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New York City’s History of Uprooting Community Gardens

Green space, or land that is partly or completely covered with grass, trees, shrubs, or other vegetation, is an integral part of modern urban landscapes. One of the more common variants of urban green space is community gardens. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines these gardens as “plots of land, usually in urban areas, that are rented by individuals or groups for private gardens or are for the benefit of the people caring for the garden.” Aside from their food-producing functions, community gardens offer several additional advantages. These include environmental services like runoff reduction, air quality enhancement, regional economic development, community cohesion, and improved physical health. 

In the 1970s, community gardens became a revolutionary force in New York City. U.S. economic stagnation during the decade hit the city particularly hard, resulting in a financial crisis. As a consequence, many public and private lots were abandoned and fell victim to arson, littering, or other types of neglect. 

Disheartened by the dilapidated state of the city, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving urban gardens, the Green Guerrillas, began tossing seed bombs into the vacant lots, attempting to revitalize them. Eventually, the Green Guerrillas’ tactics blossomed into a vast network of restorative projects. Neighbors and other passersby that were inspired by the Guerrillas’ do-it-yourself greening planted similar plots elsewhere in the city. The organizers, in turn, reinforced these efforts by holding gardening training sessions and establishing a phone line that people could call to receive free plants. By 1976, the Guerrillas’ initiatives had garnered national attention and resulted in a federally funded urban gardening program that incorporated an additional fifteen cities. 

Seeing the positive effects of the Guerrillas’ work, the City Department of General Services implemented Operation GreenThumb in 1978. The operation allowed neighborhood groups to maintain the fledgling gardens by leasing the land for a low cost; sometimes as low as one dollar a year. Operation GreenThumb supplied the gardens with funding and administrative assistance as well. 

Decades after Operation GreenThumb’s initiation, the program, simply referred to now as “GreenThumb,” has been incorporated into the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation and oversees 553 community gardens. However, as GreenThumb’s power dynamic has changed, so has its relationship with New York’s community gardeners. 

With the program’s incorporation into city government, the future of the community gardens became unclear. The City shifted GreenThumb’s practices from leasing the gardens to licensing them. Before, the token leases had ensured the gardens a certain degree of permanence so long as their tenants continued to pay. Now, the City could revoke licenses at their leisure, enabling them to sell garden space to developers and fulfill its ever-present need for housing. According to Caroline Spivack of Curbed New York, this first happened in the late 1990s when GreenThumb and former Mayor Rudolph Guiliani’s administration “tried to auction off garden land to developers” with the understanding that they would build affordable housing units. Not only did this “launch a string of lawsuits,” says Spivack, but it also pitted the community garden movement against the city government.

Since the conflict in the 1990s, New York City’s government has continued to threaten community gardens. The most recent large-scale controversy occurred when the Parks Department renewed its GreenThumb licensing agreement in 2019. In the document, the department introduced novel rules that sparked outrage among gardeners. According to Sydney Pereira, a journalist from Patch, the infuriated gardeners “held a boisterous rally outside City Hall” as they claimed the regulations “would make it more difficult to operate their volunteer-run spaces.” Some of the changes that protestors argued would complicate operations included “additional permitting steps for events, liability put onto garden volunteers if someone were to get hurt at the garden, [and] sidewalk-maintenance responsibility.” Additionally, rules limiting fundraisers, donations, or payments made it “unviable for some volunteer-run institutions to exist” entirely since they restricted income, said Scott Enman of Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 

The revisions to the agreement also prompted thirteen New York City politicians to send a letter to Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver. This letter, Enman stated, called for Commissioner Silver’s agency to “continue meaningful conversations with the gardeners to resolve unsettled issues.”  Despite the protestors’ indignation and the politicians’ letter, the Parks Department did not amend any of the regulations in the 2019 agreement. 

Furthermore, the new agreement ignited arguments over displacement. During the review period, GreenThumb declared that any gardeners who did not sign the agreement by the September 20, 2019 deadline risked eviction from their gardens. Even so, some City Hall protestors alleged that the Parks Department threatened to revoke their gardening licenses and lock them out of their gardens before the deadline. Currently, the document states that “garden groups that are determined by GreenThumb to be unable or unwilling to address and rectify violations will be at risk of having their License Agreement terminated by GreenThumb, and their access to the garden revoked.” In another article for Patch, Pereira asserts that these revised revocation standards allow the city to seize property easier and use it “for other purposes.” However, Parks Department spokesman Dan Kastanis said in a statement, “these new license agreements reflect gardener feedback, and we continue to work with gardeners across the City to understand their concerns and answer any remaining questions they have.” Kastanis added that the department had “no plans to lock out gardeners.” 

Due to the complete adoption of the 2019 agreement, “roughly 100 community gardens on city-owned land are in danger of closing or relocating,” according to Enman. So far, none of the 553 gardens have closed permanently, but many of the endangered ones have created web pages asking for support. 

Although the city government’s history of harsh regulation has placed barriers on community gardens’ existence, the nonprofit Earthjustice and 52 other organizations are working to change this. According to Earthjustice’s website, in November 2020, the organizations submitted a petition to multiple New York City government agencies calling for “heightened legal protections for New York City’s community gardens through designation as Critical Environmental Areas (CEAs).” If the gardens were to achieve CEA status, agencies would have to evaluate the impacts of actions like construction or development, create a written analysis of the action’s potentially adverse effects, and allow members of the community to weigh in by providing written comments or testifying at a public hearing. 

The organizations hope that the City will designate all eligible gardens as CEAs by November 18, 2021. Until then, the future of many New York City community gardens remains unclear.


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