Case Study: Saving Community Gardens in New York City

As community gardens revitalized Manhattan neighborhoods in the 1980s, these areas became attractive to developers, who razed the gardens to make way for housing. Learn how the city

The bulldozers came two days before New Year’s Day 1998. They tore out the neat rows where vegetables had grown the summer before. They razed the casitas which had served as haunted houses during Halloween. They wiped out the brick patio, the rabbit and chicken hutches. Perhaps most importantly, the bulldozers erased a community gathering place, site of weddings and birthday parties, where the neighbors had recreated a slice of Puerto Rico in the Big Apple.

Nicknamed Little Puerto Rico, the garden, located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, was the product of the collective effort of the neighbors to kick out the crack addicts, and clear the space of abandoned cars and twelve dumpster loads of garbage. That was in the late ‘80s. By 1999, Little Puerto Rico had become four story townhouses, a victim of the economic boom and the Giuliani’s administration’s antipathy towards community gardens.

Little Puerto Rico, like hundreds of other gardens in New York City, was provided assistance under the City’s Green Thumb program. Established in 1978 as part of the City’s Park Department, Green Thumb assists over 600 community gardens and nearly 10,000 garden members by providing educational workshops, technical support, and gardening supplies, primarily in low-income communities.

Little Puerto Rico was not an isolated case. In the mid 1990s, six hundred of New York City’s community gardens were on the chopping block, as City Hall sought to auction off the land on which they stood for housing or other development (at the height of community gardening in NYC, there were some 800 gardens, with their rows stretching the 67 mile round trip of the A train).

In many cases, these gardens were the victim of their own success: having revitalized deteriorating neighborhoods they made them attractive for new development, which in turn threatened the very existence of the gardens.

The gardens were threatened for development despite being identified for preservation in the State’s Open Space Plan:

“Lands which in an urban area can be used for community gardens or neighborhood parks and open spaces, are as significant to the environmental health of city residents as areas in pristine environmental condition are to people in rural areas.” (Conserving Open Space 1995, p. 73)

In the 1997 update to the Plan, the provision of open space in underserved areas was prioritized:

“Continue partnerships … to achieve neighborhood, citywide and regional open space conservation goals, including the purchase of community park land and other open space resources such as community gardens in densely populated underserved neighborhoods.” (Conserving Open Space 1997, p. 217)

After various failed lawsuits by advocates to halt the sale of community gardens across the city, New York State Attorney General Spitzer entered the fray in 1999 with a suit against Mayor Giuliani claiming that the city failed to follow proper environmental procedure in auctioning off the gardens. Later that year, the Trust for Public Land and another organization founded by actress Bette Midler, bought over 160 gardens, and placed them into community land trusts. In 2002, the Attorney General and Mayor Bloomberg’s office settled the suit. The principal provisions of the suit include a mandated review of any development of community gardens through New York City land use and New York State environmental laws; the set aside of nearly 200 gardens to the Parks Department or to community land trusts for preservation; the designation of over 100 gardens for sale; and a public Garden Review Process which allows prior notification to the community of any proposals to develop a garden.

As a result of these actions and a massive public mobilization campaign, an impressive 400 gardens are now permanently preserved, when only about 20 were before the auction attempt. There is also much wider awareness of the importance of planning for the long-term management and protection of community gardens as an integral part of the city, rather than seeing them as interim land use.

One of the more interesting outcomes of this process has been the transformation of the city’s Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development (HPD). During the period of conflict in the ’90s, the HPD had been a key player in pushing forward the development of gardens for housing. Since the Spitzer suit settlement in 2002, HPD has been taking a broad perspective, identifying what is needed to create a healthy neighborhood, including access to healthy food. The Department has been proactive in identifying land not suited for housing but usable for urban farming projects, and sharing this information with Green Thumb. A recent example is the newly formed Hands & Hearts Garden in East New York, Brooklyn. This 20,000 square-foot parcel of land was transferred by HPD to Green Thumb in April, 2007, and is now the site of a vibrant new community farm featuring a variety of vegetables and flowers. Referring to this new positive turn being taken by the city government, Susan Fields, former Deputy Director of Green Thumb, says, “This sounds like just good, basic urban planning, and it is, but it’s rather revolutionary.”

Updated 12/2010