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How You Can Turn New York City's Vacant Lots into Community Gardens

By Jeanmarie Evelly | September 24, 2014 8:33am
 DNAinfo spoke to several gardening experts about how to start your own neighborhood green space.
Community Gardens in New York City
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NEW YORK CITY — Gardening is Melvin Foster's chance to commune with nature, grow his own salad ingredients and connect with his childhood roots, having grown up in the south going to his family's farm in the summers.

"It's what my grandparents did in Mississippi," said Foster, president of the Clifton Place Memorial Garden and Park on Bedford Avenue and Clifton Place in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where he's been gardening for 17 years.

"I love being out of the house, in the dirt, growing my own food."

Many of the city's oldest community gardens were started during the 1970s and 1980s, when residents transformed vacant lots in their communities into green spaces as a way to beautify abandoned properties, according to Andy Stone, the New York City director for The Trust for Public Land.

"People’s primary motivation was to clean up a neighborhood eyesore," he said. "It was very grassroots."

Today, New Yorkers continue to look for opportunities to green the city. In 2011, Ena McPherson helped turn a vacant lot at 267 Throop Ave., near Willoughby Avenue, in Brooklyn into a community garden now known as Tranquility Farm.

"You don’t need money to start [a] garden, you just need to get yourself hooked up with the [city] agencies, the resources out there to get you started," said McPherson, who also works with two other nearby gardens in her neighborhood.

"You need resources, people, and you need drive," she said.

DNAinfo spoke to some of the city's gardening experts for tips on how residents can start — and maintain — a garden in their communities.

Help out at an existing garden

There are more than 500 community gardens in the city, according to the website for GreenThumb, the community gardening program of the Department of Parks and Recreation. So before breaking out the spade and trying to start your own, see if there's already a garden in your area where you can get your hands dirty.

GreenThumb's website includes a map of community gardens as well as ways for residents to get involved in one.

"There are many gardens in our network that are suffering, they're dying on the vine," McPherson said. "They need help, they need volunteers."

Even if your goal is to start a new green space, chipping in at an existing garden can help you get hands-on experience for your own project, McPherson said.

"It makes you more credible. It shows that you really are interested," she said.

Find a location

596 Acres, an organization that helps residents identify unused public spaces in their neighborhoods and access them for community use, maintains an online interactive map of city-owned vacant lots that can potentially be used for gardens.

The map includes information on what agency is in charge of the property, as well as who to contact there to find out more information about the space. You can find tips for how to approach a public agency about using their space on 596 Acres' website.

Since it launched as a pilot program in 2011, the organization has helped turn more than two dozen unused lots into community spaces, with another 10 or so in the works, according to director Paula Segal.

"Have patience," was the advice Segal offered to those looking to start a community garden. "This is the best civics lesson anybody can get."

GreenThumb's website includes a step-by-step list on starting a garden, which recommends choosing lots "which have not been used in years" and using the mapping site OASIS to find the block and lot numbers for the property, which can also often be used to find the name of property owner.

You can then search for city-owned lots in the Department of Citywide Administrative Services' list of owned and leased properties, which includes information on the city agency in charge of the site and whether or not it's considered "suitable" for agriculture.

Secure a licensing agreement

If you've identified a suitable city-owned site, you can contact GreenThumb, which can coordinate with the city agency in charge about the possibility of a license agreement to allow you to use the space as a garden, according to the program's website.

Licenses vary depending on which city agency has jurisidcation over the lot, but can range from one or two year interim-use agreements or up to four years for Parks Department sites.

GreenThumb's application process requires you have a least 10 garden members, submit a proposal for your project as well as a letter of support from your local community board. 

"It is crucial that you try to connect with the people in the neighborhood," said McPherson of Tranquility Farm, which has two-year renewable license agreement with the city's Department of Housing, Preservation and Development.

Since 1991, the MTA has also allowed garden agreements for some of its properties deemed "not marketable" for uses other than gardening — which often includes sites that are "landlocked," usually between railroad tracks and a private backyard. It could also include properties next to a train station or substation, according to an MTA spokesman.

Anyone looking to garden on MTA land must have the agency review and vet the site, and the gardeners must pay a minimum fee of $100 and provide liability insurance, the spokesman said.

Many of the MTA's existing garden agreements are with residents whose properties abut railroad embankments, though some are with community and civic groups who run gardens. Urban farming group Smiling Hogshead Ranch recently signed one such agreement to use a parcel of LIRR-owned land in Long Island City on a year-to-year basis. 

NYCHA residents who are interested in starting a garden at their development can find information on doing so through NYCHA's Garden and Greening Program.

596 Acres has also helped groups strike agreements to use privately-owned vacant land for gardens, according to Segal, who said such a deal must be reached with the individual property owner. Tips for approaching private landowners about using their space can be found on the 596 Acres' site.

Get digging

Next comes the actual work of creating your garden — what Steve Frillmann, director of the gardening group Green Guerillas, called "the biggest challenge."

"Actually turning a vacant lot in to a community garden is really backbreaking work," he said.

A number of organizations provide services and resources for community gardens. Green Guerillas provides resources to about 200 GreenThumb gardens, including plant giveaways and assistance in recruiting members, according to its website.

GreenThumb offers workshops and can provide its member gardens with things like soil, compost, mulch and lumber, as well help getting permits to access fire hydrants as a water source.

596 Acres' website includes a list of groups that provide materials and grants, as well as steps for how to start growing food in your lot, from having your soil tested to building growing containers. To avoid issues with toxic soil, many gardens use raised beds to grow their edible plants.

In addition to the physical work, garden groups must work together to decide how the space will operate.

"The most successful community garden groups that we work with are the ones that spend time talking with each other about what they care about," said Frillmann.

"I think one of the most important things is to be democratic in your process, and not autocratic. Every decision that we make in the garden is made by everybody and not me," was Foster's advice.

McPherson said that despite the hard work that goes into it, the benefits pay off.

"It's very rewarding," she said. "At the end of the day we are making a difference, and the community responds."