Community gardens have long been a part of New York City’s alternative spaces. But many of us may take the gardens for granted, unaware of their rich history and of the vast benefits they bring to our communities and the city as a whole. Walking by a community garden in your neighborhood and peeking through the gate, you may recognize it as a green space but not understand it as an anchoring presence in your community.
Researchers at the Earth Institute recently published a paper that investigates the environmental and social dimensions of community gardens in East Harlem. The study was conducted by Nada Petrovic, Troy Simpson, and Ben Orlove, all from the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University, and Brian Dowd-Uribe of the University of San Francisco. Orlove, who is one of the directors of CRED, says the group wanted to study “what motivates people to engage in green infrastructure—to use it, support it, or maintain it.”
Community gardens help to combat the heat island effect of the city, and they absorb water during weather events to lessen flooding in a city filled with impervious pavement. Simpson says the gardens are also “fascinating physical symbols of people creating value and different forms of community in the areas where they live. [This study] was an opportunity to understand how people relate to the built environment and how it’s changing all the time.”
A brief history of community gardens in NYC
Most of the nearly 500 community gardens in NYC were started during the financial crisis of the 1970s. In vacant lots and the footprints of buildings destroyed by arson, communities took care of these ravaged spaces and made them their own.
In 1973, the grassroots community group the Green Guerillas wandered their East Village neighborhoods throwing “seed bombs” over fences into vacant lots with restricted public access. According to the Parks Department, in 1974, the Green Guerillas founded the first community garden—the Bowery-Houston Community Farm and Garden—signing a lease with the Office of Housing Preservation and Development for $1 a month.