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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.