A crisis for urban gardeners

By David E. Els

When University of Michigan psychologist Rachel Kaplan surveyed avid gardeners in 1983, more than 80 percent ranked "peacefulness and tranquillity" among gardening's top benefits. So it's not very often that you find a broad coalition of dedicated gardeners with their dander up over a garden-related issue. What's happening in New York city now qualifies as the largest and most significant brouhaha in the annals of garden history.

In a swift decision that appears to defy reason and logic, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani plans to auction off more than 120 thriving community gardens. The gardens would be sold to developers who would bulldoze them into the vacant lots they once were 10 or 20 years ago -- when they were reclaimed by neighbors (with the city's blessing) and transformed into community gardens.

The mayor claims that the city has a shortage of housing and that by turning the gardens over (no pun intended) to developers, the land will be converted to a "higher use". This decision simply makes no sense. New York city has more than 11,000 vacant, buildable lots, of which only 750 are community gardens. Thus it appears that there is no justification for the sacrifice of these community gardens with their rich history of improving the quality of life in New York's neighborhoods.

In the 22 years since the federal government enacted the Urban Gardening Program through the USDA Extension Service, extensive research has been conducted on the effects of community gardening and greening programs on people, urban neighborhoods, the environment, and quality of life. This research demonstrates -- at no surprise to gardeners -- that these programs contribute immeasurable social and psychological value to the communities where they exist. Here are just a few examples of documented evidence we have sent to Mayor Giuliani with the hope that he might reconsider his decision.

The research of Stephan and Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan confirms that people in a technological age need plants for more than just food, and green space for more than just pleasure. They conclude, "Nature is not just 'nice' ... it is a vital ingredient in healthy human functioning."

But let's not overlook the obvious benefits of productive gardens in urban settings. Robert Gottleib and Peter Sinsheimer of the UCLA Graduate School of Urban Planning found that 27 percent of the people living in one South Central Los Angeles neighborhood did not have enough money to buy food and that many residents had no easy access to grocery stores. In such situations, community gardens provide some needed short-term relief and a potential long-term solution.

In 1993, research supported by the Merck Family Fund and conducted by Marian Macpherson reported that after a Philadelphia police officer, Rita Ikedaf, "started a community gardening program, burglaries and thefts in the area dropped from about 40 to 4 incidents per month."

Similarly, in San Francisco the Trust for Public Land found that crime on Dearborn Street in the Mission District fell 28 percent after the first year of their garden project. Today, crime in the area is down 78 percent.

Needless to say, there is more evidence to support the importance of community gardening, and it is apparent that community gardening is as much about community as it is about gardening. Further, the concept that the cultivation of plants and our interaction with them nourishes us in many ways is no longer an open question. For well over 20 years, the neighborhood gardens throughout New York City and elsewhere have enriched the lives of residents.

If you feel as strongly as I do about the need for more -- not fewer -- community gardens, I urge you to express your thoughts to the mayor. Write to the Mayor of the City of New York, City Hall, New York, NY 10007. If nothing changes, this careless act and its national consequences will set the community gardening movement back 20 years.

David Els is the former executive director of National Gardening.

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