows that they care, and that shows they’re involved. And so sometimes it’ll present as a difficulty or a challenge but we need to read it as involvement and as like people with buy-in because if it’s just the people who are super happy to be there and it’s all a good story, I wonder who’s excluded or who doesn’t feel like they’re in.
Community gardens can also translate to monetary returns, as a study published in 2007 by New York University proved. The researchers compared New York City homes near gardens to homes not near gardens, picking ones with similar surrounding socioeconomic conditions, and then they catalogued their property values over time. They found that homes within a quarter mile of a community garden rose more in value than other comparable properties within the same time frame. Adjusted for today’s inflation, values on homes rose an average of $9,000 to almost $13,000 five years after a garden opened. They also assessed the conditions of the gardens and found that the highest increases happened around the best-kept gardens in the most low-income areas. These calculations demonstrate the monetary value community gardens generate for nearby homeowners, but there are also many other factors that can raise or lower property values in similar ways. One of the co-authors on this study was Vicki Been, a law professor who went on to serve as Commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, or HPD for short, which is the city department responsible for building and developing housing, A.K.A. the department often at odds with community gardeners in their tricky pursuit of the best way to balance the city’s space and needs. Her participation in this research goes to show how complex the decisions are for public agencies trying to get the most they can out of public assets, and the research itself confirms that well-kept community gardens attract homebuyers. One of the gardeners I spoke with who was featured on our first episode mentioned that he and others have purchased their homes considering the garden on their street as a contributing factor. Here’s Greg Anderson, gardener in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Gregory Anderson: One of my neighbors and members of the garden, he’s actually the treasurer, Noah, him and his family moved to the neighborhood around 2000—I want to say 2006 or ‘07—and he said that one of the reasons they bought that particular house was because the garden was right across the street, you know, and other people have said similar things, even myself. That garden—when I saw the garden when I was looking at houses on the block, it did—you know, it was a factor in saying, “Ok, we’ll buy on this block.” Because in New York, you don’t have a lot of open space that you can personally garden in and so seeing that much space available for the community, it’s like a no-brainer. You know, I grew up in the South, you know, and wanted to get back into gardening and farming. But living in New York back then gardening was your only opportunity. So I took that opportunity. Yeah.
As soon as he moved in, Greg met Mr. Lenny, an elderly man who swept the whole block three or four times a week and who would shovel everyone’s sidewalks after a snowstorm. Within months, Greg joined Mr. Lenny in the garden, and today, almost twenty years later, he is deeply enmeshed in the community gardening world as a gardener and as an employee of GreenThumb. Community gardeners create value in a bunch of different ways, and while some, like their cultural aspects, are difficult to measure, others, like their ecological and economic impact, are more clear. According to the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project's calculations, community gardeners provide $14.5 million in unpaid labor to New York City through their voluntary stewardship of public land. Can you imagine if that same amount of energy existed for other public resources? Can you imagine if groups of New Yorkers from all backgrounds cleaned the subway tracks on a regular basis, swept the streets, or took boats out into New York Harbor to fish out garbage? It would be incredible, and while some groups do exactly those things, they are not nearly as developed as the network of community gardens. These spaces really command unique engagement and passion.
From the provision of fresh food and compost, to cultural and intergenerational exchange, to benefits to human, animal, and ecological health, community gardens serve the public in a variety of ways, and though they cover a small amount of the city’s total space, they create real impacts and benefits. Problems for community gardens begin when these benefits start to unravel. A lack of volunteers can lead to a garden falling into ruin, which can lead to lowered property values and negative effects on neighbors’ mental health. Private or public development of land can lead to the displacement of longstanding community gardens, which can cause neighborhood disintegration. So how are New York City’s community gardeners contending with these issues, which seem to come at them from all sides?
Rodrigo Gonzalez: They cut our lock repeatedly so we would find the garden open or we would find the garden with a different lock on it that we didn’t have access to. We would find things in the garden ruined. At one point, they took a bunch of our materials, our bench, our barrels, and tossed it into the front, ruining our flower beds.
That’s Rodrigo Gonzalez, a gardener in Bushwick whose garden was caught in a land dispute for years. On Lots to Grow next week, we’re diving into the many challenges garden spaces are dealing with in today’s rapidly growing and changing New York City. We’re going to hear from gardeners who, despite their best efforts, are losing control of their garden spaces. Tune in next week on your favorite podcast app. Thank you for listening to our second episode of Lots to Grow, the podcast about gardens and communities by New Yorkers for Parks. I’m your host, Jessica Saab. For our show notes, sources, and photos, check out our website at ny4p.org/lotstogrow. That’s “N,” “Y,” the number four, “P.” Thank you to the Leon Levy Foundation and WeWork for making this project possible, and another big thanks to all those who lent me their time and answered my questions. On this episode, we heard from: Arif Ullah, Vere Gibbs, Sandy Nurse, Renée Peperone, Owen Kennedy, Sara Jones, Barbara Cahn, Amantina Duran, Zach Williams, Kofi Thomas, Gerard Volel, Greg Anderson, and a little bit from Rodrigo Gonzalez. The music on this episode is by Audiobinger, airtone, spinningmerkaba, texasradiofish, Stefan Kartenberg, Sonido Costeño, Tato Torres, and Scott Holmes. Thank you again for joining us. Please share Lots to Grow with your network, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, and let us know what you think about this week’s episode on our social media channels. Talk to you next week!