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The Topic
"Environment" refers to the places where New Yorkers live; our surroundings; the air, water and land that make our existence possible.
The Context
With more than 22,000 people per square mile, NYC must take considerable measures to protect the environment from the effects of such population density. Problems like asthma, PCBs, lead poisoning and waste disposal compromise the quality of the City's natural resources and threaten the health of its residents. The policy implications for solving environmental problems are complex: Should commercial activity take priority over environmental protection? To what extent can we require changes in lifestyle and consumption through legislation? How far does our responsibility extend to those in other places and future generations?
The Reporter
Eric Goldstein is co-director of the urban program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Environment.

by Eric Goldstein

Community Gardens

An environmental controversy that was widely thought to have been resolved several years ago may be ready to erupt again ‹ whether some of New York City's most beloved community gardens will be paved or saved.

Negotiations are at a critical stage between State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and lawyers for Michael Bloomberg to end long-running litigation that has successfully slowed the demise of community gardens. Meanwhile, the New York City Council is considering legislation that would rescue community gardens and the city's endangered Green Thumb program, under which the gardens have long operated. The dispute has been thirty years in the making.

The Community Gardens Movement

In the early 1970's, some city residents became local parks pioneers when they started transforming derelict city-owned vacant lots into green oases. The new gardens, sometimes called vest-pocket parks, usually provided not only beauty and fresh air, but educational opportunities and a sense of place to often beleaguered neighborhoods.

By 1978, New York City's Green Thumb Program formally recognized the existence of these new gardens; officials issued licenses for their use and began providing some support services.

Over the next twenty years, the program grew to include approximately 750 gardens, brightening neighborhoods in all five boroughs.

In 1996, however, Mayor Rudy Giuliani advanced a plan to sell off already established gardens in the hope of converting the lots to new housing. Two years later, he raised the stakes by transferring more than 400 city-owned gardens from the Parks Department to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The move was seen as a prelude to their sell-off and development.

Meanwhile, local jewels, such as the Garden of Love, on a vacant 25-by-75 foot lot next to Harlem's Public School 76, were being bulldozed. "Trees w ere uprooted, flowerpots crushed. In seconds, a living classroom was reduced to rubble," mourned a Daily News editorial on that occasion.

The 1999 Dispute

These actions triggered protests that intensified in 1999, when the Giuliani Administration announced its intention to auction off more than 100 community gardens; lawsuits followed.

Along with garden advocates lead by the citywide group, Green Guerillas, Attorney General Spitzer went to State Court to block the planned auction. (A separate federal case was filed by the New York Environmental Justice Alliance, which argued that the burden of the gardens destruction would fall disproportionately on the poor and communities of color.)

In May 1999, with Attorney General Spitzer, his lawyer Christopher Amato and the environmental groups on the brink of a major court victory, Major Giuliani struck a deal with gardens advocates. Following negotiations initiated by the Trust for Public Land to purchase and preserve the green spaces that were on the auction block, Mayor Giuliani quickly agreed to sell the 112 gardens to Bette Midler's New York Restoration Project.

Although many New Yorkers cheered this 1999 rescue, the fate of hundreds of other gardens remained unsettled.

Throughout 1999 and 2000, destruction continued of individual gardens not included in the New York Restoration Project's purchase. Colorful and creative protests by local garden activists (one man dressed as a giant tomato, his colleagues wearing sunflower headdresses) sought to preserve greenery. Unfortunately, some gardens could not be saved. Among the casualties were the 22-year-old Esperanza Garden in the East Village and ten gardens that were planted in the South Bronx more than 30 years before.

"If you live in an unrealistic world then you can say that everything should be a community garden," Mayor Giuliani said at the time. But as one New York Times editorial noted, "their defenders do not assert that everything should be a community garden."

The Times editorial reaffirmed what the gardeners had been saying for decades: "A patch of green or a pot of flowers can often do more for a ne ighborhood than new apartments and retail establishments."

Parks vs. Housing

At first glance, the controversy did seem to place two legitimate interests -- parks and housing - on a collision course. While recognizing the need for low and moderate-income housing, advocates for the gardens noted that the city's real estate holdings included as many as 11,000 undeveloped parcels. "Why not build on them?" they asked. Many elected officials agreed.

"It's a false choice," then council member and now City Council Speaker Gifford Miller told the New York Times in December 2000, in responding to those who framed the issue as housing versus parks.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Spitzer, already developing a reputation as an environmental champion, had secured an injunction that prevented the administration from proceeding to sell off more than 400 of the remaining gardens until the city had undertaken a full environmental review.

The Controversy Continues

Over the years, however, as many as 100 community gardens have been taken back by the city and destroyed.

Today, the fate of hundreds more remains uncertain.

The issue could well be resolved soon, should the Attorney General and city officials reach an agreement to end the pending litigation. "We're in discussions with the Bloomberg Administration and are very hopeful that we will reach a settlement that addresses our legal concerns and preserves the gardens," said Spitzer's environmental bureau chief Peter Lehner .

But community garden activists remain worried about the details of a possible settlement. One concern is the number of existing community gardens that would be sacrificed as part of a broader deal. It has been reported that city housing officials are seeking to secure approximately 160 of the remaining gardens for development.

Few gardens advocates expect all of the gardens to be spared; they recognize low and moderate-income housing needs. But they maintain that as many as 70 of the 160 parcels slated for development are premiere gardens -- they are well-cared for, look great, and play essential roles in their neighborhoods -- and should not be lost.

A second issue is ownership of the parks that are preserved and the survival of the Green Thumb program itself. Many garden activists believe that additional gardens saved in any future settlement should not be transferred to a private parks entity. Rather, they urge that the city's Green Thumb program continue to play a key role, with the gardens remaining under city ownership, but dedicated as permanent parkland and administered by a public-private partnership. (Among other benefits, they argue, this model would keep federal Community Development Block Grants coming in to help fund garden operations.)

A final concern of the gardening constituency is the need to preserve mechanisms for adding new community gardens throughout the city and for relocating existing gardens nearby when development must proceed on existing parcels. Reportedly, this too is something city housing officials continue to oppose.

Encouraging Signs from the City Council

To address such concerns, new legislation has been drafted by Queens Council member James Sanders, Jr. (a former community gardener himself), along with Council members Joseph Addabbo and Jose Serrano.

The bill, Intro. 206, would safeguard the gardens by preserving the Green Thumb approach and converting it into a public-private partnership. The legislation has quietly gained support among community gardeners and in the council, where it already has 27 co-sponsors. Although a settlement of the pending lawsuit could well be at hand, community gardeners feel that the legislation would likely offer more protection.

People and their Parks

Jane Jacobs, in her classic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, observed the key relationship between neighborhood parks and city residents. People, she said, "confer use on parks and make them successful, or else withhold use and doom parks to rejection and failure."

In the community gardens struggle, New Yorkers have answered Jane Jacobs challenge. They have demonstrated by their actions that the vast majority of the existing community gardens should serve proudly for decades as gathering places and renewal spaces for their neighborhoods.

"In all of the politics," observes Len Lebrizzi, community gardens specialist at the Council on the Environment of New York City, "people need to value what all these volunteers have been doing at these gardens for so many years."

Sites For Beginners:

Other Recommendations:

  • Wind Power New York (WPNY) - A project of the American Wind Energy Association, was formed to promote the development of wind-powered electricity generation in New York State. For more information about the PG&E project in Madison, follow their link to The windmills of Madison County, a feature of Syracuse Online.
  • Cornell Cooperative Extension - Entomologists from Cornell University tell you everything you want to know about the Asian Longhorn Beetle, from how to identify it to how it can be destroyed.
  • Audubon Society - Founded in 1905 and named for famed ornithologist, explorer, and wildlife artist John James Audubon (1785-1851), the National Audubon Society's mission is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds and other wildlife for the benefit of humanity and the earth's biological diversity. Learn why birds are an "ecological litmus paper".
  • www.moregardens.org - This pro-garden web site provides background on Esperanza Garden and efforts to preserve the city's other community gardens. Log on to learn about the Samson Bill, which would make all New York City community gardens permanent State parkland, and SLR 61, a complimentary bill that the City Council must endorse before the State can act.
  • Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier Universities - Environmental concepts made easy. A great little Web site that provides comprehensive information about lead, environmental estrogens and, in case you were wondering, environmental astrobiology.
  • The Environmental Defense Fund - In conjunction with several other prominent environmental groups, presents a comprehensive explanation and analysis of global warming. Contents range from a simple explanation of how global warming works, to a discussion of its likely impact in the coming century. Be sure to check out the map of early warming signs.
  • Environmental Health Center's Asthma page - The Environmental Health Center, a division of the National Safety Council, provides voluminous, easy-to-understand background information on a comprehensive array of environmental and safety issues. If you live in New York City, this is a good place to start learning about asthma risks and prevention.
  • The Fire Island Ecology Coalition - Fans of Fire Island who can't bear the long winter separation may visit this comprehensive site, but they won't get the languorous summer feeling associated with their traditional summer visits. Instead, it offers a vigorous examination of threats to the island that demand serious attention“from the proliferation of jet skis and deer to global warming.
  • The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance - This page belongs to a coalition of grassroots organizations concerned with providing a clean and safe environment to communities of color and low-income communities, with topics such as "What's Transportation got to do with Environmental Justice?" This site connects you with such groups and shows you what they're doing . . .and how you can help.

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