In January 2015, New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) invited housing developers to submit qualifications “for the design and construction of high-quality, new construction, affordable housing development projects on public sites located in neighborhoods across the City of New York.” HPD’s request for qualifications includes a list of 181 city-owned sites that developers can have for free in exchange for building “affordable” homes for ownership and rental. Much to the shock of New York City community gardeners, a number of these sites include active and popular community gardens in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.
According to 596 Acres, a land access advocacy and mapping organization, 17 active gardens are targeted for bulldozing and development. These gardens are (by borough):
Jackie Robinson Community Garden
Harlem Grown – Greenhouse
Electric Ladybug Community Garden
Pleasant Village Community Garden
McKinley’s Children’s Garden
Isabahliah Ladies of Elegance
La Casita Verde
Halsey, Ralph & Howard Community Garden
Patchen Community Square
462 Halsey Community Garden
Brownsville Student Farm
New Harvest Community Garden
Green Valley Community Garden and Farmers Market
Here is a map from 596 Acres showing the location of the targeted gardens:
Under HPD’s plan, developers can propose plans for developments for ownership or rental depending on site location:
(1) one- to four-family affordable homes and up to approximately 14-unit condominiums/cooperatives.
(2) small (approximately 15- to 30-unit) affordable multifamily rental developments.
According to HPD, for homeowners, the homes must be affordable to households earning up to 130% of area median income (AMI), but preference is given to projects in which one third of the units are affordable to homeowners earning 80-90% AMI. For renters, buildings may have rental units affordable to renters earning up to 165% of AMI. This can translate to incomes of almost $140,000, and depending on the program calculation, rents up to $3,000. Not exactly what you might think of when you imagine affordable housing for people in need.
HPD’s Plan to Destroy Active Community Gardens is an Unnecessary and Ineffective Way to Provide Affordable Housing
Destroying these 17 community gardens would mean 1-4 homes, or a 15-30 unit building on each site, depending on site size. This means affordable housing for anywhere from 17 to upwards to a few hundred households at most. This marginal increase in affordable housing v. the far-reaching destruction to the whole community when a garden is permanently destroyed does not make using these gardens worth the cost.
At least one garden has already found its gates locked ahead of the upcoming spring growing season and one includes a year-round greenhouse program. (See, DNAinfo, “De Blasio’s Affordable Housing Plan Could Destroy 15 Community Gardens”). Though all of the gardens operate under an interim license from GreenThumbNYC that makes users aware of the possibility of development, HPD has many other options for selecting sites for affordable housing sites. According to 596 Acres, HPD has at least 750 other sites, including many vacant lots to use instead of active community gardens. But resiting gardens is far more difficult, particularly considering:
1) how difficult it is to find existing open garden space in the neighborhoods in question, let alone space where there is sufficient sunlight, safe conditions for gardening, availability of gardening infrastructure, etc.;
2) that several of the gardens are located near or across from schools, are important resources for that school, and already have active school gardening programs with area youth; and
3) that gardens have invested significant infrastructure, plants, greenhouses, soil, and sweat equity, etc., making moving difficult. The DNAinfo article above references Harlem Grown, a urban agriculture and youth gardening organization that has invested over $90,000 in greenhouse and other infrastructure at its current targeted location.
Indeed, instead of destroying active community gardens, HPD should be asking affordable housing providers to preserve existing and even add new community gardens to their affordable housing plans. All around the country, affordable housing providers have seen the benefits of having community gardening programs for residents and have started these programs at their sites. And many new construction have included community gardens in their sites’ design plans in exchange for financing incentives and tax credits. For more information about how affordable housing sites are using community gardens for residents, see, Assisted Housing Management Insider, September 2013, “Take 10 Steps to Create a Successful Community Garden for Residents.”
Below we’ll tell you why preserving community gardens in New York City is so vital and then give you ways you can take action to help defend these gardens from development.
Why Community Gardens Matter to New York City
Community gardens are important tools in improving not only the local communities in which they are located, but as essential tools for making our city a greener, more livable, healthier place for all. Gardens provide numerous health and other benefits to gardeners, to fellow residents and the New York City overall by:
- Giving residents access to fresh, healthy food
- Reducing gardeners’ monthly food costs
- Improving resident health through healthier eating and physical activity
- Creating social activities for isolated seniors
- Reducing crime and drug activity in the vicinity
- Teaching basic vocational skills
- Empowering youth and disabled residents
- Creating income opportunities for entrepreneurial gardeners
- Encouraging water conservation, waste reduction and recycling
- Beautifying communities
- Increasing overall area property value
There are numerous reasons to support preserving community gardens in general and opposing permanently destroying existing and lively gardens to development, even if the builder is promising affordable units in the space. Among the reasons to support preservation:
1) Community gardens are an essential component of a healthy urban food system.
Growing food in the community is a valuable showcase for highlighting the need for a healthy food system and a way to engage citizens to start to demand more good, clean, food they can trust. Citizens also have a right to sovereignty of their food system and having some ability to grow food or be connected to local growers is essential to fair and just urban food systems.
Indeed, for many low-income gardeners, growing food is more than merely making a statement: their summer vegetables are a vital supplement to their food budget. Many of our city’s residents who try to buy more produce and other healthy food can spend a disproportionate amount of their monthly income on food, making it more difficult to pay their other expenses. They often must make difficult monthly decisions, whether to use their limited income to buy food or to pay other household expenses, such as their share of the unit’s rent, utilities, health care, telephone, and transportation costs to get to or look for work. Having a garden during the summer can provide much of the produce needs of the household and losing their gardens would be a devastating loss to their well-being.
2) Community gardens are outdoor classrooms for children to learn about food and the environment.
A garden is a great place to grow food, but they are also living classrooms for youth to learn about where their food comes from, taste new flavors, learn about the environment, science, sustainability and conservation practices. Each stage of a garden presents an opportunity for children to learn and develop a sense of personal food sovereignty: digging methods, soil health, seed starting, planting, mulching, composting, watering, plant identification, pest management, harvesting, cooking, preserving, etc.
NYC Foodscape creates youth gardening and cooking programs, such as the Children’s Workshop Garden at Campos, a straw bale and Three Sisters garden created in 2013 in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction. The garden became a therapeutic and safe space for at-risk youth to learn how to grow food and do some basic in-garden cooking. The program was so successful that it became a permanent raised bed garden in 2014. This is but one of many programs that reach youth in the communities where gardens are located. The destruction of gardens would also put an end to youth programs in those gardens where outdoor learning and growing happen right in the youth’s own community.
3) Community gardens are places of refuge for residents and youth and part of the community’s fabric.
New York City’s local gardeners work very hard to make the garden a place for area residents to visit, enjoy and feel safe. Many residents who don’t even garden have become part of the gardening community and feel a sense of stewardship over a green space. They attend garden events and volunteer at times of need and crisis, including post-Hurricane Sandy cleanup and restoration. Indeed, after Hurricane Sandy, gardens sometimes became a places to eat when there was no food. They are gathering spots for workshops, festivals and events for the public, from Earth Day and harvest festivals, Dias de los Muertos celebrations, and holiday barbecues.
4) Community gardens are a limited resource lost forever when building goes up in its place.
Once lost, a community forever loses an important and vital—indeed, truly alive—asset that cannot be replaced. Community gardens remain at constant at risk of development until they are made permanent, and throughout the city, communities have already lost numerous gardens to bulldozers. Despite a “Memorandum of Agreement” signed by Mayor Bloomberg and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer in September 2002, calling for preservation of a number of gardens, over 100 gardens were classified as “subject to development following the garden review process.” The city—and its gardeners—have lost over 40 gardens since then, including several important and cherished children’s gardens, and many remain classified as “Subject to Development.”
New York City surely needs more affordable housing for its citizens, but the solution to creating this does not lie in destroying this valuable and unique resource. It truly is a zero-sum gain, where once a building goes up, the garden will be gone forever. One more green space is lost, one more place for the community to grow food is gone, one more public gathering spot where people can slow down and talk to their neighbors is erased from the community.
What You Can Do to Defend Our Gardens
The communities and gardeners face permanent destruction of a precious resource and need your help and support. Here are several steps you can take to defend gardens from bulldozing.
1) Sign Change.org petitions to save Harlem community gardens.
Several of the gardens at risk are located in Harlem and a petition has started on Change.org, asking HPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio to select alternative sites for affordable housing to save Harlem’s community gardens and a very robust hydroponic greenhouse, run by a nonprofit called, Harlem Grown, that produces over 2,000 pounds of food for the local community and local restaurants. You can learn more and sign the petition here.
Here are two additional Change.org petitions for specifically for Harlem gardens
NOTE: February 9 UPDATE
Here are additional Change.org/MoveOn petition links for several Brooklyn gardens
2) Support the work of NYC garden organizations.
There are several garden preservation organizations working to protect our community gardens and give citizens access to land. Here are a few you can join or support financially.
New York City Community Gardening Coalition (NYCCGC). Founded in 1996, The New York City Community Garden Coalition promote the preservation, creation, and empowerment of community gardens through education, advocacy, and grassroots organizing.
Click here to become a member.
Click here to donate.
596 Acres. As noted above, 596 Acres is a land access advocacy organization that identifies vacant lot opportunities, often in partnership with community members and groups who are interested in using the land for gardening and other community efforts. 596 Acres is in the middle of a fundraising campaign to continue its work, so donating now is particularly important.
Click here to donate.
For more information about 596 Acres land access work, see, NYC Foodscape’s October 2014 story, “Help Support Community Land Access on October 2 at Mapping Matters Benefitting 596 Acres,”
Green Guerrillas. Green Guerrillas, the city’s oldest community gardening organization, provides targeted services to 200 community garden groups to help them sustain their community gardens, strengthen their collective action, and provide important services to thousands of people in New York City. Their programs include plant giveaways, community organizing, youth programs, food production and education.
Click here to donate.
3) Attend Rally on Tuesday, February 10 at City Hall
Join the New York City Community Garden Coalition & Concerned New Yorkers for a Rally and Press Conference on the Steps of City Hall in Manhattan. On Tuesday, February 10th, at 9 A.M. the NYCCGC, community members, partnering housing organizations, and various elected representatives will be rallying on the steps of city hall to protest the lack of
transparency and community involvement in issuing an RFQ to developers to build affordable housing on “vacant” lots throughout the 5 boroughs.
Check in at 8:30 to get through security–bring flowers, vegetables, wear bright colors, dress like carrots! For more information, visit the NYCCGC Web site or contact Aziz Dehkan, NYCCGC Executive Director, phone: (973) 222-5413, email: firstname.lastname@example.org,
4) Send Letter to Mayor De Blasio.
Let Mayor De Blasio know that you support affordable housing for all, but don’t want to trade vital community food access and security, open green space, youth gardening programs and public land for citizens for a few marginally affordable housing units. In an upcoming post, NYC Foodscape will give you a model letter you can adapt and use to ask Mayor De Blasio to stop HPD from selling 17 active community gardens for development and instead use the dozens of vacant lots that HPD has in its roster. In the meantime, you can tweet and share this post to spread the word.
5) Support Creation of a New York City Community Gardens District.
On January 27, 2015, Community Board 3, which covers much of the East Village and Lower East Site, voted 28-1 to support a resolution establishing a Community Gardens District in the East Village and Lower East Side to permanently protect all city-owned gardens falling in the proposed district from development. The plan would turn the gardens into parkland, and is now slated to go to the City Council with legislation promised by Council member Rosie Mendez, who represents District 2, where the proposed Community Gardens District would be located. For more information about this proposal and how you can support this effort, see, NYC Foodscape’s January 16, 2015 post, “CB3 Parks Committee Unanimously Passes Community Gardens District Proposal — Your Support Still Needed for Next Steps!” See also, “C.B. 3 O.K.’s East Village gardens district; 38 green oases would be saved.”
Though none of the threatened gardens are in this proposed community garden district, creating a community garden district would be an important step in permanently protecting community gardens and acknowledgment by the City of the vital role that community gardens have in the lives of its citizens.
NYC Foodscape will keep you posted on the status of the Community Gardens District proposal and let you know when any City Council legislation is pending for citizen input.