volunteer gardening

How New York’s Volunteer Gardening Community Keeps The City Green

In urban areas, empty lots often sit vacant and overgrown. But volunteer gardening in an active community can change that – here’s how.

Between paved-over parking lots and block-sized condos, there’s often a surprising amount of land that lays fallow, either owned by the city or by private owners who can’t afford development.

Even in a city as dense as New York, there’s at least 431 acres of vacant public land – the equivalent to about 325 football fields (including end zones), or more than half of Central Park.

That data is courtesy of 596 Acres, a project aiming to accurately map New York City’s vacant lots, in order to facilitate their use (596 acres was the original estimate by the city of how much vacant land it owned, before the project cleaned up the data).

Green breathing spaces

Communal lots can be used for a variety of purposes. As we’ve written about before, urban greening makes cities cooler, reducing energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions, and urban farming can help people acquire healthy, local food.

Research also shows that urban green spaces can improve water quality, air quality, and even mental health.

The question, however, is often if and how communities can legally use the land in their neighborhood.

An April 23 symposium hosted by 596 Acres at the New School showcased a few different ways:

Public volunteer community gardens

Called Green Thumb, New York City’s community garden program is the largest in the nation. It spans 600 lots across the five boroughs, and uses federal funding to assist volunteers in maintaining public gardens.

“I really believe our gardens are sacred places, it’s not just about greening, it’s a place where people and communities can grow,” says Nancy Kohn, director of Green Thumb.

However, being supported by the city isn’t necessarily a guarantee of protection.

LaGuardia Community Gardens, which has thrived in Greenwich Village since the ‘80s, has been locked in a long legal battle with New York University over a new high rise that would put the park in “permanent shadow.”

A state Supreme Court judge ruled against the development, stating that the city illegally approved the use of the park’s lands. Of course, NYU is appealing.

Another problem with creating volunteer community gardens is that ownership information on vacant lots can be hard to come by.

Even if information is available online, the digital divide between higher and lower-income communities mean that information on how to legally use vacant land is not always readily accessible, says Raymond Figueroa Reyes, the board president of the NYC Community Garden Coalition.

Of course, the work of 596 Acres tries to remedy that problem –  both with their online map showing vacant lots, and through the simple legwork of placing physical signs with the necessary information on unused lots.

But the process is often structurally unfavorable for working class people, with land use decisions often made during the workday, by boards mostly made up of real estate developers, Reyes says.

Community land trusts

A more permanent way of organizing a green space, however, is a community land trust – basically a nonprofit corporation that buys and owns the land.

Often associated with affordable housing, land trusts can also be used to buy and own community gardens, safeguarding them from being bought or removed by the city.

An example of this is the Brooklyn Queens Land Trust (BQLT), which owns more than 30 gardens throughout the two boroughs.

The gardens are run by community volunteers, while the BQLT is run by 50 volunteer board members, and financed by fundraising.

While the gardens are privately owned, they are dedicated to public use, and anyone using a BQLT garden has to sign an agreement (pdf) confirming that it’s open to the public. They also agree to abide by certain rules such as keeping the gardens free of drugs, motor vehicles, and refuse.

“We want to be the model for how to do this,” says Demetrice Mills, board president of BQLT.

Deals with private owners

Another way communities can organize gardens is to make a deal with the owner of a private lot.

Of course, any such deal will be unique depending on the owners’ preferences, but will often be a temporary arrangement, or on a year-to-year lease.

But the city has no direct say in what the land should be used for, so it’s up to the owner and whoever he or she allows to use the land.

For instance, in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, the all-volunteer Prospect Farm operates a 5,000 square foot lot that’s used for both farming and composting.

Representing Prospect Farm at the symposium, 34-year-old researcher Meera Bhat began her presentation by saying “Hey everybody, I guess I’m here to be your case study,” to laughters from the crowd.

But the arrangement does seem ideal: the lot is owned by Tom Angotti, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College, who acquired it as part of an apartment he bought 18 years ago.

He allows volunteers to run it as an urban farm, growing a variety of produce (although no root vegetables due to soil contamination, Bhat says).

Of course, trying to convince someone that they should use their lands for a community garden, rather than sell it or build on it, isn’t always that easy.

“The number one issue [for urban farmers] is gonna be land access, the number one issue is finding a space that is accessible to you and that is safe for you, and that you have continuous access to it,” Bhat says.

And a lot of the vacant land in New York, and likely other places, is privately owned.

On their website, 596 Acres has a guide on how to find and contact local land holders. It also links to the Shifting Growth Garden Society from Vancouver, which has published a guide (pdf) on best practices for setting up gardens on private land.

And some of it may assisted by the state, too: New York Assemblyman Joseph Lentol discussed a bill he’s working on that would create tax incentives for private owners who allow their lots to be used for volunteer gardening.

Updated.  Volunteer gardening cover photo via Flickr creative commons

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