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Monday, August 28, 2017

Can Urban Farming Save Us from Climate Change?

Growing and eating local produce has many benefits. You know where your produce was grown and what agricultural methods were used. The produce is fresher so the vitamin content and health value is higher and the vegetables can last longer than store bought varieties. A small caveat here: many varieties for sale in grocery stores are selected and grown for their shelf life often at the expense of taste or nutritional content. At the same time, certain varieties or types of vegetables that are grown in community gardens or urban farms are rarely found in grocery stores, so when we eat locally grown produce, we get to enjoy certain vegetables or varieties we wouldn't otherwise: Kohlrabi? Lacinato Kale?

The 'Food Miles' or the transportation costs of shipping produce long distances is avoided with urban agriculture. There has been much debate and some research about how true that is with some research even showing that grocery chains do better with the Food Miles metric than farmers markets .

The local produce grown in community gardens have additional social benefits which add value that is often not calculated. An excellent article describing the Bottoms Up Community Garden in the Lower Bottoms neighborhood in Oakland, CA points out the community organizing power of community gardens. Many of the posts in this blog also point out benefits that are not usually calculated when doing cost/ benefit comparisons of local produce grown in community gardens as compared to produce farmed in a distant location.

It is well established that dense cities can only produce a very small percentage of their food needs within the confines of the city so there has to be a mix of locally grown and trucked in food in our diets. However, a recent article in National Geographic Magazine, September 2017, "A Tiny Country Feeds the World" by Frank Viviano, highlights intensive agriculture in the Netherlands which is about the size of the state of Maryland yet produces the second highest food export value in the world after the USA. Much of this is done using greenhouses and the latest technology to minimize water use and produce higher amounts per acre than other countries. They have created what they call Food Valley where the latest research on agriculture at Wageningen University and Research is combined with entrepreneurship to grow more food and share the technological advances with the world, much the same as the relationship between Stanford University and Silicon Valley.  It seems that the calculus is constantly changing and improvements in materials and methods used research and technology, I believe, keep shifting the needle toward urban agriculture producing larger percentages of our food using less inputs.

So does Urban Agriculture have the ability to impact climate change? A recent article says no. This is true at the moment but with the technological changes happening at a feverish pace that may change sooner than later. Energy use for transportation, heating and cooling, manufacturing and housing play a big role in greenhouse gas emissions so improvements must be made in those areas as well. The agricultural sector including large and small farms and urban farms will have to help as well. I believe urban farms and community gardens will contribute to slowing down global warming and impacting climate change and in fact lead the way in some cases. The social benefits of community gardening will also be an important piece of the puzzle of reversing climate change.  

Monday, May 22, 2017

Community Gardens and Donald Trump

Two terms that should never be included in the same sentence, Community Gardens and Donald Trump. As DT's budget proposals are being released and analysts have had the opportunity to evaluate and understand the fine print in the federal budget, there is a link between the proposed budget and Community Gardens. In New York City, the GreenThumb program is and for 40 years has been funded by federal Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). By some estimates as much as 43% of GreenThumb's funding comes from CDBG. The budget does not include funding for CDBG.

CDBG funds have been a mechanism for congress and the federal government to allocate funds to communities of all sizes for programs to improve the lives of residents. There are restrictions and formulas about how the funds can be used, they are supposed to be used for areas that fall below a certain income level. This made this type of funding a perfect match for most community gardens in NYC as the gardens were clustered primarily in low income, minority majority neighborhoods. The CDBG eligible neighborhoods change over time as gentrification takes over in a neighborhood but in NYC, the lion's share of community gardens qualified for materials, plants and technical and community organizing advice which helped most gardens thrive and grow.

The CDBG program was championed by Democratic and urban congress members as a way to channel funding to their constituents. Republican representatives have generally opposed this program as adding to bloated government programs. This program and many others that provide support to low income Americans are all targeted for elimination by Republicans. So we cannot just blame DT but he definitely supports the plan to do away with the CDBG program.

What will this mean? Potentially a loss of $1 million or more of support for GreenThumb, the 600 NYC community gardens, 10,000 to 20,000 community gardeners and hundred of thousands of visitors who take part in educational programs, community events or who enjoy the produce, quietude or the environmental benefits of community gardens.

We cannot let this happen.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Community Gardening and Climate Change

Community Gardens have both an effect on Climate Change and are affected by Climate Change. With all the recent chatter about Climate Change and all of the deniers that now seem to be running the government, I thought it might be worthwhile discussing the connection between community gardens and climate change.
Several of the causes and manifestations of Climate Change could have serious consequences for community gardens including higher CO2 levels, warmer temperatures, higher or lower than normal precipitation and severe or unusual weather events.
Higher levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is one of the major causes of the greenhouse effect which generally raises average yearly temperatures. Another effect of higher CO2 levels, faster plant growth, has both a positive and negative effect on plants. A study published in 2012 showed that trees in New York City grew significantly faster in the urban environment than in rural areas.  Now this is true for above ground biomass but at the same time the roots grow more slowly and the wood produced by the faster growing trees is a weaker wood. Warmer temperatures particularly at night accounted for some part of the faster growth. Both higher CO2 levels and higher temperatures are factors in the Heat Island Effect experienced in urban areas and could be looked at as both cause and effect of climate change.

Community gardens can help reduce the Heat Island effect as the temperature can be several degrees cooler in a community garden than on the asphalt covered streets and concrete sidewalks just outside of the garden. This phenomena of faster plant growth can in the case of vegetables grown in community gardens (or even on farms) results in increased yields but at the expense of lower nutrient content.
Higher temperatures can mean a greater need for irrigation as plants will dry out more quickly. Weeds can also grow faster which can create additional weeding work and can stunt the growth of the plants we want to grow. Some pests can also thrive in the higher temperatures or have an additional generation during the growing season. Community Gardeners can also be impacted by higher temperatures as the elderly, those with compromised immune systems or with chronic diseases are compromised during heat waves or just can't be out in the heat.
Most of the United States has experienced drought in the last decade, in some cases longer. Scientists are making the connection between drought and climate change particularly instances of severe drought. Drought conditions can put stresses on plants causing decreased yields or pest problems. In drought situations, increased watering or irrigation can put extra pressure on the local water supply. In community gardens, the use of water conservation techniques helps alleviate drought stresses. So most community gardens have adapted to drought conditions by using drought tolerant plants, mulch, compost, drip irrigation and rainwater harvesting . Unfortunately rainwater harvesting can't help very much if it doesn't rain at all.
A number of gardens in NYC know first hand the effects of severe and unusual weather events. The community gardens that were damaged by Superstorm Sandy needed time, labor, materials and money to rebuild after being flooded by contaminated water or destroyed by falling tree limbs or complete trees. Sandy happened in 2012 and the community gardeners are still working toward making their gardens resilient. A good source of techniques to help make a community garden is this resilient community garden manual  .

Community Gardening and community gardeners have a very real symbiotic relationship with climate change. The manifestations of climate change can have serious impacts on the ability of community gardens to survive. Community gardeners, just by being stewards of green spaces that help to mitigate climate change, find ourselves on the front lines as part of the solution that might just put the brakes on climate change.

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.