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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.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Why Should I Join a Community Garden?

As the temperature here in New York City has finally warmed above the freezing mark, we inevitably begin to long for even warmer temperatures and the ability to get out into the garden. It is also a time when folks begin to think about finding a community garden to join or to start one. In some of my previous posts you may have read about the many benefits attributed to community gardens. There are social benefits of meeting your neighbors, interacting with people of different cultures, of being a member of a supportive group, of feeling good about something you are doing. There are environmental benefits like restoring ruined land, providing habitat for insects and birds, combating climate change, preserving biodiversity and managing storm water. There are community benefits of cleaning up the neighborhood, increasing property values and providing a safe environment for children and seniors. There are the personal health benefits of eating fresh, local, organic, pesticide free produce, of exercise and of positive impacts on mental health. I am probably leaving out a few.

All of these things do not mysteriously grow out of a plot of vacant land. They all take time and work by a group of people to create these benefits. So one should not expect to walk into a community garden, have the sun shine on you and be blessed with all of the benefits mentioned above.

A more likely scenario is that you might be greeted warmly but warily by a community gardener. You will have to prove yourself and gain the trust of others. You will be faced with a set of rules that usually contain the words don't and can't. You will have to do physical work that might leave you sore and achy for days afterward. You may face disappointment at being given a plot that is in the shade or is much smaller than you expected. You may also be told that you are joining as a provisional or apprentice member and you will have to spend a year or more working on common areas to prove yourself before being given a plot of one's own. You may have to sit through endless meetings to make simple decisions. Your garden may be threatened by the municipal government or a developer wishing to use the land for other purposes. You may have your plants, vegetables of flowers damaged or stolen by pests both by humans and other species.

Why should I join a community garden? Is it worth it?

Of course you know I think it is.

What do you think?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Community Gardening and the Law

Community Gardeners do not own the land they garden. Community Gardens have always offered access to land to grow food and community on land that is owned by a municipal entity or a private landowner. The exception are Land Trust community gardens but they are a small percentage of the total of community gardens. Land tenure has always been an issue and many of the posts I have written have been about land issues. There is a movement to use urban lands for commercial urban agricultural projects that threatens to monopolize land and funds that might otherwise be used for community gardens. Community Gardeners have to be continually vigilant in monitoring city government attempts to place limitations on community gardening efforts both on a citywide scale and in terms of individual projects. Many cities either have enacted laws or policies concerning urban agriculture and community gardening. Some have given community gardening legitimacy and protections while some have placed limits on where community gardens can be and how they operate. The most supportive policies saw a great deal of lobbying and input from community gardeners.

A couple of events in New York City over the past 3 weeks have highlighted the ongoing struggle that community gardeners face to keep access to the land they do not own. At 5 am on Saturday, Dec 28, 2013 the Boardwalk Community Garden in Coney Island, Brooklyn was bulldozed by iStar Development who plans to develop a amphitheater on the site. The Boardwalk Garden had spent the past 14 months recovering from Superstorm Sandy. The Atlantic Ocean covered the garden with at least 6 feet of salt water destroying much of the garden.

Boardwalk Garden after Sandy 
This parcel covered by the garden is part of a larger redevelopment effort in the area which has progressed in fits and starts and has been a threat to this community garden and others for years. This project has been the darling of now former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and the timing of the bulldozers just 3 days before he was to leave office could not be coincidental. The developers may not receive the same support from new  Brooklyn and NYC elected officials. The community gardeners and their advocates are in the process of planning and filing a lawsuit claiming that the community gardens land was mapped parkland. In New York State taking of parkland or "alienation of parkland" without the approval of the state legislature is not allowed. There is no record of this approval and the parkland designation will have to be verified but the courts will probably have to decide this case.

photo by Hubert J. Steed

Coincidently just 10 days after the bulldozing on January 7, 2014, a judge ruled that NYU could not take land in Manhattan currently being used as small parks and a community garden for part of the university's expansion efforts. In this case the land was mapped as roadway as part of a failed effort by Robert Moses to develop an expressway through lower Manhattan that was first proposed in 1941, small parts were built but funds for the completion were never allocated and the project stopped for good in 1971. These parcels in question were assembled as approach roads but as the expressway project languished they became neighborhood parks and the community garden. One parcel became a living art installation called 'Time Landscape' by artist Alan Sonfist which recreates the landscape on the site before European settlement. Adjacent to the 'Time Landscape', The LaGuardia Corner Garden has been on the site since 1981. It is a relatively small but vibrant community garden. The garden is right next to a supermarket which makes it a great location for those of us who like to photograph such juxtapositions. The community garden group along with other community groups have been fighting the NYU plan for many years. The timing of the judges ruling could not have been better for the Boardwalk Garden although both cases have well funded opponents and the appeals process may go on for years. Fortunately the Laguardia Corner Garden was not bulldozed. The Boardwalk Garden was not so fortunate.

The struggle that community gardeners face in dealing with laws and policies continues. It doesn't seem that there will be a time when no community gardens will face what the Boardwalk Garden and the LaGuardia Corner Garden have faced. There will always be some community garden in some city that is threatened by development. Community gardeners will have to remain vigilant and to know the laws of their city and state to insure that their community gardens will remain and flourish.