New/Old? City Community Garden Policy Proposal

Yesterday, the NYC Community Garden Coalition held a townhall-style meeting to discuss criteria and options for a New York City policy for preserving community gardens – and making new ones. I helped produce a handout that set the stage and also give a summary of different strategies for preserving land — land trusts, conservation easements, long term licenses, mapping as parkland, and — kind of an odd duck — a private/public partnership agency that would serve as an intermediary between city government and community gardens.

The public/private partnership is idea that is getting some play. I see two big advantages to this. The big one for me is that the agency would have community gardener representation on the board of directors — helping, but not guaranteeing, accountabiity to grassroots community gardeners. The other advantage is potentially more capacity to fundraise to support the city’s resource-strapped community garden program. There would still be a role for GreenThumb, the Department of Parks and Recreation agency charged with the city’s community garden program, especially for community gardens on land held by Parks.

The last big push for a city policy was in 2002, and it was actually a legislative approach. I uploaded a PDF of the legislation, which was docketed as Intro 206 in the City Council. This page on the Municipal Art Society site is an OK account of what went down. It’s interesting to note the parties responsible for drafting and promoting the legislation:

[…]a coalition of greening and planning organizations including the MAS, Green Guerillas, Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, New Yorkers for Parks and the New York League of Conservation Voters, among others […]

Notice that community gardeners themselves aren’t included in the mix, even though the New York City Community Garden Coalition was around at the time, along with More Gardens! and several other local community garden coalitions. The drafting team’s approach to involving community gardeners was to host an after-the-fact “kick-off” meeting to introduce the final legislation to community gardeners and get them involved in calling their council people to support it. (Gee, thanks guys.)

At the time I was disgusted with the process and had grave concerns about the legislation itself. I found myself at odds with other activists, who I guess felt it was ‘the best we could get.’ In 2002, there was still a deep residue of trusting the consortium of paternalistic greening groups. I bit the bullet and went to the kick-off meeting, which was held at the Citizens Committee and facilitated by one of their staff people, who was clearly in on the fix. When I tried to speak the facilitator shot me down. Even activists who disagreed with me felt that I had been disrespectfully treated. I bring this up only to point out the hostility by the bills promoters to grassroots voices that attempted to raise questions and concerns.

And of course I wasn’t the only person with concerns. Others had them, too– mostly about the actual process for preserving community garden land. The bill’s primary mechanism was to transfer the land to a land trust through the ULURP process. ULURP is an unbelievably cumbersome and potentially expensive process. Don’t believe me? Try wrapping your brain around this. Even though the Municipal Art Society says the process would have bypassed ULURP and used UDAP instead, I don’t find that in the actual text of the proposal. This is the pertinent section of the legislation:

1. GreenThumb shall establish, with the approval of the City Planning Commission, a procedure through which registered Garden Groups shall have the opportunity to apply via the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), Section 197-c of the New York City Charter, for permanent garden status through transfer of title of such property to the GreenThumb Garden Trust, under the jurisdiction of the City Department of Parks and Recreation. […]

The legislation never went anywhere. This article in the Village Voice does a good job of pointing out some of the grassroots concerns with the bill, while also doing an unfair hatchet job on Edie Stone, the then and current director of GreenThumb. Edie is somebody who deeply cares about community gardens and the people who grow them.

What ultimately killed the bill was a better deal for community gardeners. This deal was hammered out about between New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer and the new Bloomberg administration. The idea was that the temporary agreement would give the city breathing room to come up with an equitable permanent community garden policy.

Well, the term of the agreement has passed, and the city still has no permanent policy in place. There seems to be a developing consensus for the partnership agency idea which is similar to the GreenThumb spin-off private/public agency idea in the 2002 legislation. Which is ironic. In pondering it, I keep coming back to three key differences between the 2002 legislation and the current idea:

  • Inclusion of, and accountability to, community gardeners
  • No evil garden-by-garden ULURP process
  • A commitment to not privatizing public land

If this idea does gain traction, its success will rest on whether community gardeners really are meaningfully included in both the creation and direction of the new organization.


12 thoughts on “New/Old? City Community Garden Policy Proposal

  1. Well said, Mark. Yeah the “green weenie” approach was off-base–and this newer idea will really only work if gardeners are involved along every step of the way. Yes, “No evil garden by garden ULURP”!
    Thank you for this. Excellent job yesterday.

  2. Many many thanks for great review of history, Mark. Interesting how the more things change the more the stay the same. I wonder how we can build the base of community gardeners from which the partnership agency could emerge with significant actual ties and leverage. Perhaps that is what our summer campaign can be about. And thanks for your IQ contributions to the success of the TownHall.

  3. The question is HOW do you ensure that community gardeners control this beast once it is released into the NYC gardening world? Where are your assurances of gardener control of the board coming from? Do you really trust those folks to be straight with you? I think “board” and I think of a bunch of rich middle aged white ladies calling the shots because they are the ones writing the checks…

    • You control this by being what the NYCCGC has become: a powerful organization with muscle of its own. We (gardeners/urban farmers/”guardians of the land”) may still volunteer til the end of time, but we’re not serfs anymore. We have a voice. We will be heard. We will take action; we’re capable of organizing and even writing by-laws which include more than an elite few, and we’re capable of enforcing those by-laws.
      How do you change the status quo? You get off your butt and do something!

  4. Hi Matt and Vondra,

    Thanks for posting. Yes, the devil is in the details. While a certain level of trust is necessary, that trust is created by *accountability,* which is a concept that I used in my posting. And it is possible to write bylaws that ensure that the board has real diversity, and is not just “rich middle aged white ladies” (although I do know some kick-ass women over 40, who have wealth, who would be wonderful in this role). But many organizations, particularly ones with a community organizing focus, have bylaws that ensure that there’s racial diversity, gender diversity, sexual orientation diversity, professional diversity — you name it. And really key to our case, it is possible to write bylaws that ensure significant representation by grassroots community gardeners.

    • Another great question. At the town hall meeting on Saturday, people called for a clear and democratic process for creating this new organization. So if this is going to work, community gardeners must be involved in writing the bylaws in partnership with others, and the bylaws will have to have to have the support of community gardeners. Bylaws are legally enforceable, and there are lawyers who specialize in this area of law. I’m not deluded that there will be a continuing need for community garden activism — the NYC Community Garden Coalition will always have a role. But as Cynthia pointed out in the opening comment, the old days of staff people at greening organizations muscling out community gardeners from participating in policy discussions is over.

  5. Pingback: Town Hall Report | Carrie McCracken TRUCE Community Garden

  6. Hi Mark,

    Great post! I was curious where I could read more about the public/private partnerships you speak of? I am part of a research team for Green Spaces Alliance Land Trust of South Texas. We are investigating “means of acquisition” for community gardens in San Antonio. We have come across some interesting sources but, let’s be honest, when it comes down to it…you need money to acquire land. This is something we have very little of. We are still in the process of structuring our research, and partnerships, of any and every kind, are what I am currently focusing on. Any way you could help me out with some resources or knowledge?

    Thanks again for your awesome blog!

    • Hi Vanessa,

      Thanks for commenting on this post. I’m working my way through an overly long to-do list, but I’ll give your question some thought and respond later.

      Happy spring,


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