In East Harlem, Community Gardens Provide More Than Food
“En un jardín crecen más cosas que las que siembra el jardinero.”
“In a garden more things grow than what the gardener sows.”
Community gardens have long been a part of New York City’s alternative spaces. But many of us may take the gardens for granted, unaware of their rich history and of the vast benefits they bring to our communities and the city as a whole. Walking by a community garden in your neighborhood and peeking through the gate, you may recognize it as a green space but not understand it as an anchoring presence in your community.
Researchers at the Earth Institute recently published a paper that investigates the environmental and social dimensions of community gardens in East Harlem. The study was conducted by Nada Petrovic, Troy Simpson, and Ben Orlove, all from the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University, and Brian Dowd-Uribe of the University of San Francisco. Orlove, who is one of the directors of CRED, says the group wanted to study “what motivates people to engage in green infrastructure—to use it, support it, or maintain it.”
Community gardens help to combat the heat island effect of the city, and they absorb water during weather events to lessen flooding in a city filled with impervious pavement. Simpson says the gardens are also “fascinating physical symbols of people creating value and different forms of community in the areas where they live. [This study] was an opportunity to understand how people relate to the built environment and how it’s changing all the time.”
A brief history of community gardens in NYC
Most of the nearly 500 community gardens in NYC were started during the financial crisis of the 1970s. In vacant lots and the footprints of buildings destroyed by arson, communities took care of these ravaged spaces and made them their own.
In 1973, the grassroots community group the Green Guerillas wandered their East Village neighborhoods throwing “seed bombs” over fences into vacant lots with restricted public access. According to the Parks Department, in 1974, the Green Guerillas founded the first community garden—the Bowery-Houston Community Farm and Garden—signing a lease with the Office of Housing Preservation and Development for $1 a month.
Green Guerillas worked with the Council on the Environment (now known as GrowNYC) to found the city’s municipal gardening program, Operation GreenThumb, in 1978 as an effort to care for vacant and abandoned lots and revitalize neighborhoods. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, hundreds of community gardens were started, many of which obtained leases with the city through GreenThumb, but very few of which had any form of long-term protection. By the early 1990s, there were around 850 community gardens in New York City. In the late ‘90s, as the city continued to recover economically, the gardens were increasingly threatened by the Giuliani administration’s auctions of garden lots to developers.
Through immense effort, community-based advocacy, and political action, over half of the threatened gardens were successfully protected in various ways. The GreenThumb program now manages 400 of these gardens under the Parks Department, according to a 2009-10 survey conducted by GrowNYC. Other community gardens are managed differently, with varying levels of protection. Some 121 gardens were bought by nonprofits Trust for Public Land and New York Restoration Project (NYRP), while 100 more were transferred to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) with initial 10-year leases.
The researchers investigated the “basic characteristics” of 35 gardens in East Harlem, and the extent to which these characteristics correlated with the gardeners’ feelings about the gardens, particularly their attachment to them. During the summer of 2012, the researchers visited each of the 35 gardens, mapping them and inventorying things like trees, open space, garden beds, seating options, and structures like casitas or gazebos. Simpson recalls “riding bikes around East Harlem and getting to know the gardeners and getting a sense of the whole neighborhood.” The inventories took time— about 1.5 hours each—and sometimes required multiple visits, so the researchers got to know the gardens and communities well.
To collect social data for the study, the team interviewed gardeners in 16 of the gardens, with up to four gardeners interviewed per interview garden. During the interviews, the team assessed members’ feelings about their gardens. They investigated the relationship between place attachment—or the positive emotional bond that develops between individuals and their environment—and the various attributes of the gardens.
In the paper, the team writes that “It is immediately clear from the interview data that the gardens are deeply significant spaces to their members.” The vast majority of gardeners agreed with statements such as, “I am satisfied with the garden,” and “The garden means a lot to me.” Gardeners also indicated that their gardens increase their pride in the neighborhood and make them less likely to move away.
However, almost half of the gardeners reported feeling insecure about the future of their gardens; the researchers noted that this perspective was especially noticeable among members of gardens managed by HPD that could be developed by the city at some point. Annel Cabrera-Marus of NYRP says that with the addition of the 2nd Avenue subway line, there’s a “pending sensation that there are more things coming” to the neighborhood.
The researchers also investigated gardeners’ motivations for participating in their gardens. While they learned that growing food is one of the primary motivations, most gardeners grow only enough food for a few meals a week. The yield appears not to matter, though; the researchers write that, “many garden members indicated that growing food gives them a sense of ownership, connection, and responsibility to the garden,” regardless of the size of their harvests.
The researchers also found that community gardens play a central role in the social lives of their members. Most gardeners that were interviewed had attended at least one event held at the garden in the last month, and during field visits the researchers encountered or were told about barbecues, birthday parties, permaculture classes, dominoes games, and markets. As such, gardeners reported that they know their neighbors better because of their gardens and that they socialize with people they may not see otherwise.
One particularly poignant moment that the team came across during their field work was a memorial celebration for a garden member who had recently died. The gardeners had set up cards and flowers, and were sharing salsa they had made using vegetables from the garden. “They walked us through the garden and one woman showed us these beautiful sunflowers that this person had planted earlier in the spring,” says Simpson. “It was just a very warm and lovely experience to see people engaging in relationships that were made possible by the gardens themselves.”
Although the physical and environmental attributes of the gardens didn’t correlate strongly with attachment across the sample gardens, members who felt their gardens were run more democratically were more likely to feel attached to the space. The level of influence a gardener felt they had over decision-making was positively correlated with their level of attachment; this was the strongest correlation with attachment that the team found.
What does it mean?
One of the takeaways of the study is that growing produce is very important to the gardeners—but the quantity of produce is not. Kenneth Williams, GreenThumb outreach coordinator in East Harlem, says this aligns with his experiences. “When we pursue growing food, what we physically produce is a [by]product of the overall outcome we seek to achieve: healthier lives, self-reliance, autonomy, etc. By the time we accomplish growing that food and reflect on that process, we discover the various milestones we had, not only with what we physically grew, but also within ourselves.”
Cabrera-Marus notes that food is strongly tied to people’s sense of home and belonging. In immigrant communities, gardens can provide a space to put literal roots down and grow plants and herbs from a gardener’s country of origin; Cabrera-Marus points out the popularity of the herb papalo in gardens with Mexican gardeners by way of example. “People often lose sight of what food means to new Americans. We all come from cultures that grow food, and the herbs can connect you back to that,” she says. One of the gardeners interviewed in the study commented that, “I never thought it was possible to have a piece of land in the middle of the city. It reminds me of my home in rural Puebla, Mexico.”
Orlove notes that “The environmental benefits that matter to many planners and policy makers are different from the social benefits that matter most to the gardeners.” Community gardens are important to the health of the whole city, and yet the benefits come out of the labor and love of relatively few dedicated members.
The study also highlights the insecurity felt by so many gardeners concerning the future of their gardens. Most community gardens began as temporary stewardships over vacant spaces, and while many gardens are on solid footing now, others are still fighting to survive.
Because the study was conducted in 2012, it did not cover the recent struggles between East Harlem gardens and HPD. In 2015, 43 community gardens were threatened by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan, including the Pleasant Village Community Garden between East 118th and 119th Streets, Jackie Robinson Community Garden, and Nelson Mandela Garden on 126th Street in Central Harlem. Community members staged demonstrations, lobbied their local city council representatives, and were vocal about their disappointment with the mayor’s plans; why destroy a community’s vital green spaces when there are plenty of other sites that are vacant or in need of revitalization? In response, HPD agreed to transfer 34 of its 50 gardens to GreenThumb, allowing them protection under the Parks Department, according to DNAinfo and Politico. The gardens that did not get transferred were reportedly relocated.
“I’ve seen the photos of one of the gardens that we focused on in our study being demolished as construction is gearing up,” says Simpson. With community gardens, he adds, there are “dynamics that are always shifting. They are continuously needing to struggle to maintain their existence.”
While the tension surrounding the community gardens in East Harlem was not the focus of the group’s research, it’s clear that this history of political action and community grassroots organizing has become embedded in the identity of the gardens. The team observed “the vitality of community life in interaction with an often unjust economy,” says Orlove. “People struggled for the community gardens, they built them in a vision that means a great deal to them—the paths, the memories, the support and social ties—and they work steadily to protect and sustain them.”
Williams shared a similar sentiment, saying, “This work is far from easy and comes with its share of different challenges. The efforts gardeners make to address these adversities transform them into much stronger and resilient people.”
What we can take away from this study is the importance of involving people and communities in decisions about infrastructure. “What comes through in the results is the value of people [making] decisions about green space in their communities,” says Simpson.
These findings could inform the development of more, stronger community gardens, and possibly other green spaces, in the future. The researchers point out that policies made supporting community gardens focus almost exclusively on promoting health and environmental benefits because those are easy to quantify. Of course those benefits are valuable, but policies of that type are more likely to succeed if they take into consideration what is important to community gardeners, such as healthy community ties, land security, and agency over decision-making.
Whether these ideas and values could be extrapolated to green infrastructure more generally is a question for a different study. For now, next time you’re walking by a community garden in your neighborhood, take a moment to look a little bit closer at it. It’s easy to take these verdant lots for granted, but there is nothing easy about their existence. And if you’re wondering who to thank for the shared environmental benefits these spaces bring—thank a gardener.