Several New York City Community Gardens At Risk of Closure

A new financial agreement puts garden managers in a tough financial spot

By Andy Hirschfeld

In October, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation put out a new licensing agreement for its community garden program in an attempt to reduce costs operational costs for the city. But gardeners and watchdogs believe the new agreement is unreasonable and could pose enough of a financial burden to close some gardens altogether. 

Community gardens have served a role in cities across the country to bring communities together and create a healthier lifestyle. Jennifer Macksoud is a member of a local community garden in Vinegar Hill, in Brooklyn. Originally it was a way for her to get involved with the community but it quickly grew from there. “It’s hard to meet people in New York City and getting involved in the garden helped me meet people I wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to,” says Macksoud. In her community garden, volunteers are growing a pomegranate tree which has grown surprisingly well given the climate of New York City. “The outdoor space helps people understand where their food comes from and maybe they start making better food choices.” Macksoud says. “It makes it more of the norm if you have food growing around you.” 

Community leaders like Aziz Dehkan, executive director of New York City Community Garden Coalition, a watchdog group that represents all New York’s volunteer community garden managers, are concerned that the city’s new rules are making it harder and harder for gardeners to grow low-cost fresh food for themselves.  

Under the new agreement, the city requires each community garden team — which are all volunteer-run — to keep sidewalks, passageways, and curbs shoveled during winter.  New York City’s otherwise rigid snow and ice rules require landlords —which in this case is the parks department — to take on this task.  The agreement also transfers liability for personal injury to the volunteer gardeners.

The Parks Department says that as of February 10, 307 community gardens have signed the agreement. As for the others, “our outreach indicates that about half of the unsigned gardens are simply late in coming in, rather than holding out for a license renegotiation,” says Dan Kastanis, press officer for New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. “We expect to have at least half of these licenses in the near term.” 

Dehkan says many individual garden managers are signing the license out of a fear that if they don’t sign the agreement, they will lose their chance to garden. “Many gardens have signed because they just want to garden and to get their projects… but can you seriously believe that those unsigned are finalizing documentation or coming in late? 

“Those will remain unsigned until there are changes made,” says Dekhan, who has been meeting  with the garden managers across the city that he represents. The Parks Department however is increasing the number fundraising opportunities for gardens to meet up their costs. Past fundraising events have included BBQs and other garden parties. At the same time the city is trying to limit the kind of fundraisers gardens can have. The decision was in response to a fire at one of the city’s gardens.

According to the agreement, gardens can hold two fundraisers each per year to support the gardens’ maintenance and operations, which can run at an average of $1000 per person annually. These funds otherwise come out of the pockets of unpaid volunteers some of which are socio-economically disadvantaged communities where many residents can’t spare a dime beyond their basic expenses.  

In October, thirteen political leaders including U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D), Rep. Jerry Nadler (D)  and Carolyn Maloney (D) sent a letter to Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver urging him to negotiate the terms of the agreement with garden managers.

Protesters also took to City Hall, which helped raise the issue’s profile. But Dekhan says decent action has yet to be taken. The New York City Community Garden Coalition is asking for the city to fund a $500,000 liability insurance policy to take the risk off people who just want to garden. They also want the city to take up their fare share and shovel the sidewalks in the public domain. The New York City Community Garden Coalition will be taking their proposal to the parks department in the coming weeks.

By Andy Hirschfeld
Andy Hirschfeld is a New York based multimedia journalist. He’s a contributing writer to numerous publications including The New York Observer, The Daily Dot, Bloomberg, Christian Science Monitor, OZY, Fortune, and Mic among others. He’s the author of Stolen Dignity: An Expose of The Troubled Teen Industry. Previously he’s produced and reported for ABC, CBS, and CNN. Follow on Twitter at @andyreports