Community Gardens as Arenas of Change

marouhBy Marouh Hussein

Community gardens are not a new phenomenon but they have received increased attention in recent years because of their proven benefits. Whether they are spaces of food production, leisure, or recreation, the presence of a community garden in a distressed neighborhood often catalyzes change beyond these usages. The community garden movement in the mid-1970s and 1980s in Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City that, like legacy cities, experienced dramatic population decline, was a powerful tool that residents used to reclaim their neighborhood.

The first community gardens were used as a defense against the dilapidation and poverty that were plaguing Harlem in the 1970s. They were a means for residents to turn vacant lots that had become playgrounds for drug dealers, prostitution, gangs and rodents into spaces for the community to gather. Community gardens became arenas of change — spaces where residents could meet, collaborate, celebrate, protest and more. They symbolized residents taking control of development in their neighborhood and making their priorities heard.

Joseph Daniel Wilson Memorial Gardens in Harlem
Joseph Daniel Wilson Memorial Gardens in Harlem | Image credit: Project Harmony

The community gardens in Harlem that have been most successful prioritize community input and access. For a community garden to thrive, it is crucial to emphasize the community aspect of it. These spaces should be desired, planned, maintained, and utilized by the community they support. If these criteria aren’t met, establishing a community garden is no different than someone maintaining their front lawn. Yes, the space is cleaner and perhaps less of an eyesore, but the property does not serve the neighborhood residents and remains accessible only to a select group of people. For community gardens to help revitalize distressed neighborhoods in Legacy Cities, it is necessary to have intensive input and collaboration that transcends one small group of active neighbors and instead includes a broader cross-section of community members.

However, even if a community garden is fully supported by its immediate surroundings, there are several external threats that can lead to the destruction of these spaces. In the 1990s, numerous community gardens were painfully razed as a result of Mayor Giuliani’s administration’s efforts to revitalize Harlem. Several gardens were permanently destroyed to make room for high-rise condominiums and commercial buildings. Other gardens were fortunate enough to be destroyed only partially, but they still lost land that was being used for food production. As legacy city revitalization plans are proposed, it will be crucial that policymakers and planners recognize the importance of the community-strengthening aspect of these spaces and push regulation that protects them from development. Initiatives that ease the process of establishing community gardens (like Baltimore’s Homegrown Baltimore Program) are good starting points and should be investigated further in other legacy cities to ensure that green space and community needs are not ignored in these efforts. Groups like 596 Acres arm individuals and communities interested in turning a vacant lot into a community asset with data, information and organizing tools to help get started.

Marouh Hussein is a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is pursuing a Master of Public Administration in Development Practice with a focus on urban development and food systems. Marouh currently works at Project Harmony, a non-profit organization located in New York City, where she has worked to support community gardens in Harlem for over three years. She is also the Social Media Coordinator at Cairo from Below.

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