Gardens of Their Own—Land&People

On a sunny afternoon in early October, three girls hesitate in front of the Sherman Avenue Community Garden in the Bronx. Fourth and fifth graders on their way home from school, they peer through the fence into the gap between brick apartment buildings, a space filled with shade and fruit trees and raised beds overflowing with an enormous pumpkin vine and the last of the summer's tomatoes. Halloween decorations—scarecrows and paper pumpkins—are already set up.

Maria Rodriguez, a 40-year-old dynamo who is one of the garden's leaders, comes out to say hello. Soon she is giving the girls brand-new flowered gardening gloves to wear and showing them how to extract a periwinkle plant from its pot, dig a hole, and set the roots in a shady spot along the wall. "This is going to be full of purple flowers," she says.

"Is this your garden?" asks one of the girls, whose name is Tatiana. "This is your garden," Rodriguez answers. "It's for everybody—to enjoy, relax, plant, look at the flowers, hear the birds sing." The girls smile shyly.

For people living in a world of asphalt, concrete, and brick, New York's more than 450 community gardens provide rare places to relax and connect with nature. They serve as front porches and backyards—places to meet with neighbors, grow and share fresh produce, or hold celebrations and cookouts on summer evenings. They teach children where a carrot comes from and that vegetables can taste good.

Many of these gardens were founded in the 1970s and '80s, when residents of poor, minority neighborhoods began taking over vacant and burned-out lots whose owners had abandoned them to the city. They chased out drug dealers and prostitutes; hauled away rubble; built planting beds, paths, and shelters; and started growing fruits and vegetables. The city granted most of the gardens temporary leases through the parks department's GreenThumb program.

Gardens Under Threat

Then, in January 1999, the city under then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced that, owing to a recovered economy and a growing demand for housing, it would auction hundreds of city-owned lots for development, including many occupied by community gardens. Protests erupted across the city, growing more colorful as the May auction deadline approached. A man dressed as a sunflower shinnied up a ginkgo tree in City Hall Park, and hundreds of demonstrators—some dressed as flowers and plants—blocked rush-hour traffic. Eliot Spitzer, then state attorney general, filed a lawsuit to stop the sale.

The Trust for Public Land—which had been supporting New York community gardens for 20 years—offered the city $3 million to acquire 75 gardens, including 27 that were on the auction block. The New York Times editorialized: "Mr. Giuliani should halt the auction and either pursue negotiations with private groups like the trust or find other ways to keep these edens blooming. This cavalier sale would add a mite to the city's lush budget, but only by subtracting vital open spaces in the very neighborhoods that need them." At the eleventh hour, the city finally agreed to sell 62 gardens to TPL and 50 gardens to the New York Restoration Project, founded by singer and actress Bette Midler.

But as significant as this victory was, it was only a preview to revolutionary changes in the way some community gardens are owned and managed in New York. TPL has overseen a process that will enable the gardeners— for the very first time—to own and control their garden plots. To accomplish this, TPL organized and trained leadership for three borough-wide land trusts in Manhattan, Brooklyn-Queens, and the Bronx. The process is creating a corps of leaders committed to the ideal of community-owned urban green space, managed by the people for the people, and to using those spaces to better the lives of those they serve.

At the same time, TPL invested $4 million in muchneeded physical improvements to its gardens—making them safer and more inviting by putting up wrought-iron fences, fixing sidewalks, installing water systems, and providing gazebos, trees, and other garden elements.

"The city initially leased land to these gardens as interim beautification projects," says Andy Stone, director of TPL's Parks for People-New York City initiative. "But once we'd saved them, we embarked on a long process of making sure they would function well for many years to come. This meant durable improvements; active, publicspirited groups for each garden; and a stable, self-sustaining entity to oversee them. It's not just about owning the land. It's about fostering strong groups that manage community assets. We're building a network of permanent community open space."

Gardens of Their Own

The purchase and management of land by nonprofit land trusts is a widespread and successful method of protecting open space in suburban and rural areas, but it is far less common in cities. The three New York garden land trusts represent more gardens than any other communitygarden land trust in the country, an exciting experiment in translating the land trust model to cities. "We think of them as a vital extension of the land conservation movement in the largest American city," says Ethan Winter, New York conservation manager for the Land Trust Alliance (LTA), a national land trust advocacy and support group. LTA has provided ongoing support to the New York City land trusts, including grants to build their organizational capacity.

Organizing the land trusts and training the gardeners to take them over "has taken a whole lot longer and has been more complicated that anyone imagined," says Erica Packard, executive director of the Manhattan and Bronx land trusts, which, like the Brooklyn-Queens trust, are governed by representatives of member gardens. To reach consensus on operating the trusts, garden volunteers have had to broaden their focus from the needs and culture of their own spaces and communities; this has been a slow process. Going into the effort, few gardeners had the organizational skills needed to run a land trust, such as serving on a board, fundraising, overseeing staff, and managing property.

But the land trusts gradually have assumed responsibility for managing the properties. They have developed strong maintenance and operations committees, whose members from the different gardens share their expertise and help each other with projects and annual chores like turning water systems on and off. The trusts hold workshops in property management for member gardens, provide insurance, and support gardeners in dealing with common problems— for example, with adjacent landowners. They promote strong stewardship groups, advise on programming, and help gardens recruit an active core of volunteers.

"Every year, we sit down and figure out a strategy for one garden that really needs a lot of support," says Catherine Wint, a community organizer with the Manhattan and Bronx land trusts. This may involve recruiting new volunteers and completely renovating the garden using TPL's participatory design process.

The Power of Partnerships

In these efforts, the land trusts partner with city greening groups and with local nonprofits, institutions, and social programs. For example, the Horticultural Society of New York is working with the Carver Community Garden in East Harlem in a horticultural therapy program for returning servicewomen who are having a hard time adjusting to civilian life. The women will plant produce and run a farm stand where they will distribute what they grow at little or no cost.

Another way the land trusts help create connections is by finding institutions within the community to host garden meetings and events. During the effort to revive the Sherman Avenue Community Garden, Wint arranged for Bronx Green-Up—a community outreach program of the New York Botanical Garden—to hold a garden design workshop at the neighborhood library branch.

"A lot of people found out what services were in their local library that day," says Wint. In a community where many people don't even own telephones, "they learned about computers and how to get an email account." These are just a few examples of how collaborating with local organizations extends the influence of the gardens beyond their gates. Many gardens join with organizations that provide job training or programs for at-risk youth, and host field trips and classes for neighborhood schools.

For the last two summers, Bronx Health REACH has held a health fair at the Sherman Avenue Community Garden for people with asthma and diabetes, featuring demonstrations on how to cook the garden's vegetables. Being part of a land trust—which can forge broader partnerships with organizations working in disadvantaged neighborhoods—enables the gardens to be an even greater force for good in their communities.

The Sherman Avenue Community Garden is thriving. "You name it, we grow it in here: squash, cucumbers, peppers, spinach, mustard greens, collards, pumpkins, tomatoes, scallions, cherry tomatoes," says Rodriguez. "Once you open that gate, it's like a flytrap. Everybody starts coming in. 'Can we have a party?' they ask. 'Can we have a barbecue?' The kids are here all summer long, watering the plants, eating the fruits."

Both the land trusts and the member gardens are constantly growing stronger, says Jean Ovitt of Albert's Garden on the Lower East Side, a founding board member of the Manhattan Land Trust. "The number of programs developed in these gardens is phenomenal," she declares. "It's ten years later, and the gardens are alive and well and developing new generations of people."

The experiment with urban land trusts is just beginning, and a lot of people are watching to see where it leads. "As a model of ownership among folks who don't own anything, let alone land, it's empowering," says Ethan Winter of the Land Trust Alliance. "It's one thing to grow your food in the garden that you love. It's another thing to know that your organization owns it."

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in parks and the environment. She lives in New York City, where she is a regular columnist for Her story on TPL's New York playgrounds program appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of Land&People.