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Protecting community gardens

by Anne Schwartz, May 01, 2000
 

At an Earth Day event on the steps of City Hall last week, Council members Ken Fisher and Adolfo Carrion announced new legislation to protect community gardens. City Council members and dozens of community gardeners gathered at City Hall (after being disarmed of the wooden "stems" of their fake flowers) to laud the legislation, which would create for the first time a City policy governing community gardens.

The legislation establishes a moratorium on developing community garden lots, which is legally necessary before the other provisions of the new law can be enforced. It designates the community gardens as an existing use of City property rather than as "vacant lots," and no longer allows the City to develop community gardens without a thorough review process, including an EIS, and public input. It also provides the opportunity to preserve existing gardens through a transfer to the Parks Department or a land trust. "This is very reasonable legislation," said Dave Lutz of the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition. "It is not asking for all the gardens to be saved. It is asking for a rational planning process to be put into place to take into account more than one need."

The gardens were built on vacant lots leased from the City with the understanding that it could reclaim them at any time. Over the last twenty years, they have become part of fabric of their communities, and sometimes the catalyst for the revival of neighborhoods. In 1998, the City transferred the gardens from the Parks Department to the Department of Housing and Preservation, and canceled their leases. Last year, as more than 100 gardens were about to be auctioned off by the City, the Trust for Public Land and the New York Restoration Project stepped in to purchase them. Now more garden lots are slated for housing, and several have already been razed. The gardens have become a victim of their own success, improving their neighborhoods to the point that developers find them attractive.

For the time being, a moratorium on developing community gardens is in place, the result of a lawsuit filed by New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer. There is also community garden preservation legislation before the State Senate, but none in the Assembly. State legislators are not expected to act until the City Council does.

Anne Sounds Off:

The economy is good and tax revenues are up, but the Mayor's proposed budget for FY2001 further pares down operating funds for the Department of Parks and Recreation. The executive budget reduces the Parks operating budget by $10.7 million from what is projected to be spent this fiscal year. It eliminates 102 seasonal playground and maintenance workers, projects a reduction of 97 full-time staff members through attrition (replacing half with part-time workers), and cuts other maintenance expenditures. Though a number of other departments have funding increases, once again Parks gets just crumbs from the budget pie, about four-tenths of a percent.

During the fiscal crisis in 1992, the City greatly reduced its workforce in many areas, including Parks. Staffing for other departments, like Police, Fire, and Sanitation, has since been restored, but the number of Parks employees has actually declined. At a time when the City has added almost 2,000 acres to the Parks system, it provides less money for maintaining the green and recreational space it manages, which amounts to 13% of the City's acreage.

Parks Commissioner Henry Stern has kept the parks functioning by using thousands of welfare workers and paying for repairs (often made necessary by the lack of routine maintenance) through the creative use of the capital budget, which is borrowed money. The department has focused on keeping up the smaller and more heavily used parks; the larger parks are in worse shape, except Central and Prospect Park and a few others where private funds and capital spending have picked up the slack. You have to wonder what will happen to our parks during the next fiscal crisis.

Although the welfare workers clean the parks of litter and graffiti, there are not enough skilled Parks employees to keep up with tasks like tree pruning, gardening, and electrical and plumbing repair. In December 1999, the Parks Council surveyed hundreds of park volunteers and community groups about the services and features most in need of attention. Among the items that were ranked highest were gardening and tree pruning.

While the mayor has tackled a number of "quality-of-life" issues during his tenure, he has given low priority to maintaining the open spaces that make the City a better place to live and visit. It is interesting that the Mayor is proposing to increase maintenance staff next year for just two parks„and one is the newly restored City Hall Park. As Mark Caserta, Director of Public Policy at the Parks Council, said, "The Mayor realizes he needs maintenance workers for 'his' park. His park is built with $20 million of borrowed money, and he realizes that he needs to take care of it. That's what the rest of the City needs, too."

The City Council should at very least restore the 102 seasonal workers--positions the Council originally created, two for each district. Beyond that, let's look toward increasing the Parks operating budget to truly meet maintenance needs, and begin to dismantle the capital spending house of cards.

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden. 


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