Community Gardens: Protecting the Planet While Feeding It

While most of the people in New York City live in apartment buildings most of the land in New York City sits under single family homes. While New York is nearly completely built up, there are places within the city where there is enough land to grow some crops. While we are certainly surrounded by concrete and asphalt, the natural world is never far away in New York City.  From small plots to multi-acre urban farms, New York City’s community gardens turn abandoned lots into urban oases, feed city residents, and provide community spaces for birthdays, barbeques, and informal get-togethers.
In addition to benefits such as fostering community and offering green spaces in neighborhoods lacking sufficient park land, community gardens also have a positive impact on the environment.  Unpaved garden surfaces absorb rainwater and reduce stress on the city’s sewage system, and many gardens partner with schools to provide outdoor classrooms for ecology and biology lessons.  

Community gardens help cool the city and reduce the urban heat island effect, caused when the city’s dark surfaces trap heat and make it hotter than surrounding areas.  Green spaces offered by community gardens can even reduce the amount of energy used to cool buildings. According to the EPA’s website, “Widespread planting in a city can decrease local surface and air temperatures. Strategic planting…directly cools the interior of homes and buildings, decreasing air conditioning costs and peak energy demand.”

While most of our food travels an average of 1,019 miles by the time it reaches grocery shelves, community gardens are a source of fresh, affordable produce for city residents which can be transported to the dinner table without the use of fossil fuels.

As Jacquie Berger, Executive Director of Just Food, points out, “As food prices rise, people are trying to figure out how they can get food more affordably.  With community gardens, people can get together to grow their own food, which builds community, saves money and shrinks their carbon foot print all at the same time.”

“If you look at the Mayor’s PlaNYC 2030, there is no mention of food, but it would be so easy to incorporate food into it,” says Berger.  “Abandoned land around NYC could be converted into places where people could come together and grow food.”

Just Food currently works with more than 35 community gardens to help the gardeners grow and sell their produce.  Through its Training of Trainers program, Just Food pays experienced gardeners to teach workshops all over NYC on such topics as seed starting, raising chickens, building raised beds, season extension, food preservation, and even making baby food.  “The Brooklyn Rescue Mission grew 7,000 pounds of produce last year at their garden in central Brooklyn,” says Berger.  “That year they were growing primarily for their food pantry, but they had so much that this year we are helping them start a farmers’ market as well.”
GreenThumb, a division of the NYC Parks Department, is the largest urban gardening program in the country.  They work with more than 600 gardens by providing technical assistance and materials. While some gardens can be pretty large, ornamental gardens as narrow as 15 feet provide shady benches where community residents gather.  

Added Value, a nonprofit in Red Hook Brooklyn, created an urban farm by transforming 2.75 acres of city asphalt into fertile land.  The farm is now the site of a youth employment program, a farmers’ market featuring produce from Added Value as well as regional farmers, and a large-scale composting operation which accepts waste from area businesses.  Neighborhood restaurants proudly hang signs boasting that their menus feature Added Value’s produce.

Other groups have used gardens as a springboard for organizing around a diversity of community issues.  La Familia Verde, a coalition of gardens and organizations in the Bronx, has partnered with community-based organizations to organize voter registration drives, health fairs, and a farmers’ market.

New York City’s urban gardens are rare and threatened treasures. The insatiable demand for NYC real estate puts these gardens under constant pressure.  The More Gardens! coalition joins with community gardens facing development in order to fight for their preservation.   Using strategies such as camping out—sometimes for months—in gardens slated for demolition, enlisting the support of local and state politicians, and even filing a lawsuit against the city, the coalition has helped save more than 400 gardens from development.

Community gardens eliminate the expenditure of energy used to transport food, provide cool, green spaces during the sweltering summer months, and give New Yorkers the most local food possible. When coupled with the local food produced just north and west of the city and sold at greenmarkets, they provide an important alternative to industrial farming. As noted in an earlier piece, a city as large as New York will always need mass agriculture—but every piece of locally food grown and used is a small step toward sustainability. Community Gardens: Protecting the Planet While Feeding It