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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Community Gardeners Beware

Today is December 31st, 2016. Often a time for people to reflect about the year that just passed. I'm not going to do that but rather remember that in past years, New York City mayors and city agencies would use the last few days of the year to bulldoze gardens or to announce plans to do so when they thought no one was paying attention.

On Dec. 30th, 1997, four gardens on the Lower East Side of Manhattan were bulldozed on the same day. This happened a mere hours before NY State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer filed a motion creating a temporary injunction halting the city from bulldozing any other gardens. It took years for that court case to be settled.

On December 28th, 2013, the Boardwalk Community Garden in Coney Island was bulldozed. There is now a concert venue on the site despite a series of lawsuits heard by a series of judges (who were replaced until a judge friendly to the developers was found). The courts ignored evidence that the site was Parkland and thus required 'alienation'. There are still lawsuits winding there way through the courts but the damage has been done.

On December 30th, 2015, City officials met with community gardeners to announce plans for the NYC Housing Preservation and Development agency to convey 34 gardens to the Parks Department while developing housing on 9 gardens sites. The gardeners are pushing the developers to include community gardens in the final development plans. While this might sound like a victory as more gardens were saved than slated for development, the city still chose this date to announce gardens would be lost. At least in this case, the community gardens were not physically destroyed.

So you can see why I always watch the news and the on-line community gardener groups these last days of the year. So far, so good, this day with only a few hours of 2016 left. Of course I am not looking forward to the changes in the federal government in 2017 and what that might mean for community gardening. Let the community gardeners be prepared.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Rainwater Harvesting or Not

This has been a very dry summer. The rainwater tanks were often empty but at least when it rained we were able to collect water for later use. This summer, we worked on a number of projects in New York City Community Gardens which added to the overall number of gardens with rainwater capture systems as well as the number of gallons of water saved and diverted from the city's Combined Sewer System. Here are some photos:

La Isla Garden, Bronx, NY

Turn Up Garden, Brooklyn NY

Northeast Brooklyn Housing Development Pantry Garden,
Brooklyn , NY

Enchanted Garden, Bronx NY

Enchanted Garden, Bronx, NY

Frank White Garden, Harlem, NY
System 1

Hope on the Hill Garden, Harlem, NY

Jacqueline Denise Davis Garden, Bronx, NY

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Green Infrastructure Walking Tour

This is a 1.5 mile walk starting from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden that passes a variety of stormwater management installations from a Green Roof to Bioswales to Rainwater Harvesting projects Three community gardens are included on the tour.
Link to map:

Monday, February 29, 2016

State of the Community Gardens

Community Gardening is thriving. Places where folks are starting community gardens in the US are spread through every state, cities large and small, suburbs, exurbs and rural areas. Heightened interest by young people has fueled a growth spurt in community gardens and the increased awareness of the benefits of community gardens has spurred a tremendous growth in municipal programs and support in general for community gardens and community gardeners.

Where just a few years ago I knew most of what was happening in the community garden world, I am often surprised to find out where  this growth is happening and who is supporting community gardening.  I am most familiar with New York City community gardens where there is good examples of this burst of energy and support in community gardening.

Recently the New York City Housing Preservation and Development agency (HPD) announced the transfer and protection of 34 New York City Community Gardens on HPD land while relocating 14 other gardens on 9 sites slated for affordable housing. There is some debate about whether affordable is truly affordable but for gardeners in the 34 newly protected gardens this removes the specter of losing their garden in the future. The lost gardens are on sites that are large enough to make building affordable housing feasible. The current HPD commissioner Vicki Been, perhaps has a much better grasp of the value of community gardens than former commissioners. She co-authored a study  showing the positive effect of community gardens on housing values.

At the same time, community gardens have been targets for real estate scams where real estate developers fraudulently acquired community garden property and are attempting to evict the gardeners. In one example at the Maple Street Community Garden in Brooklyn, a pair of brothers claimed to have purchased the lot in 2003 for $5000. A judge ruled that the deal was "of dubious validity".  In another unrelated garden / developer conflict, the Boardwalk Community garden in Coney Island was flooded by Super-storm Sandy, rebuilt by the gardeners only to be bulldozed illegally by the developers of an amphitheater / performance space. This dispute has been in the courts for several years because of a disagreement about whether the land was mapped as parkland and therefore could not be "alienated" without legislative action. There are still threats to the longevity of some community gardens but the support of legal teams has helped community gardeners fight off some of these threats.

In other positive developments, community gardens continue to provide environmental benefits now and will be going forward thanks to recently announced funding or possible future funding. The NYCCGC recently  was awarded $2 million to study and implement green infrastructure techniques to capture stormwater  at some of the 47 community gardens in the Lower East Side in Manhattan with an eye toward preventing future flooding. In NYC, at least 140 community gardens already have some type of rainwater harvesting  system capturing well over 1.5 million gallons of water per year used to water the gardens. Funding for new rainwater systems and other green infrastructure installations continues to be supported by government grants, foundation support, corporate funding, crowdfunding and individual donations.

Community gardens have used solar energy in a number of ways for many years. The 6BC Community Garden in Manhattan has had a solar photovoltaic system (photo below) powering the pump for their fish pond, lights and other electric needs. A solar system was installed as part of a recent project at the La Casita Verde Garden in Brooklyn funded by the Kiwi Energy Eco Gold Environmental Fund.

The success of this project has led to discussions about future solar installations at a number of community gardens. More on this project in a later post. An example of a crowdfunded solar powered Aquaponics system is the Urban Ag Machine located at the Edgemere Farm in Rockaway, Queens. The project was funded through the crowdfunding site IOBY. Solar panels on the side of a shipping container power the pump which circulates water through the system fertilizing the plants, filtering the water in the fish tanks and aerating the fish tanks. (photo below) The solar panels were donated by another crowdfunding source, Divvy. Plans are for the system to begin operating in Spring 2016.

Community Gardeners continue to play a role in advancing the idea of locally sourced food. Of course to long time community gardeners, that is what community gardening is all about, growing fresh vegetables and fruit for your family and neighbors. Now, some larger sites are able to grow enough to support CSA's, sell produce to the community, provide fresh produce to food pantries and soup kitchens and sell to local restaurants. Many community gardens raise chickens and bees providing eggs and honey but also the chickens help produce compost and the bees help with pollination.

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) currently has an operating urban farm at the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn and plans to create at least 5 more in the next year. The urban farms will provide jobs for NYCHA residents through the Green City Force Program.

Community gardens provide the location and the material for education and training for people of all ages. Healthy eating, active lifestyle, green infrastructure, and environmental justice are just a few of the areas that community gardens provide a platform to teach. Following the lead of community gardeners, teachers and parents have started and maintained over 500 school gardens in the past 5 years. Grow to Learn provides advice, mini-grants, workshops and networking opportunities for folks starting or expanding school gardens.

I am currently training a group of teenagers from  the Brotherhood Sister Sol program in Harlem to install and maintain rainwater systems in area community gardens including the Frank White Garden adjacent to their meeting place. Our project is funded by the EPA Environmental Justice Grant Program. In another effort to make funding for parks and green spaces more equitable throughout the city, the New York City Council provided funds in the Funding Year 2016 budget for supplies and improvements to community gardens in every city council district with community gardens.

After enumerating all of the benefits of community gardens and how they are thriving I also want to make it clear that community gardens are not a panacea. Yes, community gardens are a natural venue for all kinds of events and activities that will support and improve the community but it should also be something that the community agrees is important. Community garden groups also need small amounts of money to maintain the garden and purchase supplies to keep the garden clean and functional. Sometimes major improvements are necessary to replace or repair a shed, fence or raised beds which require both funding and labor. In the case of big projects some corporate groups have stepped forward to provide both. In fact at GrowNYC a staff person spends half of his time signing up and coordinating volunteer events in community gardens for corporate groups. The funds and labor they provide help to spruce up and improve dozens of community gardens each year.

Community gardens are in a good state. The gardens are flourishing and community gardeners provide countless resources to their communities. There is always work to do and there are opportunities for many more people to be involved and provide assistance.  I applaud community gardeners for all that they have done and hope to continue to share stories and reports on community gardens for years to come.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Bad Behavior in Community Gardens

I have thought long and hard about doing this post. It doesn't make sense to me to focus on the negatives about community gardening but bad behavior in community gardens has been brought to my attention numerous times recently that I felt I had to address the issue. My reticence at bringing up this issue is that no matter how awful it is to the victim, having a prized tomato stolen does not equate to white collar crimes where everyone suffers because of the greed of a few or environmental crimes committed by corporations polluting our air and water thereby causing sickness and death in order to make a larger profit. I could write much more about these crimes but this is a blog about community gardening so I'd like to focus on some petty crimes that happen in community gardens.

Everywhere I went this summer folks I spoke to related stories about bad behavior in community gardens. I heard from a number of folks from Chicago, New Jersey, Boston and New York about produce being stolen. A gardener will watch a tomato, watermelon or pepper as it ripens, waiting to pick the fruit at the peak of ripeness and flavor. It always seems that the day before the gardener planned to harvest, the fruit disappears. Sometimes the fruit would be stolen before it is fully ripe, in effect wasting the nutrients that would be consumed if the fruit was allowed to ripen fully. The thief may be a garden member or an outsider. This petty crime pales in the scheme of things when compared to much more serious crimes but in the context of a community garden it violates the ethos of sharing and cooperation that is key to the smooth functioning of a community garden. It also turns off gardeners from participating. I heard the comment from a few folks that they would have to rethink their participation next season.

Other stories I heard were of community gardeners setting fire to a fellow gardeners plot as revenge for a perceived slight or as an escalation of an ongoing feud. I have gotten reports of community gardeners bullying others to keep them out of the garden and of someone repeatedly undoing the hard work of a fellow gardener by ripping out plants. In one garden rain barrels were stolen. There were complaints of a garden leader using the garden as a party venue and pocketing the profits from an admission charge or sale of alcohol. There are rumors of drug dealing taking place in community gardens. While some of these behaviors are illegal, they all once again violate the spirit of community and cooperation on which the community garden movement is based.

For every one of these bad behavior stories there are dozens of positive and inspiring stories of neighbor helping neighbor, of folks working through their differences, of produce being donated to those more needy, of generations working together and passing on knowledge. These things are what community gardening means to most of us. As in the larger world there are bad characters that commit crimes that impact us in ways small and large. There are many reasons that people commit crimes; they could simply be hungry and feel they can't get a meal any other way, they could have been mistreated their whole lives so they behave as they have learned that people behave, they could be doing it for fun or on a lark or they could know better but use their talents to commit crimes rather than do good.

I don't have an answer for getting rid of bad behavior in community gardens. My guess is that most of it comes from outside pressures or behaviors learned outside of the garden. Things that may be beyond our control. Do gardens become mini police states by installing cameras in our gardens to catch thieves red handed? Would the cameras then be stolen too? If nothing else I think the issue of theft, vandalism and illegal and immoral behavior should be discussed at garden meetings. These behaviors should not be tolerated and it should be made clear to gardeners and surrounding community alike that community gardens are refuges of cooperation and community and as such they are crime free zones.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Seeing, Really Seeing, Community Gardens

I have had the pleasure of visiting quite a few community gardens over the past week. This made me think about what you can see and learn about community gardens by visiting them. Last week I attended the American Community Gardening Association Conference in Chicago. One of the highlights of the conference was the garden tours led by local community gardeners. I used this opportunity to combine my interest in community gardens with my love of bicycling by going on a bike tour of the Humboldt Park area.

The neighborhoods surrounding the park are gentrifying. Safety and crime in the area is a concern for residents but I got the feeling that the crime rate was going down and the area was becoming safer.  We visited 7 gardens, and an urban farm plus rode on a path through a prairie wildflower meadow that was in full bloom. Most of the gardens had community gardeners present to tell us about the garden and the community. The gardens were for the most part small and had a mix of vegetables, fruit, herbs and ornamentals. The gardens had great names: El Coqui Garden, El Yunque Community Garden, Our Block Community Farm, Bon Appetit Garden and Mozart's Community Garden.

We saw that some gardens were a bit overgrown with weeds as often happens during the dog days of summer when gardeners may be away on vacation, it may be too hot to get out and weed or garden members may tire of the long growing season. Some gardens were well developed, others were still in the process of being developed. Gardens had been remediated and some were only growing in planters and raised beds and not in the native soil to avoid any soil contamination issues. As is often the case, the community gardeners got as much from sharing their work as we visitors appreciated their time and effort.

The important thing to me is that I felt I learned so much more seeing the gardens first hand and speaking directly with gardeners than I could ever learn from a book or a blog.  You can appreciate the flavor of the community and the hard work that goes into making and keeping a community garden from the way the gardeners communicate with each other and the surrounding community. These are nuances that come through much more in person than in print or on the screen. In fact I picked up some ideas for a simple but attractive bulletin board / message board.

I also had the opportunity just today to visit about a dozen gardens in the Lower East Side of Manhattan as I gave a tour to an intern. We met a few gardeners but I was able to share garden stories with our intern because of my familiarity with the gardens and the history of the gardens and the housing development pressure that many of the community gardeners experienced over the past 20 years. 

My intern had a unique tour as she learned about how one garden, the East Side Community High School Garden, formerly called the Open Road Garden, was built on the site of a former bus depot so contaminated soil had been removed, a barrier installed and new soil brought in. The greenhouse in the garden was once heated by ingeniously designed compost bins which give off heat from the composting process to warm the greenhouse.

El Sol Brilliante has been around so long that the property values were low enough in the 1970's for the gardeners to buy the land and become one of the first Land Trusts in New York City. The Firemans Memorial Garden is located on the site of a building that was leveled in a fire where  Fireman Marty Celic died in the blaze. The garden is a reminder of the days when landlords abandoned their buildings and some set fire to them or allowed others to burn  them to collect the insurance. 

On the same East Eighth Street block are the Green Oasis and Gilbert's Gardens adjacent to each other and at one point separate gardens but now one united garden. These gardens were also the film shooting location for  the movie Batteries Not Included. At the time (1987) the neighborhood had a bombed out look and the garden looked too green, so the producers donated $10,000 to the garden so they could place a plywood barrier on the fence and top off a few Ailanthus weed trees. The money was turned into a fancy gazebo and wrought iron fence, both still there. 

There is also the treehouse that looks like a nest in the El Jardin Del Paraiso. The nest is relatively new but artistic iron fences at Green Oasis and El Sol Brillante are reminders of the time when artists moved in to the neighborhood and left behind sculptural work before they had to move as they were priced out of the neighborhood. The Creative Little Garden is a tiny garden but another example of art in the garden. It is filled with artistic birdhouses and many other sculptural elements as well as places to spend time on a porch swing or sitting at cafe tables. 

All of these gardens in Chicago and New York have visual interest and a unique beauty. The real uniqueness and beauty is in the stories and in the community gardeners. To experience this yourself, I highly recommend visiting community gardens and talking to community gardeners when you visit. There are some amazing stories.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Old is New Again

Like a number of other discoveries that people are making...that you can grow food in the city....that you can collect rainwater ... a project that I have been working on for the past year, Aquaponics, falls into that category of what's old is new again. The exciting thing for me about Aquaponics is that it is another example of a sustainability concept that can be adapted for community gardens.

Aquaponics is a combination of Aquaculture - growing fish - and Hydroponics - growing plants without soil. By combining these two things and circulating the water from the fish tanks through the plant growing medium, the fish water fertilizes the plants and the plant roots filter the fish water. The water is oxygenated as it splashes back into the fish tank and as it passes through the planting medium Nitrogen is removed which is good for plants but not so good for fish.  There is more involved (the fish need to be fed!) but many companies are selling supplies and providing training. There are Aquaponics networks for teachers and for do it yourselfers.

My first project was working with a science teacher in a Junior High / High School in Queens, NY where we set up a unit that fit in an unused 3 foot by 5 foot corner of a classroom. This indoor unit complemented the school's outdoor garden. It is a perfect setting for teaching and learning science concepts and working on an ongoing science project. We hope the fish will survive the summer with less nurturing but it is set up to be a year round project growing lettuce and tilapia. The girls in the gardening club even named the fish the Pias.

Another project that in has been designed but not yet built as we wait for funding to be secured is an outdoor unit that fits in and on top of a 8 foot by 8 foot shipping container. The fish will grow in tanks inside the container with the vegetables growing in a small greenhouse on the roof. A solar panel will power a small pump to circulate the water. The project which I am working on with architect Carolin Mees is called the Urban Ag Machine. This unit is designed to fit in a small outdoor space like a corner of a community garden.

I was first introduced to concepts like this while a student at the Institute for Social Ecology at Goddard College in Vermont in 1977 hence the reference to the old being new again. At the time the New Alchemy Institute (NAI) in Woods Hole MA was creating living machines which were greenhouse structures growing food, filtering waste and powered by solar and wind power. One of the founders of NAI was John Todd who was a very influential figure in my life. Even though NAI no longer exists, Mr. Todd continues this work with Ocean Arks International  and John Todd Ecological Design .

Aquaponics holds promise to help feed the world. As the units that I have been working on and the ones John Todd and others have created show, the systems can be set up almost anywhere and can be designed to satisfy local needs for fresh produce and protein. The amount of feed necessary to produce one pound of fish protein is much less than to produce one pound of meat protein. For example it takes 1.2 pounds of feed to make 1 pound of salmon while it takes 8.7  pounds of feed to produce one pound of beef.

Would an Aquaponics system work in a community garden? The system and its upkeep and maintenance would have to be well thought out. The type of fish and vegetables that are grown should work for the climate and the community gardeners. There would have to be a group of people who share the work to maintain the Aquaponics unit. The distribution of the output should be discussed and decided in advance to avoid conflicts. All of these factors should be discussed regularly and contingencies have to be made in case anything goes wrong. What happens if the fish all die or the vegetables don't thrive?

Aquaponics has risks and rewards. Many people are doing Aquaponics so there is a wealth of knowledge available to assist anyone who attempts an Aquaponics project. With all of the promise that Aquaponics offers I feel that it is something that should be promoted and supported as a local food source. What better place for Aquaponics than in a community garden.