Liz Christy Garden

Jacob Lobosco

Traditional urban infrastructure and green resources exist side by side at the Lower East Side’s Liz Christy Community Garden, the oldest garden in the city.

As temperatures drop and winter draws closer, the growing season is winding down for many of the city’s community gardens.

But for one Flatbush garden, a planned spring opening means that the work of building has con-tinued, even in less-than-comfortable conditions.

Members and volunteers at the Newkirk Community Garden are thankful for the ability to do this work, though. Two grants, valuable connections and a well-organized team got them the starting resources they needed.

As an independent garden, all of these resources – like secure space, funding, tools and soil – are critically necessary elements to hit the ground running, and ones which Newkirk’s founders are entirely responsible for.

For most other new groups, the Parks Department’s GreenThumb program, which licenses land to over half of the 550 community gardens on city land, offers a more streamlined way to start growing.

“A lot of times when a group is trying to start up a new garden, they have no knowledge of things like where to go, or how to write a grant,” says Samuel Pressman, designer of the Newkirk garden. “If the site works out, GreenThumb will pretty much supply everything a garden will need to jump-start itself.”

Despite the benefits, the Newkirk garden hasn’t chosen to sign on with the program – for the moment, at least. GreenThumb, they say, would’ve slowed down their schedule, taking months to deliver supplies they’ve already managed to gather on their own.

New rules rankle some

Not only that, the program’s licensing agreement would add approval and permit requirements to additions Newkirk has already made to the garden, as well as events like their October festival. These requirements come mainly from changes to GreenThumb’s license this year which stirred negative reactions from numerous gardeners.

The new terms offer some positives, allowing for two fundraising events annually – an improvement from the previous license, which didn’t explicitly allow for any – and lifting many legal liabilities for gardens.

Many gardeners’ issues with the changes actually revolve around what seems to be a much greater degree of city oversight than in the past. Any events a garden wants to host, including fund-raising events and two mandatory free public events, require review and written approval from the Parks Department. This is also required for various potential changes to a garden, including removing soil or adding structures like sheds or greenhouses.

Parks Press Officer Dan Kastanis explained that the stricter approval process came “following serious fire injuries at events last year,” but offered no further details.

“278 gardens have signed the agreement, and approximately 75 remain,” Kastanis says. “Our outreach indicates that about half of the unsigned gardens are simply late in coming in, rather than holding out for a license renegotiation. We expect to have at least half of these licenses in the near term.” It was unclear whether the Parks Department would entertain individual garden requests for renegotiating the new rules.

Complicating outreach

Though some holdouts remain, most of GreenThumb’s gardens have agreed to the new terms, even if begrudgingly, as in the case of the Lower East Side’s Liz Christy Community Garden, the oldest garden in the city.

Donald Loggins, a founding member of the garden, indicated that the more restrictive process for event-hosting can hurt efforts like community outreach, an especially harmful effect for gardens like his which already deal with issues like low membership.

Members of the Liz Christy garden maintain self-funded individual planting plots, which isn’t uncommon for the city’s community gardens. “If I want to put plants in a particular area of the garden, I pay out of pocket for my area,” Loggins says. “A lot of gardens do it that way.”

As living expenses rise, though, this model of maintaining the garden has become harder to fol-low. Less people come to the garden with an interest in becoming members or volunteering, which Loggins believes may be a result of fewer people having the time or money for the work involved.

If the new GreenThumb regulations make it more difficult to put together events to engage the community, that will only add to the challenge of attracting new members.

The garden’s hours of operation might also play a role in the outreach problem. GreenThumb’s terms only require gardens to remain open to the public for 20 hours each week. The Liz Christy garden, like most others, is run by unpaid volunteers with paying jobs to juggle as well, making it difficult to maintain a full-time presence to keep the garden open.

From May to September, the garden is open four days per week. For the rest of the year, it’s only open on Saturdays from noon until 4:00 P.M. The rooftop gardens of AvalonBay’s neighboring residential buildings, on the other hand, are open to tenants for most of each day.

“Community gardens are open during hours that are set, to some extent, by the gardeners. It’s not always available all day long, the way the other spaces are,” says Fred Harris, an NYU Furman Center advisory board member who formerly worked at AvalonBay.

Value added, and threatened

Newkirk Community Garden’s Samuel Pressman points to the city’s perception of community gardens and green spaces as a root of the GreenThumb license’s problems.

Pressman believes that the full value of community gardens as a resource still isn’t being recog-nized by the city, despite some movement in the right direction. Not only are they a way to feed and engage low-income communities, he says, they can also operate as part of a larger ecological infrastructure, providing a less expensive alternative to built systems meant to regulate environ-mental issues, like stormwater retention.

“When you get to a city-wide scale, those systems end up polluting more than they’re actually servicing,” Pressman says.

Other gardeners share the sentiment that the city may not fully value or understand their work. Gil Lopez of Smiling Hogshead Ranch sees the more important effects of community gardens as being psychological, off-setting mindsets of commodification and enhancing ideas of communi-ty.

“Community gardens provide a qualitative service to our community that can’t be quantified,” Lopez says, adding that they shouldn’t have to prove their productive or financial worth “just in case some developer wants to come in and buy the property to build a condo.”

The potential for displacement by a developer isn’t a new risk for community gardens. Being part of GreenThumb helps protect them from this, which makes dealing with some of its more over-bearing rules a necessary pill to swallow for many gardeners.

As long as this risk exists, Lopez says the most important thing for community gardens to do is to continue standing with one another and advocating for themselves.

“We have to stand in solidarity every single time these community gardens are under threat until they’re protected,” Lopez says.

Some developers show respect

Some developers, though, also believe in the value of community gardens beyond just their abil-ity to produce. As an AvalonBay executive, Fred Harris negotiated with the Liz Christy Garden during the construction of the two residential buildings bordering it.

“There’s an obvious value in preserving them. They’re community spaces, they’re green, they fit into all kinds of objectives for healthy urban spaces,” Harris says.

Even without directly displacing them, development can sometimes pose a risk to gardens indi-rectly by creating unsuitable conditions for them. When AvalonBay’s complexes were being built, their construction ran this risk with the potential of polluting the Liz Christy garden.

“Our contractors told us there would be damage to some of [the garden’s] plants,” Harris says. “We endeavored to keep that to a minimum, but we were not confident in advance that we would even do as well as we did.”

Elsewhere in the city, a different tension between community garden and new development is playing out. At Brownsville’s Green Valley Community Farm, a solar-powered greenhouse allows plant life to grow year-round. But a planned residential tower across the street would block the sun from reaching it, killing the greenhouse and the plant life inside.

With potential issues like this or others that could force a garden to move, Harris believes the value community gardens provide warrants the effort of at least finding a suitable place for them and making sure they can survive the development process.

“One thing that developers can do for them is give them the infrastructure they need,” Harris says. “If they are actually capable of re-configuration, you can make sure they’re in the right place, in terms of sunlight and street access.”