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Nov. 18, 2020

From the Ground Up: A Petition to Protect New York City’s Community Gardens

On November 18, the New York City Community Garden Coalition (NYCCGC), Earthjustice, and 52 organizations submitted From the Ground Up: A Petition to Protect New York City’s Community Gardens to New York City government agencies. The petition requests heightened legal protections for New York City’s community gardens through designation as Critical Environmental Areas (CEAs).

Overview

Community gardens are greenspaces designed and operated by New York City residents. With community members in charge, the gardens are uniquely adaptable and responsive to neighborhood needs. For instance, in neighborhoods with little access to fresh food, community gardens provide fruits and vegetables, as well as opportunities for community members to share information about healthful cooking. As the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated longstanding racial and economic disparities across New York City, community gardeners mobilized to support their neighbors by increasing production and distribution of fresh produce, which helps to keep immune systems strong.

Trellises and raised garden beds filled with kale, chard, and greens in the Rockaway Youth Task Force Urban Farm in Queens.
Jeenah Moon for Earthjustice
In addition to growing kale, chard, and other greens, community gardeners at Rockaway Youth Task Force Urban Farm in Queens serve as champions of social change in their community by helping with voter registration and organizing town halls on important issues, such as the health risks of vaping.

In neighborhoods with few public parks, community gardens offer open space, greenery, and the joy and solace of community-cultivated natural settings. Many community gardens also foster civic engagement by providing space to organize for social justice and offering educational programming. In addition, community gardens help New Yorkers strengthen their connections to their cultural heritage by allowing them to plant traditional foods, engage in traditional agricultural practices, and gather in shared spaces.

Community gardens also contribute significantly to New York City’s sustainability efforts, providing ecosystem services such as flood mitigation, air filtration, heat reduction, and vital habitat for pollinators.

For decades, generations of New Yorkers have built and maintained community gardens, nurturing the benefits and values that gardens continue to provide today. With few legal protections, however, community gardens remain vulnerable to outside threats, such as development or construction on or near the gardens.

Critical Environmental Area Designation

CEA designation would provide much-needed legal protections for community gardens. Under the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), government agencies can designate specific areas as CEAs if they exhibit just one of the following characteristics:

  1. a benefit to human health;
  2. a natural setting;
  3. agricultural, social, cultural, historic, recreational, or educational values; or
  4. ecological or hydrological values that may be negatively affected by any change.

As shown through scientific research and borne out by gardeners’ own stories, community gardens satisfy all of these criteria.

Once an area achieves CEA status, agencies must evaluate the potential impact of certain actions — such as construction or development — on that area. An action that will impair the protected characteristics of a CEA is more likely to require an Environmental Impact Statement under SEQRA, meaning that an agency would create a written analysis of the action’s potential adverse effects, and members of the public would have an opportunity to weigh in by providing written comments or testifying at a public hearing. CEA designation would ensure that community gardens are at the forefront of environmental review, alerting community members to potential threats to these gardens before it is too late.

Pleasant Village Community Garden in Harlem.
Jeenah Moon for Earthjustice
Community gardeners have fought for years to protect Pleasant Village Community Garden in Harlem from development.

Legal Action: Our Petition

To achieve heightened legal protection for community gardens through CEA designation, our Petition requests:

  1. Within six months following the submission of this Petition, or by May 18, 2021, the Department of Parks and Recreation, Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and Department of Education designate forty specific community gardens located within their respective jurisdictions as Critical Environmental Areas.
  2. Within twelve months following the submission of the Petition, or by November 18, 2021, the Department of Parks and Recreation’s GreenThumb Program conduct an assessment of all community gardens on City-owned land and confirm, in consultation with community gardeners, that these gardens meet the regulatory criteria for CEA designation; and
  3. Within twelve months following the submission of the Petition, or by November 18, 2021, City agencies designate as CEAs all City-owned gardens within their respective jurisdictions that meet the regulatory criteria for CEA designation, based on GreenThumb’s assessment.
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Combined Sewer Outfalls 2019 Community gardens play important hydrological functions, alleviating both urban flooding and rainfall-related strains on the City’s sewer system.

Map of community gardens and combined sewer outfalls.

In urban areas covered with impervious surfaces such as concrete and asphalt, rainwater does not percolate into the soil. Instead, rainwater either flows off impervious surfaces as stormwater, flooding streets and low-lying areas, or discharges through pipes into nearby rivers. Stormwater runoff picks up pollutants from the streets, including oils, heavy metals, pathogens, and garbage.

In addition, in many parts of the City, stormwater discharge pipes are combined with sewer pipes carrying domestic waste from buildings. Thus, when these pipes overflow to waterbodies, they discharge human fecal waste and other domestic waste, along with stormwater and street pollutants.

These combined sewer overflows (CSOs) pose significant threats to public health and the environment. By 2030, DEP intends to divert 1.5 billion gallons per year of stormwater by increasing pervious surface areas and implementing rainwater capture systems. Community gardens can contribute significantly to attainment of this goal because their soil, porous pavements, and other permeable surfaces allow rainwater to percolate into the ground rather than running off.

In fact, community gardens already divert approximately eleven percent of DEP’s target. This contribution will be even more important in the future because climate change is expected to increase the severity of rainfall events and hasten sea level rise, further straining the City’s aging infrastructure.

As shown in this map, many of the gardens in this Petition and across the City are located in areas served by combined sewers.

Source N.Y.C. Dep’t of Envtl. Protection

Heat Vulnerability Index Many of the community gardens specifically identified in this Petition are located in areas where residents are at heightened risk of heat-related illness or death, according to data from the New York City Department of Health.

Map of community gardens and heat vulnerability index.

In 2018, the Department of Health assigned New York City neighborhoods a Heat Vulnerability Index (HVI) score from 1 (lowest risk of heat-related illness or death) to 5 (highest risk of heat-related illness or death), based on factors including the age and income of residents, the prevalence of home air conditioning, and access to greenspace.

The Lower East Side and portions of The Bronx have high HVI scores. This Petition specifically identifies thirty-one community gardens in these neighborhoods, all of which help to mitigate residents’ vulnerability to heat-related illnesses and death.

Protecting these and other community gardens through CEA designation will help New Yorkers withstand the dangerous consequences of climate change.

Source N.Y.C. Dep’t of Health

NYC FRESH (Food Retail Expansion to Support Health) Zoning City Planning has designated areas of The Bronx, the Lower East Side, and Brooklyn as neighborhoods with a significant shortage of grocery stores providing fresh food. In these neighborhoods, community gardens alleviate the disproportionate access to fresh, healthful food.

Map of community gardens and NYC FRESH zoning.

Source N.Y.C. Dep’t of City Planning

Unhealthy Food Access Areas of The Bronx, the Lower East Side, and Brooklyn, where many of the gardens in this Petition are concentrated, have significantly less access to fresh food than other neighborhoods.

Map of community gardens and unhealthy food access.

In 2016, the Department of Health calculated the ratio of bodegas to supermarkets in neighborhoods across New York City to assess access to fresh foods. The Department defined bodegas as food purchasing establishments with less than 4,000 square feet, excluding specialty stores, such as vitamin stores and bakeries. Supermarkets are retail food purchasing establishments with greater than or equal to 10,000 square feet or a chain supermarket name, regardless of size. A high ratio of bodegas to supermarkets indicates limited access to fresh, nutritious food.

Source N.Y.C. Dep’t of Health

Particulate Matter PM2.5 Community gardens benefit public health in a variety of ways, including by improving air quality and mitigating the effects of climate change. By supporting vegetation that filters particulate pollution from the air, community gardens improve air quality.

Map of community gardens and particulate matter PM2.5.

In New York City, exposure to particulate pollution from vehicles alone leads to an estimated 320 premature deaths each year, and Black and Latinx communities often experience the greatest harm. For instance, in The West Bronx, where ninety-nine percent of the population identifies as Black or Latinx, levels of particulate pollution from cars and trucks are 270 percent higher than the State average.

Community gardens, such as the Garden of Happiness in The West Bronx, can help to mitigate public health risks stemming from particulate pollution by filtering the air.

This map shows the average concentration of particulate matter in neighborhoods across New York City, based on 2018 data. To calculate these concentrations, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (Department of Health) developed a statistical model using air samples collected at specific Community Air Survey monitoring sites along with information about local emission sources.

Source N.Y.C. Dep’t of Health

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Read the Petition:

Rainbarrels and raised garden beds filled with green vegetation in the East 43 St. Community Garden in Brooklyn.
Sorangel Liriano / Earthjustice
At the East 43rd St. Community Garden in Brooklyn, students learn to grow healthful foods by helping to plant, water, and harvest fruits and vegetables.

How You Can Support New York City’s Community Gardens

Following the submission of the Petition, Earthjustice will continue to work with community gardeners to identify community gardens that satisfy the regulatory criteria for CEA status and ensure the City’s continued engagement with gardeners.

Community gardeners and community garden advocates interested in petitioning the City for CEA status for their garden can fill out our Community Garden CEA Criteria Assessment Form, and all can show their support by signing on to the Petition.

By protecting community gardens through CEA designation, New York City can help to ensure that the gardens continue to strengthen and transform neighborhoods for decades to come.

Resources

Community gardeners of New York City.

Meet Community Gardeners of New York City

Community gardeners from The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Harlem, and Lower Manhattan share what community gardens mean to them.

Cover of the Gardens Rising Feasibility Study.

Gardens Rising Feasibility Study

The Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery and NYCCGC formed a community-based sustainability and green infrastructure initiative to reduce flooding and provide ecological services on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Cover of the Money Does Grow on Trees.

Money Does Grow on Trees

Samuel S. T. Pressman and Raymond Figueroa, Jr. of the Pratt Institute Graduate Center For Planning & The Environment conducted an ecosystem services valuation of twenty-one community gardens in New York City and found that these gardens divert approximately $1,283,116 per year from the City’s overall energy and built infrastructure expenses.

Media Inquiries

Nydia Gutierrez Regional Strategist, Earthjustice
Liz Christy Community Garden in Manhattan.
Jeenah Moon for Earthjustice
New York City’s first officially recognized community garden, the Liz Christy Community Garden in Manhattan, now is included on the National Registry of Historic Places, as “a significant reminder of the vibrant community that grew out of the economically challenged and blighted East Village in the 1970s.”
From the Ground Up