Search This Blog

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Community Gardening : the Year in Review

This is the time of year that it seems like everyone has a list of top tens of everything and there are plenty of year in review stories. Here is my index of the year of the Community Gardening Blog. As I think back on 2011, I realize that a lot happened in the community gardening world, even more than I realized. Maybe that is why I haven't blogged as frequently as I would have liked; I was busy doing things. There were  a number of events starting with the New Jersey Community Gardening Symposium at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum but also including the annual spring events, Making Brooklyn Bloom and the GreenThumb GrowTogether as well as the ACGA conference held in New York City this past summer.

There was a lot of discussion and a lot written about plans and policies for community gardens and urban agriculture. In New York City we had a new "Rule" which passes for policy in this complicated city but of course isn't. So far there have not been any tests to see whether the Rule is strong protection for the gardens or not or what changes can be added to make it stronger. If this was a blog predicting what will happen in 2012, I would say that we will hear a lot more about this Rule. I can guarantee that you will hear and read more from me about policies in 2012.

With all of the talk of spending cuts coming from Washington and Albany there was on again and off again threat, worry and angst about whether the GreenThumb program will be cut a little, a lot or drastically. Nothing has happened yet although at this time it seems the cuts may just be a little. One of our wishes for 2012 is for more funds instead of cuts for GreenThumb. If only we has better news to report about the New York State Community Gardening Program. The coordinator left at the end of the summer for a new (not state) position and no one there answers the phone or replies to voice messages. The future for that program does not look so rosy.

We may have to include the New York State Community Gardening Program among those we have lost this year. We also marked the 25th anniversary of the loss of Adam Purple's Garden of Eden which was the first community garden loss that made headlines. Another of the wishes for 2012 is that there won't be any community garden losses in 2012 but rather a lot of new gardens about which I can report. An updated survey of community gardens will be released this year which should show increased numbers of community gardens in most cities from 1998 when the last survey was released. I know there will be a local conference 'Grow to Give' in Staten Island on January 21st to encourage more community gardens on Staten Island and to make the connections between volunteers, land and resources with the hope of growing more produce for Staten Island food pantries.

A number of 2011 posts were devoted to my early years in community gardening traced through the creation of the  6BC Community Garden.  That is something that I have been wanting to write about for many years and I am happy that I had the opportunity to share with you. I hope there will be more to add to the story in 2012, both stories from the past and new stories to come.

It was great to visit Compost for Brooklyn and add Community Compost Garden to the list of possibilities for community gardening. The Occupy Wall Street Movement inspired moving the Bicycle Water Pump from a germ of an idea to a working model. There will be pictures of these pumpers to show in a number of community gardens this season. Compost for Brooklyn needs a human powered leaf shredder. I wonder how that will work??  In addition to the Bicycle Water Pump, Occupy Wall Street also helped to show the world about the importance of process and developing a political and social structure that is inclusive. It reaffirms what I have written about the sustainability of community gardens being as dependent on the social sustainability of the garden group as it is on the physical space.

Not quite your traditional index, year in review, new year predictions or memorials but all rolled into one with the good news and bad and the hopes and dreams for next year which is only 2 days away. There are many reasons to believe that 2012 will be full of accomplishments and forward movement in community gardening and the work we have done this year will be a strong foundation on which to build. Blog with you next year!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

New Survey of Municipal Urban Agriculture Policies and Zoning

"Urban Agriculture: A Sixteen City Survey Of Urban Agriculture Practices Across the Country", a recently published report by the Turner Law Clinic of Emory Law School assesses Urban Agriculture zoning, policies and plans. There is bad news and there is good news in the report. The bad news is that there is not a best municipal zoning code or one size fits all of policies or plans. The good news, there is not a best municipal zoning code or one size fits all of policies or plans. 

To begin with, all of the cities had different definitions of urban agriculture, community garden or urban farm which may go a long way toward explaining why there is no agreement on policies and zoning. The reason this is good news is that since most US cities are very different in terms of geography, population, politics and openness to change or even to the idea of planning, it makes sense that they would come up with different urban agriculture policies (or in some cases none at all). This makes it likely that the zoning or policy for any given city will be well suited to that city's unique situation.  For any municipality that wants to come up with a plan for urban agriculture there will be some hard work ahead.

One of the good news items is that the the authors give us 16 examples of what has been done or is in the process of being enacted. So municipalities can start with some ideas to work toward crafting a policy that works for their city. Others have done some groundwork for them. The bad news here is that the authors do an uneven job in their reporting. Some cities are covered in great detail, while others much less so. Emory's hometown of Atlanta is well covered but in other cases that may be because there is more to report on for certain cities like Minneapolis which is way ahead of most cities in this process. In one way that is not surprising  because there is a tremendous amount of involvement by the citizens of Minneapolis in the planning and policy making process. Normally I would think that having too many people involved in the process can bog down progress but the good people of Minneapolis have defied that logic. 

Citizen involvement is strong in many cities where the urban agriculture and community gardening movements are thriving in spite of the lack of support from the municipality. Detroit is a perfect example of this phenomenon since it probably has the greatest amount of acreage devoted to urban agriculture of any American city because of it's wealth of vacant land, urban farming advocates and practitioners. At the same time there are no municipal urban agriculture zoning laws or policies in Detroit, ironically because of a state 'Right to Farm' law. 

One would think this would be a good thing for urban agriculture but the law was written to protect farmers from local attempts to curb their livelihood as the citizens of Detroit abandoned the city for the suburbs and their suburban sprawl began encroaching on farmland. One of the provisions of the law was that no government more local than the state could enact any legislation about local agriculture. So Detroit will have to get an exemption from the law in order to be able to create urban agriculture zoning regulations.

This points out how difficult it is to enact zoning or policies. When zoning or policies are created to promote urban agriculture the definitions can inadvertently place unintended limitations on urban farmers or community gardeners. In fact the authors do mention that at least some groups that they interviewed liked the fact that there was no policy because it meant (and I'm reading between the lines here) there was little notoriety about what they were doing as well as little regulation. When there are regulations there tend to be permits, fees, reporting and other added tasks and controls for the community gardener or urban farmer.

There are bits of great news in this report, for example Atlanta is committing to building urban agriculture or community garden plots in every city park and all San Francisco city departments have been instructed to support urban agriculture. Two things that every city should copy and paste into their policies.

Of course I am most familiar with NYC and have written about the permanency battles here in previous posts. The reporting on New York City takes most of the 'facts' from just 2 websites so the history is glossed over and a bit inaccurate. For instance New York Restoration Project get all the credit for purchasing and preserving community gardens in land trusts when more than half of the community gardens were saved by Trust for Public Land.

Overall this is an important document that has moved the knowledge base forward on this issue. The authors even admit that it is a moving target - a number of cities were in the process of creating new zoning codes or policies and updates will have to happen frequently to keep information up to date. It is definitely worth reading.

The good and bad news continues when I think that 20 years ago I wrote a report that only found 4 cities (NYC was not one of them) with zoning, policies or plans and now this report includes 16 - good - but it seems most of the work has been done in the last 2 years.

The best news of all is that community gardening and urban agriculture is thriving in many cities because of the hard work of the residents doing the gardening or farming whether or not there is support from the city. In many cases the impetus for all of this legal work comes from the ground up from many of the same folks. To me this gives even more importance to making sure that there is social sustainability for community gardening and urban agriculture groups.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Design for the Other 90% : Cities

Last week I had the privilege of visiting the exhibit Design for the Other 90% : Cities part of a continuing series of exhibits by the Cooper - Hewitt Museum that highlight design solutions for the 90% of the world's population that usually don't receive the benefits from designers working on products and systems to improve their standard of living. This exhibit is at the United Nations, a fitting venue.

The exhibits were models, full size objects, videos, photos and informational boards that focused on public health, clean water, food access, energy and transport. The designs were created for what are termed informal settlements, groups of people forced to resettle because of famine, war, natural disasters or just the search for a better life. These settlements often have poor housing, sanitation and lack of drinking water.  While not on the same scale  some of the same issues we discuss in reference to the sustainability of community gardens.

One of the exhibits highlighted access to food with a design for a "Garden in a Sack". The sacks are filled with loamy soil and manure, slots are cut on the sides and seedlings planted in the slots. Families can harvest as many as 4 meals per week from their planting. Community groups are adopting the technique in a type of community garden. In some cases they grow enough to sell at market. See my previous posts on Vertical Gardening - growing vegetables in recycled polyester bags from April 15, July 12 and September 26, 2010.
I am also very interested in the use of human power to accomplish tasks that are needed in a garden. Several of the exhibits highlighted using bicycles for transport or producing electricity. One exhibit showed full size examples of a modular bicycle frame that can be used to make a bicycle with a piece of wood or a cart using the same frame. See the included photos.

Another design  uses the bicycle to power a charger for a cell phone.
There was a design that used bicycle pedals to pump water from a water tank through a filter system.

For a view of another system, I made a new video showing the improvements I have made to my design for a bicycle water pump.

This exhibit is well worth a visit if you are in NYC. There is also a detailed website worth exploring and a catalogue that can be purchased through the website.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Community Compost Garden

C4B Bike Trailer
The title of this post could have been Compost Community Garden or Garden (of) Community Compost but I chose Community Compost Garden. Let me explain. I recently visited the Compost for Brooklyn   or C4B garden, a site that I have heard much about but have never had the chance to visit. On a tiny - 45 X 50 foot lot, a small group has converted a vacant space to a very productive one. The space has a dozen compost bins, a couple of compost tumblers, a large compost sifting table and a small shed that collects rainwater. There are also native plantings scattered around the garden.
Browns and Greens
This project is the brainchild of Louise Bruce, a young woman I met a couple of years ago when she was a member of the Green Apple Corps (GAC), an environmental training program that is part of the Dept. of Parks in NYC. The GAC assisted me in the construction of a number of rainwater harvesting systems but Louise's passion was composting. She was able to convince a private landlord to allow her and a small group of helpers to take this vacant lot and turn it into a community compost center.
Rainwater Harvesting Shed
Their first fall they accepted lots of leaves that have turned into the soil base of the garden. They got help from a local woodworker who not only donates his wood shavings (which are a perfect 'brown' to add to all of the 'green' they receive) but also built some of the compost bins for the group. This is a perfect example of the cooperative nature off this undertaking. They not only encourage folks to drop off their vegetable scups from home but welcome and encourage volunteers to help with turning piles, sifting the finished compost and picking up donations from the local Community Supported Agriculture group and Greenmarket. Workshops and assistance are offered for folks who want to compost at home and they teach  a program for children they call Bug Land Builders which teaches kids about the good insect decomposers and pollinators.
Community Compost Sifter
While not a typical example of a community garden, C4B is a great example of a sustainable community garden. A group has taken an underutilized space and turned it into a productive one. Productive not only in the sense of creating a usable product - compost - but also producing community. When I spoke to Louise during my visit, much of our conversation was about the people involved and how she is working hard to create a sustainable community group.
3 of the compost bins
All of the physical sustainable things C4B is doing; making compost, harvesting rainwater, using a cargo bicycle to transport compostable materials all contribute to the social sustainability of this project. People are engaged by doing and learning and future ecologists are being trained.
Bins Buckets Shed Sifter Tumblers
New York City has no landfill or incinerator within it's boundaries. All waste is shipped out of the city. Much has been written about how to solve the solid waste problems that face our cities. Backyard or small scale composting is not considered to be one of the answers. I am sure those folks have not seen Compost for Brooklyn. They might think differently if they did. Anyone who wants to do this kind of project I would recommend modeling your project after C4B. Oh and no smell or signs of vermin!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Bicycle Powered Water Pump for Rainwater Harvesting Systems

Making Community Gardens Sustainable is an ongoing theme of this blog and of the work I do during the time when I am not blogging. My most recent project was to devise a human powered water pump using a bicycle.  Most community gardens do not have access to electricity to power a pump. A few might have solar panels to run lights or power other devices. Some may have access to electricity from the grid. But the numbers for electrified community gardens is small. Other solutions are necessary for the task of pumping water. I have already worked with an engineering intern to design a treadle pump for pumping water. An earlier blog post describes that effort.
                                    Prototype drill pump on a bike blender

I felt this was a good solution but that creating a pump that worked with a bicycle might be even better for a number of reasons. Most people have a bicycle available to them and there are many used bicycles available for little or no cost. Bicycles and riding a bicycle are also more familiar to most people than a treadle pump. The bicycle could be used as a method of transport when not being used to pump water. Much like the treadle pump, using the bicycle to pump water would also be a form of exercise - a side benefit of this project.
                                   Bike pump using bicycle trainer set up

There are some notable efforts at devising human powered machines. In most cases these efforts are being done in developing nations by international aid organizations or students. A very interesting group is Maya Pedal in Guatemala. They have devised many pedal power machines including corn grinders, nut shellers and wood saws. Youtube has many videos of bicycle powered devices, most often showing ways to generate electricity using a bicycle. That was one direction to work on but I wanted to use the bicycle to drive a pump directly rather than to produce electricity to run the pump.
  Close up of the connection between the bike trainer and the drill pump

One idea I had was to use a drill pump. A small inexpensive device that can be attached to a power drill to pump out water in basements, swimming pools and other home uses. I just had to figure out a way to transfer the motion from a bicycle wheel  to the drill pump. My first attempt was to use a bicycle blender setup to turn the drill pump instead of a blender. I made a prototype which worked but seemed like too much power was lost doing it this way.
                        Set up showing connection to the rainwater tank

I then realized that the bicycle trainer that kept the rear wheel off the ground could be adapted to turn the drill pump directly. I made a video that explains how it is done. I have to secure the drill pump and connector pieces better. In the video you will see that the pump is held in place by wires as a temporary solution. I will create a frame of some kind to secure the pump to the bicycle trainer. So it will be one unit easily moved or stored.

This is one small project that along with a number of other small projects can help make community gardens sustainable. With a little funding, hopefully several community gardens that can most use a bicycle water pump for their Rainwater Harvesting systems will get them this coming spring.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Update on Community Garden and Urban Agriculture Plans and Policies

Cities across the US are beginning to be enlightened to creating ordinances, policies and zoning to allow
and even encourage urban agriculture and community gardening. A recent New York Times article
highlighted the fact that some cites particularly in the Midwest and Northeast have large numbers of
vacant lots with little demand from developers to build on them.

This has been a problem for many years in Philadelphia and Cleveland.In fact,Cleveland has a very
strong Urban Agriculture policy. In fact it will be the topic of discussion at an upcoming October
Experts Panel Conference Call for ACGA Members with Morgan Taggart giving the Cleveland story
and Bill Maynard information about Sacramento's community garden friendly policy.

In some cases the policies are urban agriculture policies which are aimed toward allowing food
growing in urban areas as an entrepreneurial enterprise. In fact there was a flurry of activity this
spring as San Francisco passed what they are calling the "most progressive" urban agriculture
ordinance in the US. on April 14, 2011.

This policy was the result of advocacy work done by small urban farmers who wanted a positive

One day later Minneapolis adopted the first Urban Agriculture Policy Plan for that city. The
Minneapolis plan was crafted by a group of around 100 stakeholders.

Other cities are working on policies and pans including Oakland, CA, Chicago and Detroit. All
three cities have plans that are currently being debated.

As I wrote in previous posts, New York City passed a new rule about community gardens and
also passed Foodworks - comprehensive food policy that includes provisions for rooftop farms
as well as other healthy food initiatives.

Seattle has always been in the forefront having included community gardens in their city plans for
many years. The plan establishes a goal of one community garden for every 2,500 households in
the city.

All of this policy activity bodes well for the legitimacy and longevity of community gardens and
urban agriculture initiatives. The next steps should be the creation of new community gardens
and urban farms, sharing of best practices among practitioners and support from all levels of
government, higher education and foundation that recognizes the importance of community
gardens to the environment and health of our cities.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Community Gardens and Occupy Wall Street

The Occupy Wall Street movement has spread to many cities in the US and many folks I know have been discussing what is going on. The comments have ranged from some expressing an interest in joining the movement and others having opinions both supportive and opposed on the issues being raised. Others have asked me whether I will join those in Liberty Park - the name the occupiers have given to Zuccotti Park where many have spent their days and nights. I have not been there to spend a lot of time but  did stop by to see what was happening and took a couple of photos. While I may not be able to spend a night there I can talk about it in my blog. It is set up like a small town with the areas designated by the needs of a gathering like this: a meeting area, a sleeping area, a cooking area, a library, a media center and a work area (mostly for making signs).

The occupiers spend a lot of time meeting and discussing what they will do, what messages they will broadcast to the world and how they will organize themselves and make decisions. The use of press media and social media is widespread from a website to Facebook and Twitter, There is even a 4 page printed paper called The Occupied Wall Street Journal which of course is also available as a .pdf The Occupied Wall Street Journal .

So what does Occupy Wall Street have to do with community gardening? Many of my posts have stressed the importance of social sustainability and how community gardening groups are testing grounds for how to organize a group to make decisions and to get the work of community gardening accomplished. The occupiers at Liberty Park say they are using  modified consensus to make decisions. This is a very practical way to make decisions as everyone has a say but just 1 person can't hold up making a decision. Both this movement and community gardening are showing us how to organize and make decisions where everyone's voice can be heard.

Occupy Wall Street is also space based. The group is occupying a public space to use for what they see ( and I agree) is an important purpose. Community Gardeners also occupy underutilized city spaces to create neighborhood amenities, grow food and improve their communities. If I might suggest what the overriding message from the occupiers could be is just that the dollars that are in the hands of the 1% be used so that this energy can be focused to create neighborhood amenities, grow food and improve their communities.

The community gardeners often ask for more space for more gardens. The Occupy Wall Street folks are saying that they are running out of space in Liberty Park and are looking to expand to other parks in the city. That will be an interesting next step. I am curious how that will play out.

One excellent clue about what can be done may be happening in one of my favorite gardens, Drew Gardens in the Bronx which recently began a project with the International Rescue Committee to give refugees a chance to grow foods from their homelands, to interact with others in their position and  improve their lives. An article today about ethnic farmers markets also included a reference to  Drew Gardens .

What it comes down to is that everyone wants a productive life. How that will happen and what it will look like is still to be determined. Looking at community gardens may give us a few clues.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Harvest Time

Here in the Northeast harvest season is winding down. There are late season crops that are still to be harvested but the bulk of harvesting has taken place already and many cities and communities have harvest festivals. These festivals are fun events that include contests, games, music, art and of course food.

For community gardeners it is a time to show off their best flowers, largest and most perfect veggies and fruit and bountiful baskets from their gardens. The competitions can be intense but they are also a time to compare growing techniques, new varieties and best practices. The harvest fairs are a great time to learn from others and to make resolutions for next year.

Harvest Fairs and Festivals happen in many places like Juneau, Alaska , Brownwood, Texas , Toronto, Canada , Bronx, New York , San Francisco and St. Louis, Missouri to link to just a few. Each has a different flavor or theme. A harvest festival tour would be a fun vacation.

I have been a judge in a number of harvest fairs though I missed this year. It is wonderful to see the variety of peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and squashes that people grow. Often it is difficult to choose between first and second place. In some cases I want to give everyone a ribbon. There are usually very strict contest rules - the number and size of fruits, the length of the stems, absence of blemishes - that will sometimes rule out otherwise good entries. Most important is that folks have an opportunity to be recognized for the work they put in during the season.

For community gardeners it is often the only time when they get recognition for the many hours that they volunteered to improve their neighborhoods. Most often community gardeners are challenged about what they are not doing. How come your plot is so weedy? Why is all of this trash in the garden? Why wasn't the garden open yesterday? Why didn't you come to the meeting? Somebody forgot to lock the shed!!

It may happen that someone passes by and says thanks for what you are doing but complaints are far more frequent. So beyond all of the fun and games the nicest thing about harvest fairs are those ribbons and the well deserved acknowledgement that the community gardeners receive. Congratulations for and thanks to community gardeners for all you have done this year and Happy Harvest Time!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Post Community Gardening Conference Thoughts

Attending the community gardening conference last month in New York City, gave me the opportunity to share ideas and make connections with other community gardeners. It also provoked some thoughts and ideas. From the large proportion of sessions devoted to research it became clear that the glaring omission was the lack of a national survey and census of community gardens. In fact I spent a little time at the conference talking to folks about what that might look like and how it might be done. I plan to spend some time in the coming months working on that project. such a survey could pinpoint where there are opportunities for more community gardens.
                                           On a Tour at the Conference

The overwhelming interest in community gardening from around this country and the world makes one think about the big picture. Shouldn't cities plan in advance for community garden or urban agriculture spaces? Particularly cities that have vacant land because population has declined but also cities that are growing that have the opportunity to set aside space for community gardens before that space is is built upon. Both types of cities can develop policies to encourage and promote community gardens.
                                      A narrow lane in a village in Sicily

A recent New York Times article  focused on Cleveland as an example of a city with available land and shrinking population. While the article focuses on a study of the benefits of a vacant lot in terms of habitat and biodiversity,  my interest piqued when the article mentioned the opportunity for cities to do something positive with the land. While at this time cities like Cleveland and other Northeast (Philadelphia) and Midwest (Youngstown, OH) cities are losing population to the Southeast and Southwest, there may come a time when the Southern cities will have reached their limits to growth particularly because of lack of drinking water. With the ongoing drought conditions in these regions that time may be very soon. And that will be a time when the Northern cities could increase their populations in a well planned manner that includes adequate open space and room for community gardens and urban agriculture.
                           Melons being sold off the back of a truck in Sicily

I can see redevelopment of neighborhoods in a sustainable way that takes into account transportation, commerce, agriculture and recreation in addition to housing. These neighborhoods could and should have as small a carbon footprint as possible. I just returned from a vacation in Sicily and I was struck by 3 things. One was the incredible beauty of the land. Second was how tasteful the food was. Not just the cooked food but even the raw ingredients. Peaches and Melons were in season and the flavor of the fruit was much stronger and fresher than the same fruit in season here. Was it that it was local? Third was that all of the towns were densely built with narrow roads and attached buildings everywhere. Of course the Sicilians love their (mostly very small) cars so there was traffic even in these small towns. But there was also alternative transportation. As much of the land was hilly, I rode in cable cars called Funuvia on 2 occasions. Olive trees and Grapes grew everywhere and particularly just outside of the towns were small farms. Could these small towns be models for what these new neighborhoods could be?      

Sunday, August 21, 2011

ACGA Conference Report

The 32nd annual American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) conference was a rousing success on many fronts. Attended by over 350 people from 30+ states as well as 7 other countries. Workshops, a trade show and a day of tours meant that there was a variety of opportunities for folks to learn, teach and network.

At least 1 person who read this blog learned about the conference, received a scholarship, attended the conference and ended up sitting next to me by chance at the keynote speech. That speech and a significant percentage of workshops focused on research which shows me how far the community gardening movement has come from the first conference I attended 25 years ago.

I had the opportunity to connect with old friends and colleagues and lay the groundwork for future projects. I met folks who work with or have followed in the footsteps of former colleagues. I spoke with other New Yorkers who I have never met before that are working on parallel or complimentary projects. I chatted with someone who was on a bicycle tour of gardens I led at the conference in 2002. I ended the day Saturday pretty hoarse from leading a tour of Gardens in the Bronx that have a connection with public schools. The photos here are from that tour.

All in all a tiring yet exhilarating experience. Next year San Francisco!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

It has been awhile since I last posted the story of the 6BC Garden and the early years of my involvement with community gardening. Today I happened to visit the garden after riding my bike on car - free streets in Manhattan called Summer Streets . Lafayette Street and Park Avenue were closed to cars from 7am to 1pm from the Brooklyn Bridge to 72nd Street. There aren't any community gardens on the route but a few blocks off the route in lower Manhattan are many community gardens including 6BC. The garden looked wonderful as always. People were strolling in and out just to have a look or to sit with friends.

To continue the story... Folks who were the garden leaders at the time were very concerned about preserving the garden knowing the lurking threat of Mayor Giuliani's policy of ridding the city of all "vacant property".  I moved from my Lower East Side apartment so I was no longer an active gardener but I continued to advise and assist the garden group whenever I could. The gardeners realized that the assemblage of lots that encompassed the 6BC and adjacent 5th Street Slope gardens was large enough for a  fairly large - 60 - 100 - multi - unit dwelling so would be coveted by developers. They put together a wonderful document outlining the history and value of the garden with photos, press clipping and other documentation. Much of this document can be found on the garden website. This process and some behind the scenes work on my part resulted in the garden being transferred to the Parks Dept from the Departments of Housing Preservation and Development and General Services along with about 35 other gardens deemed worthy of protection. While good news for the 6BC garden there was also a lot of discussion and anger among gardeners who felt that there was favoritism and an unfair and non transparent process for choosing which gardens would be transferred. The transferred gardens it turned out were also protected from the Giuliani plan to auction 120 gardens.

The transfer to the Parks department emboldened the gardeners to solicit city capital funds from the local city council person to get new fencing and an in ground water system which they received. As is often the case with large sums of money, this funding began a rift between the 2 adjacent gardens which continues to this day. Despite efforts by a number of people to bring the 2 gardens together as one, personality and racial  conflicts kept the gardens from uniting. The City Council funding was earmarked for the whole assemblage though at the time the 5th Street side was much less developed as a garden. A parking lot run illegally by a local man who took many years to evict kept the gardeners from gardening on two thirds of the lot. The 6BC gardeners used this opportunity to have the back-flow preventer and control box placed on the 5th Street side because it took up garden space and was unsightly. But since there was still a fence between the 2 gardens, the 5th Street gardeners refused to allow the 6th Street gardeners access to the water - a situation that continues to this day. All of the money for fencing was spent on an elaborated wrought iron fence - on the 6th Street side.

The garden development continued with a new 2 storey shed built with a small tea room on the upper level (which had to be rebuilt after a suspicious fire destroyed part of the structure), a large pond was installed which was aerated by a pump powered by solar panels on the shade structure. A sunken seating area was built with stone salvaged from building sites around the neighborhood - a building boom was taking place throughout the 1990's until 9/11. A smaller pond and a Japanese style arbor create a theme garden vignette. The pathways were meticulously laid with recycled brick from the garden into intricate patterns and the garden name at the gate. An herb garden originally planted over 20 years ago remains with some original and some newly added plants. The garden has become almost entirely ornamental, in fact the official name is the 6BC Botanical Garden. There was even a cactus garden where during the summer months a number of cacti were grouped together and kept alive by bringing them indoors in the winter. The garden hosts a number of events like poetry readings, solar workshops, music, dance and private events.

A visitor today will find a beautiful peaceful garden with folks weeding, watering and maintaining this gem of a space. They won't of course know any of the back story of how the garden went from a vacant lot to a lush landscape or the work that went into building the structures or the infighting and inter-garden conflicts. For me I am proud of the work that I did in the garden, not so happy about failed attempts to merge the two gardens and embarrassed by the actions of some of the gardeners that created a permanent rift between gardens.  This is just one story of thousands that could be told of the community gardening process that is not always pretty but one where folks have to work together to accomplish something. Community Gardening is much more about community, social interaction, psychology, economics and politics than it is about gardening.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

American Community Gardening Association

The American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) is holding it's 32nd Annual Conference at Columbia University in New York City from August 18 to August 21st. For anyone interested in community gardening, I highly recommend attending this conference. It is a great opportunity to learn though workshops, network with 400-500 community gardeners and community gardening professionals, visit some of the most interesting community gardens in the world and spend some time in New York City.
Aspen Farms, Philadelphia, 1999

My community gardening experience is directly tied to the ACGA conferences in many ways. I attended my first conference in New York City in 1985 and found a job announcement advertising the position at Council on the Environment which became my job a few months later.  I have attended 16 other conferences which together have been a bi-national tour of cities in the US and Canada. I've had the pleasure of visiting Seattle, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Denver, Louisville, Chicago, Montreal, Indianapolis, Dayton, Atlanta, Toronto, Minneapolis/St.Paul and Los Angeles. Community Gardens in each city reflected the flavor of the city and region as well as ethnic and immigrant cultures inhabiting that city.
Mr. McGregors Garden, Dayton, 1997

For 6 years in the early to mid 1990's I served on the ACGA Board of Directors, most of that time as the Chair of the Publications Committee responsible for publishing the Community Greening Review. Of course those were the days before ACGA had a website and the board members were pioneering a new way to communicate between semi-annual meetings called e-mail. The Community Greening Reviews did provide in depth articles about community gardening at a time when very few researchers were studying and writing about the subject. These articles served as seminal works that have informed and inspired the current generation of researchers.
Wattles Garden, Los Angeles, 2006

At several conferences I presented workshops on Council on the Environment programs, rainwater harvesting and community garden mapping. This year's conference has workshops on youth gardening, sustainability, advocacy and community development. The workshops are informative and helpful but the most interesting part of  ACGA conferences are the garden tours. The pictures included in this blog post were taken on some of those garden tours. The tours at this conference are by bus, bike and foot, are all themed, include a workshop or service component related to the theme and lunch in one of the gardens. To truly appreciate New York City community gardens it is best to visit them. I will be leading a bus tour of community gardens in the south Bronx that have a connection to schools in the neighborhood.
Community Garden, Minneapolis, 2005

For anyone who has an interest in community gardens, school gardens, urban agriculture, sustainability or community building, the ACGA conference has all of that and more. Who knows it could lead to a job, an avocation as a presenter, an election to the ACGA Board of Directors or even to a Blog!
Miracle Garden, New York City, 2010

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Water, Water Everywhere But...

On several occasions this spring I received e-mails or phone calls saying that the water in their rainwater harvesting (rwh) tank smelled like a sewer or a swamp. Folks were worried that something was wrong and wondered whether they should use the water or not. The water in my rwh tank at home also smelled swampy for a short time.

Water quality is a major concern not just for rwh systems but for water systems throughout the world. Public water systems as well as municipal systems that have been privatized have to be monitored constantly and on occasion have to issue drinking water alerts. The New York City drinking water supply which is considered one of the finest, best tasting water but the city is building a filtration plant to filter the 10% of the water supply that comes from the highly developed Croton reservoir area at a projected cost of $3 billion.

The quality and cleanliness of natural water systems - our rivers and lakes is also of concern. In fact one of the benefits of rwh is in helping to prevent combined sewer overflows that can happen in a rainfall of as little as one tenth of an inch. Combined sewers handle both sanitary sewage, the waste from our toilets, sinks, washing machines, showers and tubs as well as the rainfall that runs in the city's gutters. In a combined sewer overflow event, the added rainfall overwhelms the capacity of the sewage treatment plant and all of the liquids and solids are sent into the river.

The concern about water quality in rwh systems is something that we have considered and tested. Because of the many variables to consider and the cost of testing we were only able to test water quality at 1 community garden. The results can best be summed up by a quote of mine that appears in the August / September 2011 print issue of Organic Gardening Magazine and can also be found at Organic Gardening on-line.
"You can’t really generalize,” he says. You can’t compare an asphalt roof in an urban area with a rural one where birds regularly roost. “The [varying] amount of rainfall and frequency means that if you tested the water in your barrel each time it rained, you would get a different result.” Since testing is prohibitively expensive, Librizzi adds, “I tell folks if they are uncomfortable with watering their edibles with collected rainwater, they should use it only for ornamentals. They will still be saving water.” 

So, the swampy smell. Since none of the water was tested, I can only make an educated guess. I think what happened was that we had a couple of significant rains in the spring which meant that a lot of organic material such as pollen, flower parts and seed parts found their way into the tanks. The weather warmed up to heat this mixture and the aerobic environment turned into an anaerobic one much like in a swamp.

However or whether the community gardeners used the collected rainwater, water was diverted from the combined sewers, helped to keep our waterways clean and helped to conserve water. There are now over 80 rwh systems in NYC community gardens (it is hard to keep track of the number as new ones are added frequently- some that I am not even aware of). My best educated guess is that all of these rwh systems collect approximately 1 million gallons of rainwater each year!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Community Gardening Yeasayers and Naysayers

I regularly come across news items that either highlight the benefits of community gardening, are feel good stories about community gardening or are in some way negative about community gardening. Sometimes the news items make great counterpoints to each other like these.

I have been an advisor to Project Grow school gardening project at City as School H.S., an alternative public high school in lower Manhattan. For many years they had a garden and greenhouse in the entry plaza to the school. Last year, the greenhouse and garden had to be removed to make way for a renovation project to the school's facade. The school has no other usable space but currently they are gardening in a mini-farm at Battery Park. Some of the students created an interesting video about their project. Definitely Yeasayers.  Please note that Battery Park is 25 acres of  Parks Department parkland in Manhattan.

Another article I came across : "Senior Citizens' Illegal "Vegetable" Garden Destroyed In Highbridge Park" was about a group of seniors in Upper Manhattan that were growing vegetables in an underutilized area of Parks Department land in Upper Manhattan. Now, the seniors seemed to have neglected to ask permission -maybe they forgot, maybe they wanted fresh local vegetables like the aforementioned downtown Manhattan dwellers or maybe they were a group of guerilla gardeners. I don't know what their motivation was but it does point out that there is a demand for space to grow vegetables in NYC.
There was a disturbing comment from Manhattan Parks commissioner William Castro in the article which appeared in the on-line Gothamist weblog,  "'we almost never get a request for' vegetable gardens.". Definitely a Naysayer.  By the way, GreenThumb is the largest municipal community gardening program in the US, is part of the Parks Department and does issue licenses to nearly 300 groups to grow vegetables on land under the jurisdiction of the Parks department.

One more Naysayer: A Harvard professor, Edward L. Glaeser, wrote an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe with the subtitle  "Urban farms do more harm than good to the environment". His argument is that more urban agriculture = lower population density= more driving= more energy use. I guess on the surface this argument makes sense except that no one is talking about depopulating cities in order to grow more food within city limits but rather utilizing unused spaces like vacant land and rooftops.  I don't think that most cities will be able to grow a high proportion of the food they consume. The point is to grow as much as possible particularly items that provide high nutrition values using the most sustainable farming practices. Yes, I am a Yeasayer!