Saturday, November 8, 2008

Community Garden Parks

I think this recent post by the Flatbush Gardener is a valuable read. In it he defines 3 types of garden spaces: park, community garden, and urban farm. He discusses the cooptation of certain community gardens by corporate, wealthy enterprises such as the New York Restoration Project and Target Corporation.

From the NYRP website:
Garden Restoration and Management
Community garden restoration is one of the most creative and effective things we do to revitalize under served communities. NYRP secures funding from corporate and private donors to restore and endow our community gardens, and then engages leading architectural and landscape designers to transform them into community treasures (click here for NYRP garden designers). With participation, guidance, and input from community gardeners, schools, and organizations, our designers develop appropriate, innovative, and environmentally friendly designs to meet the community's immediate and future needs. Once a garden restoration is completed, NYRP commits resources for its permanent stewardship, providing ongoing support to community gardeners, including design consultation, technical assistance, garden materials, volunteers, community outreach, and educational and cultural programming. We also provide a dedicated horticulture team, carpentry, and crews that help with garden maintenance and local residents serve their community as garden managers.

I am most interested in the community garden plots listed that do not have designers. In other words, plots that have been designed by the people who use them. These plots have gone under the least drastic changes under the NYRP. Most often I cannot see much difference between the before and after. Sometimes I like the look of the before more than the after. Many of the designer gardens were drastically altered to offer some grand spaces. But these changes do not always say "community garden" to me. Check out these Brooklyn alterations.

In my opinion:

The wealthy class sees landscape as a stage for genteel activity. Unkempt land is targeted for "improvement." This has long been the rule for land use. Community gardens, in my experience, spring from a set of conditions that set them at odds with these ideals. While community gardeners do aim to improve the land, the form with which this takes place is different-the gardeners' perspective is different.
What inspires a community garden? Certainly a set of conditions must exist.
  • land disuse
  • free time
  • need for fresh vegetables
  • desire to interact with natural processes
  • desire to come together with a community
  • desire to improve community

Maybe there are more conditions, but this list touches on it. When I look at community gardens I see a wild growth, disarray even, bounded often by timber, stone, or brick frameworks. There are grass, dirt, brick, or chip paths. Often found items are incorporated into the landscape. People are actively involved in the landscape, working or hanging out.

It seems to me that these community-come-designer gardens confer upon these landscape spaces the dictum of an aesthetic formality, a genteel order and other issues. The design defines the work so that the worker is more often catering to its aesthetics than tending to vegetables. Design often cares little for people or rather, it asks us to bend to it. Is there space for drinking beer? Can large groups congregate. Where can we BBQ? I found this object, where can I put it? My vegetables sprawl, is there room for this? Where can we compost? These are the questions of a community gardener.

A new thought. People are more and more interested in actively participating in natural processes, involved in "nature." I wonder aloud then about the idea that parks, defined by the Flatbush Gardener as "green spaces open to the public, but not cared for by them," could be expanded to include green spaces open to the public and cared for by them. Would it not be better to incorporate into governmental agency the notion that green spaces are important, that activity connecting us with natural processes is a valuable component of civic life? This idea over the incorporation of our community landscape spaces into private, wealthy institutions? When these institutions become parent to these spaces, it will be difficult to extricate their expectations from community needs.

What we need is to express the enormous value of being human in a landscape that allows us involvement with natural processes. What community gardens seem least interested in are the formal rules designed for wealthy institutions. If a neighborhood has so changed, that the garden space has simply become an expression of its wealth, then so be it. But I would like to foster the idea that people have a need to interact with these natural processes. That involvement with the work of a garden is a good thing. That work is not a negative. That we should be proud of our work. And why cannot a park be a place that we come together to do this work? When I hear the word "recreation" there is no other thing that comes to mind than garden work. Re-creation. Doesn't sound like jet-skiing to me. Aren't parks for recreation?

So I imagine that future parks could be designed to include human participation. An abstraction, yes, from our original habitat, but important -even in its abstraction. As we design more parks around our new reality- ecological niches, but with less money for park development, could we not include adults or groups of school children to do a lot of the hand-work? The benefits of this are huge. Would it not be something to say this is our garden?


  1. An excellent example of a community garden succeeding as a "park", but not one by my definition, is the Narrows Botanical Gardens in Bay Ridge. Because community volunteers are responsible for its operation and upkeep, it is a community garden, even though it does not have areas devoted to food production.

  2. Hm. As a garden designer and hence the devil (?)...I say, well, there's good design and bad design. Bad design leaves out a space for beer drinking and vegetable sprawl.

  3. I think I rattled on about alot of things in this post, but my main points were in response to Flatbush Gardeners post about the Target redesign of the Bedford Ave. community garden where the sense of the original "community" garden appears to have been consumed by its "restoration."
    I would rather see these community landscapes stay community-oriented in their design so that they may develop their own special character grown out of the handy-work of its gardeners.

    I am not against design, and designers are not the devil (so not what I think), but it does seem an imposition of that designer's ideas (or his responsibility to his patron) on the community it is supposed to serve.

    The character of the Target Garden and a few others is so different from the gardens without designers under the NYRP. By all means there is room for designers, but maybe less so where the central appeal is the vernacular, multiple perspectives of a community site.

    My point about beer and sprawl is central to a redesign that prescribes passive enjoyment over active involvement. The Target redesign incorporates primarily a lawn and seating areas into the space. I can imagine talk of bbq and tossing a ball on the lawn, but when I look at the photos it seems largely for sitting and looking. I can easily imagine the eerie computer-generated people standing and sitting in the marketing image.
    The gardening work is relegated to mowing and clipping, the kind of maintenance I associate with estates and campuses. It removes the life of gardening from the garden. An yes, for me, gardening is about the activity of gardening. I will admit that I do not know if this is true for all community gardeners, but I am willing to go out on this limb and say that it may be for many. Without the exploration of gardening in the garden, we are less invested in the place and its life. The garden becomes a yard, a stage for other activities maybe, and this is not the worst. But it is different.

  4. No, I agree with you entirely about a community garden being about gardening. My devil comment was meant with a smile.

  5. The Comments Intention Gap:)


If I do not respond to your comment right away, it is only because I am busy pulling out buckthorn, creeping charlie, and garlic mustard...