Community
gardens are nothing new in the United States: there is a long
tradition that began during the world wars and the Great Depression,
when community gardening participation became almost universal. “Victory gardens” flourished during the second world war and provided a way for communities to produce food in times of crisis. As the United States recovered from
war, community gardens diminished in number, but they made a comeback
in the early 1970s when food prices increased and an environmental
consciousness arose.

The
Garden and Greening Programme was established by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) in 1963 to
beautify residences, educate the population and support residents
interested in gardening. At the beginning, the authority distributed
flyers inviting tenants to garden and a contest was organised. The
initiative was warmly welcomed and 105 gardens were planted in over
65 NYCHA developments.

Urban
agriculture initiatives – in particular, community gardens – are strongly supported by the association to this day, despite
its difficult economic situation. The benefits that gardening
activities provide for these communities are seen to be worth the
extra effort and resources required to implement them.

Many
academics have focused on the motives that drive people to
participate in a community garden. The most common are health
benefits, access to food, neighbourhood beautification and social
interactions. These are
the main reasons behind the creation of NYCHA gardens – and
they are the motivations that drive gardeners in the Garden of
Eden
.

Garden
of Eden is a community garden on the grounds of one of NYCHA’s
housing developments in Fort Greene, a neighbourhood in the
northwestern part of Brooklyn. Today, Fort Greene is an effervescent
neighbourhood that attracts artists inspired by the many cultural
facilities the area offers. It has a rich and well-preserved history,
and a large African-American community whose roots go back to the
beginning of the 19th century.

At
that time the Brooklyn Navy Yard, once the largest naval construction
facility in the United States, opened its doors and provided
opportunities for skilled workers. By the 1870s, more than half of
the African-American population of Brooklyn lived in this
neighbourhood, alongside Irish, German and English immigrants.

During
the second world war, the Brooklyn Navy Yard increased its workforce, and in
1944 NYCHA built two public housing developments for the wartime
workforce: the Raymond V Ingersoll houses and the Walt Whitman houses. These high-rise developments occupied 38 acres, 20% of the
neighbourhood, and accommodated 14,000 people in 3,500 units. In 1966, however, the shutdown of the Navy Yard
left many residents unemployed.

The Garden of Eden community project in Brooklyn, New York.
The New York City Housing Authority owns the land where the Garden of Eden is based, giving the project security and continuity. Photograph: Peggy Truong

In
2004, the Fort Greene area was “re-zoned” to retain jobs that were
at risk of leaving the city. Since then, it has been undergoing a
quick transformation – including the development of new, luxury,
highrise residential buildings. Another consequence of the re-zoning
was the loss of local affordable commercial retail space, as local
small business owners and low- and moderate-income consumers have
been excluded while national chain retailers have been encouraged to
move in.

In
this context, the contribution of local non-profit organisations is
very important to address local needs. The Myrtle Avenue
Revitalization Project
(Marp) is a non-profit established in 1999
that aims to restore the economic vitality of Myrtle Avenue, one of
the main streets of Fort Greene. The Ingersoll and Walt Whitman houses stretch along Myrtle Avenue for nearly a kilometre, so Marp
has offered a lot of support to these residents since its beginnings.
In 2009, the lack of affordable and fresh food in the area arose as a
crucial issue. The residents came up with the idea of gardening to
tackle this shortage.

A
group of six African-American women, supported by Meredith Phillips
Almeida, deputy director at Marp, approached NYCHA with the idea of
creating a community garden at the Ingersoll houses. The proposal for
the Garden of Eden was approved, and NYCHA
leases the space to the gardeners, who must renew the contract
every year.

The garden has been very successful, expanding every year to satisfy the high demand for gardening
space from the NYCHA residents. The gardeners grow both flowers and
vegetables, beautifying their neighbourhood while also enjoying fresh produce. The garden started with eight
planting boxes and now has 40, plus a long waiting list that continues
to grow. This spring, NYCHA and the residents have started a new garden
at the Ingersoll houses to satisfy demand.

According
to Ferris, Norman and Sempik (2001), “What distinguishes a
community garden from a private garden is the fact that it is in some
sense a public garden in terms of ownership, access and degree of
democratic control.” It involves the convergence of multiple
individuals joining together in diverse settings to grow food, among
other things.

Garden
of Eden is a good example of how a community initiative can thrive on multiple partnerships. Besides NYCHA and Marp support,

Garden
of Eden has benefited from several grants provided by Citizens
Committee for New York City
(CCNYC), one of the oldest micro-funding
organisations in New York City. CCNYC conducts workshops and awards
micro-grants to resident-led groups to support their neighbourhood improvement initiatives. In 2012, Garden of Eden received a
grant that helped with the expansion of the garden as well as the purchase of a compost barrel. In 2013, the gardeners
applied again, helped by Marp, and with that grant installed an
irrigation system.

To better understand the success of Garden of Eden in its
first four years, social, economic and institutional
indicators should all be taken into account. The
social dimension plays a crucial role in the garden’s success: one of the indicators that measures this
social aspect is diversity. The many
stakeholders involved have strengthened the
community garden by contributing to the decision-making process. The gardeners embody the diversity of the community, encompassing people
of African American, Bangladeshi and Chinese descent and all
different age groups. The rich variety of vegetable crops and flowers
grown by the members reflects, in some cases, their cultural
preferences.

[embedded content]

Garden of Eden project, Brooklyn, New York

Another
social indicator of its success is the active participation of the gardeners. Over
the four years, trusting
relationships have been developed, creating a strong network between
the gardeners and the institutions involved. NYCHA’s close support of the gardeners
has contributed to increase “social
capital”, defined by trust, cooperation, reciprocity and networks.
Many academics have analysed how community greening creates human, natural,
physical and financial capital – which together lead to social
capital.

The
economic dimension is also crucial to the success and longevity of the
initiative. Diversity is key here: the several sources
of economic support greatly improve the
chances that Garden of Eden will successfully continue in the
future. Each of the institutions involved supports the
initiative in different ways: while CCNYC provides the gardeners with
grants, NYCHA and Marp contributions are focused mainly on providing
services for the gardeners, such as an annual award or
skill-building workshops.

Another
important economic indicator is the security of land tenure, which is
one of the biggest challenges that urban agriculture initiatives face. The fact that NYCHA owns the land
gives sufficient stability to the garden and ensures its continuation
and even its expansion, planned for next year.

Finally,
the institutional dimension can
be measured by looking at the capacity for self-organisation and
leadership among the gardeners. Learning by themselves how to grow food,
establish participatory rules, organise activities and advocate with
city government – as well as having a clear leader – strengthens the community, and thus
contributes to the resilience of the Garden of Eden.

This
is an edited extract from CITIES Foundation’s new book, We
Own The City: Enabling Community Practice in Architecture and Urban
Planning,
published by Trancity/Valiz and launching from Amsterdam on 27 May. Read more of the book here