Urban Agriculture for One New York

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[Published on Huffington Post]

On December 12, 2014, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) issued a request for qualifications that offered-up more than 180 vacant city parcels to affordable housing developers. It turned out, however, that 20 weren’t really vacant – they were community gardens, 18 of which were actively growing food.

As this news circulated through the urban agriculture community, gardeners and their allies organized a City Hall protest and began lobbying elected officials to stave off the bulldozers. HPD then took a closer look and discovered that at least 50 gardens, not 20, were under HPD jurisdiction and thus were slated for eventual development.

A year of bureaucratic hand wringing and political backpedaling has ensued, along with staff meetings, site visits, and conversations with gardeners, advocates, and elected officials. The resulting compromise, announced by Mayor de Blasio on December 30, 2015, is that the city will spare 34 of the gardens on HPD land by transferring them to the Parks Department, while 14 active gardens on 9 development sites deemed essential for affordable housing will be lost as construction begins. To its credit, the de Blasio administration has committed to finding alternative sites and assistance for those gardens forced to relocate.

Some might chalk this incident up to an isolated staff-level snafu at HPD. After all, the Mayor cares deeply about quality of life in neighborhoods short on green space and fresh produce, as do the members of his administration. Housing commissioner Vicki Been has published groundbreaking research quantifying the economic benefits of gardens to low-income communities. Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver is leading a Community Parks Initiative that will restore and maintain parks and playgrounds in high-need communities throughout New York, improving open space neglected by previous administrations.

But these conflicts over the city’s gardens arise over and over, pointing not to a slip-up by a particular agency but rather to a more fundamental governance problem: there is no citywide policy that makes urban agriculture a permanentfeature of the cityscape, and no physical plan identifying where future agricultural development should go. Nor is there an overall budget for the urban agriculture system, with dollars instead coming from different sources and little coordination of spending. Urban agriculture remains a patchwork of city programs, making it easy for any individual agency to treat as expendable.

Parks often takes the lead because its GreenThumb program supports more than 600 gardens. But the Housing Authority manages an even larger program, with 670 gardens on NYCHA properties, including an 8,000 square foot rooftop hydroponic farm in the South Bronx, a one-acre farm in Red Hook, and several new large-scale farms planned in East Harlem, Brownsville, Canarsie, the South Bronx, and Staten Island. Some 300 public schools also have gardens, from vegetable patches to high-tech greenhouses. HPD’s flagship affordable housing project, Via Verde, features a community garden and the city’s first and only rooftop apple orchard. And the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) invested nearly $600,000 ($150,000 more than GreenThumb’s entire 2015 operating budget) in a one-acre rooftop farm and another $770,000 in smaller farms and gardens, all to prevent stormwater from inundating the sewers. An alphabet soup of other agencies provides material, land, and technical assistance.

Some argue that this administrative mish-mash encourages innovation and entrepreneurship, but that reflects an overly romantic view of the “guerilla gardening” movement of the 1970s, when urban agriculture blossomed from the grassroots. In those days, in the wake of the city’s fiscal crisis and decades of private disinvestment, community activists, particularly in low-income communities of color, turned rubble-strewn lots into safe, green spaces providing healthy produce, and City Hall was happy to oblige with supplies and technical assistance. But over the past 40 years, urban agriculture has grown from guerilla to mainstream, requiring much more coordination, support, and permanence.

The most compelling reason for a citywide urban agriculture policy and physical plan is to make the system more transparent, equitable and sustainable. Currently, there are no clear criteria for which gardens to save, for how long, through what mechanisms, or at what cost. These decisions are often ad hoc, based on which gardeners are most active and organized, politically connected, and able to provide their own labor and resources. These may sound like reasonable criteria, but they have the effect of disadvantaging communities that would gain the most from gardens and farms but in which poverty, language barriers, immigration status, and other challenges make sustaining a garden more difficult.

Inequities also occur due to the lack of funding priorities for garden and farm projects, which advantages highly networked organizations and individuals with contacts and skills to secure grants, investments, and in-kind resources. While there may be valid reasons for the city to invest in innovative but costly projects like rooftop greenhouses, there is no public process for determining whether alternative farm and garden priorities, including low-tech farms, would be more equitable, cost-effective, or beneficial to the larger urban agriculture system.

A physical plan for agriculture would ensure that farms and gardens are designed into new residential and commercial developments, and that their locations maximize their benefits: near schools and senior centers to link these institutions to gardening programs; integrated into buildings and neighborhoods that would benefit from access to fresh produce and green space; in communities where farm-based youth development, recreation, and job training programs would make a difference; and in places where overburdened stormwater infrastructure would benefit from turning pavement into permeable soil. A citywide policy would also help to break down bureaucratic siloes by integrating urban agriculture into the missions of agencies that do not now view food production as relevant to their mandates. This would mean HPD designing gardens into their housing projects, DEP prioritizing farms and gardens in its green infrastructure financing, and Sanitation linking urban farms to its food-waste composting programs.

Perhaps the best opportunity to start the urban agriculture planning process is with the very program that led to this yearlong garden controversy: the mayor’s signature affordable housing plan. HPD, City Planning, and other agencies have begun community planning and rezoning in neighborhoods targeted for new affordable housing. These plans and rezoning proposals are a unique opportunity to proactively integrate urban agriculture, along with other strategies to increase access to healthy food, like space for neighborhood grocers, food cooperatives, farm stands and public markets, into the communities being transformed.

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