From being labelled as an ‘urban jungle’ in the 1960s to being called the city with the largest number of community gardens, New York has certainly come a long way. These gardens occupy over 100 acres of open public space in the city. The word “radical” was derived from the Latin word “radix,” meaning “root”.The underlying question is, what provoked this change? Was it the doing of a solitary initiative or was it conceived in the form of a huge revolution? When were the first seeds of radical gardening sown? What ideas were rooted in the practice of radical gardening?
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, New York was characterized by arrays of blocks and buildings. It lacked green spaces and was mostly dominated by abandoned buildings. The sharp economic decline and mass migration to the suburbs exacerbated its overall condition. Life was sucked out of it. This phase of New York was called “the urban decay”. Mass disinvestment, abandonment, environmental deterioration, and burning down of buildings in low-income neighbourhoods ruined its charm. Issues of racism and social fragmentation were evident through the establishment of a marginalized zone called the redlined zone. Bedford-Stuyvesant was one of the most heavily redlined communities in the country. This zone was devoid of green spaces and hence 2.6℃ warmer than the rest of the city.
One Hattie Carthan, 64, an environmental and community advocate, sowed the first seeds of community gardening and urban gardening. She moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn in 1953 when trees at least dotted the streets. 1964 saw only four trees standing against the whirlwind of poverty, neglect, and racial injustice. She intended to transform this urban decay into lively green spaces. She was one of the first African-American community leaders to bring about this change through grassroots environmental activism. When she started, she had no one to financially support this movement, people lacked the desire and were wound up in their problems. Others thought she was an old woman on a mission to fulfil her whims and fancies, totally oblivious that she was only trying to help revive the city that belonged to others. She availed the tree-matching program which involved the Park Department offering her six trees for every four trees planted. She assembled kids to help her with this initiative. The team was called Green Corps which involved only local kids and grew from 3 to 30. She also started the Green Guerillas in 1974 that used simple tactics such as throwing water balloons filled with seeds into abandoned spaces.
Following this, Bed-Stuy had almost 1500 trees in less than a decade- ginkgos, sycamores, honey locusts, and others that thrived well in Brooklyn’s urban climate. She was designated “the tree lady of Brooklyn” and played a crucial role in the conservation of the Magnolia Grandiflora tree in Bed-Stuy in 1969 which was almost a century old. Its existence was threatened by the plans of creating a parking lot for an apartment complex. Soon after, it was given a city living historical landmark status. Indelible contributions were made by her towards the revitalization of Bed-Stuy. She turned three brownstones into the Magnolia Tree Earth Center on September 18, 1980. This center had nature programs for school children, summer work-study, programs for seniors, a vegetable garden, a research library, and even on-the-job training. It was considered an environmental education institute. Her love for nature made her an activist.
“We’ve already lost too many trees, houses, and people…your community – you owe something to it. I didn’t care to run.” – Hattie Carthan
In 1973, Liz Christy aimed to “regreen the unloved parts of the city”. She led the group- Green Guerillas. They used seed bombs to grow green patches since they didn’t have legal access to the spaces. Seed bombs, that explode to infuse life into the abandoned voids and hollow branches of the city. They started the practice of leasing land for $1. In 1973 she led the creation of Bowery-Houston Community Farm and Garden. She offered technical assistance and training to around 700 community gardens in New York and disseminated it to other cities as well. Between 1974 and 1981 she hosted a radio program called “Grow Your Own” to create awareness about urban forestry, community gardens, community design and planning, and the environment. Around 1000 community gardens were established by 1985.
Advocates of green spaces are investing their time and energy in rebuilding community spaces because trees cleanse the air, provide shade during summers, their roots improve groundwater quality, and the leaves and branches prevent storm runoff. These benefits in addition to the aesthetic appeal add to its value. According to a study, a property’s value with trees is 11% more than its actual value. Hence, green neighbourhoods are relatively more expensive to live in. Bed-Stuy’s Hattie Carthan Community Garden and Farmer’s Market are well-known community gardens. The Farmer’s Market serves as a platform for buying and selling food and engaging in educational, spiritual, musical, artistic, and cultural programs.
How does this practice further affect people, places, and the planet? It is done by the people, for the people. The positive impact gets extrapolated to the neighbourhood, city, country, and the planet. The benefits are intricately interwoven and promote community cohesion and health. Cities blooming with green landscapes ensure efficient use of land and mitigate environmental crises. Social, environmental and economic benefits make it a versatile substitute for abandoned lots. It is a “between local and global” movement which implies that it is a universal solution to issues associated with unused land parcels. They enhance the quality of public spaces to ameliorate the public realm. A crucial takeaway from this would be that we should take responsibility for our planet and engage in small acts that benefit the people and the environment, while we have the time and resources. So let’s get inspired by the environmental advocates of New York and take small steps to move closer towards our larger goal.
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