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Why we should protect NYC’s community gardens | Opinion

November 20, 2019 Raanan Geberer
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An article in the Brooklyn Eagle last month revealed that more than 100 community gardens on city-owned land are in danger of closing or relocating due to new restrictions in the latest contract offered by the city Parks Department’s Green Thumb program. Among these new changes, according to the article, are a limit on the number of fundraisers, a rigid approval process for all events, and even a prohibition on any requests for donations during tours.

I could not find any authoritative statement about the number of community gardens in Brooklyn, but there are certainly more than 100. They range in size from the very small Poplar Street Garden in Brooklyn Heights to the huge Floyd Bennett Field Community Garden, one of the largest in the U.S.  Some have inspiring names, like “Brooklyn’s Finest” in Prospect Heights or “Tranquility Farm” in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Queens also has many community gardens, spanning the borough from Two Coves Community Garden in Astoria to Evergreen Community Garden in Flushing to Edgemere Farm in Rockaway.

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Among the gardens’ sponsors are church groups, senior citizens’ groups, local co-ops and condos, organizations like Grow NYC, and impromptu groups of people who got together to try and improve the appearance of their neighborhood by taking over an empty lot.

In some cases, land was donated by well-to-do individuals or by institutions that had a surplus of vacant land. Other gardens are on former vacant lots given to local gardening groups in the ’80s and ’90s by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, with the tacit implication that they might be made available for development in the future when real estate conditions in their neighborhoods change – a quid pro quo that has periodically caused controversy over the years.

I would tend to doubt that the Parks Department’s new restrictions are deliberately designed to eliminate community gardens — more likely, they represent an over-bureaucratic obsession with rules and regulations and a suspicion of those who are outside the city bureaucracy. Still, the rules seem overly punitive to me. If garden leaders ask for donations on tours, no one is forcing people to donate. Maybe they’re afraid the tour leaders will just pocket the money. It’s possible that a few might, but why penalize the whole group?

While no one would expect a gardener to live on the very small amount of vegetables that can be grown on a typical community garden plot, there are many benefits to these gardens, according to the Greenleaf Communities website. They help improve air and soil quality, improve water filtration, reduce neighborhood waste through composting, increase individuals’ consumption of fruits and vegetables, improve mental health and promote relaxation.

In addition, says the website, “gardens in urban areas are positively correlated with decreased crime rates” and “the consequences of vacant lands [such as the vacant lots on which most community gardens were built] are decreased property values, drug use, and the illegal dumping of litter, tires and chemicals.”

Let me tell you about my own experience as a community gardener. I’ve had a patch in my co-op’s community garden for more than 15 years now. It has given me tomatoes, basil, squash, cabbage, parsley, radishes, cucumber and more, as well as some failures such as dill, which tends to wash away at the first heavy rain. I’ve seen the effects of global warming firsthand — years ago, I grew many radishes from seed, but nowadays, they tend to go from seed straight to flowers. I can’t say my fellow community gardeners are close friends, but it’s refreshing to see people whose faces I know every time I go there. All in all, it’s an oasis of green amid my co-op’s 20-story buildings.

The city’s last anti-community gardens effort, under then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, ended in a victory for the gardeners. Giuliani decided that those gardens that sat on HPD sites should be used for housing and that the city should auction these sites to developers as soon as possible. Some sites were auctioned off, but the city was prevented from auctioning more by several lawsuits, a restraining order and an active effort by then-New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

In the end, an agreement was made by which the Trust for Public Land and the New York Restoration Project purchased more than 100 gardens. About 200 gardens that were run by city agencies, such as the Parks Department and the Department of Education, remained gardens. Two hundred more gardens were offered to the Parks Department or to nonprofit groups; and about 150 parcels were slated for private development.

All over the city, community gardens do a lot of good. They provide islands of peaceful green space in spaces that would otherwise be trash-strewn empty lots, and they provide an outlet for city dwellers with a “green thumb” who live in apartments and would not otherwise have an outlet for their gardening hobby. As far as I’m concerned, they should be encouraged wherever possible.

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