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November 18, 2020

NYC Community Garden Coalition, Earthjustice, and Fifty-Two Groups Petition City

Community gardens contribute a host of important environmental and social benefits for New York City but currently remain vulnerable to development

Contacts

Raymond Figueroa, Jr., NYC Community Garden Coalition, rfiguero@pratt.edu

Nydia Gutierrez, Earthjustice, ngutierrez@earthjustice.org

New York, NY

Today, the New York City Community Garden Coalition (NYCCGC), environmental law organization Earthjustice, and 52 allied groups (Petitioners) submitted “From the Ground Up: A Petition to Protect New York City’s Community Gardens,” urging New York City government agencies to provide greater legal protections to community gardens.

New York City’s over 550 community gardens are greenspaces designed and maintained by City residents, making them uniquely responsive to neighborhood needs. In neighborhoods underserved by public parks, community gardens offer open space, greenery, and the joy and solace of community-cultivated natural settings. Across the City, community gardens foster civic engagement and reflect the diverse social and cultural values of their neighborhoods and gardeners. 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.

In addition, community gardens help to confront public health disparities caused by racial and socioeconomic injustice. Historically marginalized Black and Latinx communities often have limited access to fresh food, resulting in the increased incidence of diet-related health problems. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these communities experienced some of the highest rates of infection and death. Ninety percent of Bronx residents who died from COVID-19 had at least one underlying health condition tied to poor diet, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. New York City’s community gardens help to combat public health disparities by expanding access to fresh fruits and vegetables, providing educational programming to share information about nutritious cooking, and promoting physical activity through gardening.

Even though community gardens provide critical benefits to their neighborhoods — at essentially no cost to taxpayers — they have few legal protections, and many struggle to survive in the face of competing land interests, such as construction and development projects.

“For our diverse communities throughout the City, the heart and soul of this petition is to be found in our community gardens. When our communities were abandoned by the City, it was, and still is, through spontaneous acts of faith in one another that we came together to reclaim our communities and honor our sense of human dignity,” said Raymond Figueroa, Jr., President of the NYC Community Garden Coalition. “It is through the cultivation of the soil as a collective in our community gardens that we are cultivating and re-affirming our cultural sense of community. It is in the harvesting of the flowers and the food as a collective that we share the blessings of beauty, health, and healing in our lives. When we’re in our community gardens, we freely breathe the fresh air that’s been purified by the plants and trees, and our spirits are renewed by the energy field of love we call Mother Earth.”

To preserve and protect community gardens, Petitioners are requesting that New York City agencies designate City-owned community gardens as Critical Environmental Areas (CEAs) under the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). Currently, there is only one CEA in New York City: Jamaica Bay in Queens.

CEA designation will help to ensure that projects and activities likely to affect community gardens are subject to consistent and rigorous environmental review that accounts for their exceptional characteristics and provides ample opportunities for public participation. CEA designation of community gardens represents a significant step toward recognizing and preserving community gardens as critical parts of the City’s landscape. Equally important, by designating gardens as CEAs, the City would acknowledge community gardeners as stewards of sustainability and resilience and ensure that they have a meaningful — and necessary — voice in any future decision-making processes that could affect community gardens. 

SEQRA regulations authorize agencies to designate specific areas as CEAs if they exhibit at least 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 disturbances. 

Backed by scientific research and personal narratives from community gardeners, like those highlighted on our Meet Community Gardeners of New York City webpage, the Petition makes clear that community gardens satisfy all four criteria, thereby warranting CEA designation. 

“For decades, community gardeners have benefitted New Yorkers by increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables, strengthening social and cultural connections, and supporting healthy urban habitat for pollinators and other wildlife,” said Alexis Andiman, an attorney with Earthjustice. “It’s time for New York City to return the favor by working with gardeners to secure the protections that gardens so richly deserve.”

The Petition makes the following three legal requests:

  • First, City agencies with jurisdiction over forty community gardens identified in the Petition designate those City-owned gardens as CEAs under SEQRA within six months following the submission of the Petition, or by May 18, 2021;
  • Second, 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 remaining community gardens on City-owned land and confirm, in consultation with community gardeners, that these gardens meet the regulatory criteria for CEA designation; and
  • Third, Within twelve months following the submission of the Petition, or by November 18, 2021, City agencies designate as CEAs all gardens within their respective jurisdictions that meet the regulatory criteria for CEA designation, based on GreenThumb’s assessment, in consultation and coordination with community gardeners.

New York City’s community gardens strengthen their neighborhoods in significant ways. NYCCGC, Earthjustice, and 52 allied groups are petitioning City agencies to preserve community gardens and to recognize the contributions of dedicated gardeners to their communities.

“Our community gardens are oases for the soul as well as the body — and they are needed now in these times of crisis more than ever before. That’s what this petition is all about — the respect for our Mother Earth and the preservation of our community gardens and of all our life-affirming relationships — social, ecological, cultural, terrestrial, and spiritual,” said Raymond Figueroa, Jr., President of the NYC Community Garden Coalition.

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.