abandoned lots scattered over 5 borroughs of New York City
New York City

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type of use
Penny Herscovitch

operating cost
$1 USD per year per plot

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submitted by
tashy endres
submitted on

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web links

Community Gardens

City Farmers of New York

time frame: Duration of Use
as long as 25-30 years; average of 9 years as of 1998

Start Date

End Date

initiators: Self-organized neighborhood groups

users: Local residents, open to general public

municipal role: landowner; Parks Department runs Operation Green Thumb, which leases land and supports gardeners, Department of Housing Preservation and Development wants to take back many of the lots for development

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More than 750 community gardens currently exist in New York City, on sites that were once abandoned lots, which since the 1970s have been transformed by neighborhood residents. Most lease the land from the City on a short-term basis for $1USD per annum as part of Operation Green Thumb, although a growing number have been permanently preserved as City parks or through land grants.

garden; community gathering place; recreation and arts

sweat equity, scavanged, donated and borrowed soil, plants, gardening equipment and planters; $4.2 million USD in May 1999 to buy and permanently preserve over 150 lots from the City

Temporary users
800+ community gardens in NYC since 1970s
currently 750+ gardens in existence (650+ officially according to Green Thumb)
nearly 20,000 garden members (avg 10-20 per garden)

varies widely depending on the garden, from 10 per garden up to 1,000+ per garden, in Brooklyn and Manhattan


Community gardens have been cultivated on vacant lots in New York City since the government initiated Depression era relief gardens and the WWII Victory gardens, but the first user-initiated gardens began to spring up in the 1970s. During this era, fiscal crisis lead to urban decay, landlord disinvestment and abandonment, and the City-owned vacant lots, filled with junk, weeds and rubble from burnt-out buildings, became magnets for drugs, prostitution and crime. In 1973, the Green Guerillas, a self-organized group of local residents and artists, responded by cleaning up and planting the first community garden in an abandoned lot in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Their project inspired other garden takeovers on vacant land in the Lower East Side and other underdeveloped, poor areas. In 1978, the City established Operation Green Thumb, which continues to lease plots to gardeners for $1 per year. While the gardeners were no longer squatting and their efforts were legitimated, the leases were temporary and gardeners had to vacate the lot within 30 days if the city selected the land for development. In 1983 the City began to issue 5 and 10 year leases to gardens whose lots were worth less that $20,000. At least half of the gardens have been in danger of destruction since 1996, when the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) announced its intention to bulldoze gardens and use the lots to develop low and moderate income housing. In response, Earth Celebrations and the NYC Community Garden Coalition held a rally with more than 300 participants, while non-profit greening groups, including the Green Guerillas and Trust for Public Land (TPL), started working with Green Thumb to preserve the more established gardens as Parks Department land or as part of a land trust. In May 1999, just before the Giuliani administration was to auction off 112 of the community gardens, well-known actress Bette Midler's New York Restoration Project paid $1.2 million USD for dozens of less desirable parcels, and the Trust for Public Land bought the 63 remaining parcels for $3 million. A holding order, preventing construction on most of the gardens, was placed in 2000 and the current Bloomberg administration is attempting to resolve the issue with a compromise, developing some but not all of the 400+ endangered gardens.


a) Description of Location, Site and Building

The 750+ community gardens are scattered across all 5 borroughs of NYC, with higher concentrations of gardens in the traditionally disadvantaged, underdeveloped neighborhoods of the Lower East Side, the South Bronx and East Harlem in Manhattan and East New York in Brooklyn. Most gardens are located on abandoned plots of lands that had devolved to City ownership, and are under 4,050 square meters (1 acre). As of 1999, 54 gardens city-wide were in the process of being transferred to the Parks Department and as of 2002, 63 have been permanently preserved as part of a TPL land trust.

b) Description of users and use

Garden members generally live in the neighborhood, although people from all parts of the city and tourists from around the country and the world are attracted to the activities and impressive floral vistas that the gardens offer. Community gardens bring together users from an incredibly diverse cross section of the city, from all age groups, economic backgrounds and ethnicities.

In addition to growing ornamental trees and flowers and subsistence fruits and vegetables, gardens have become important neighborhood spaces for socialization, entertainment and education. Activities that take place in gardens include: community meetings, weddings and parties, workshops and performances, childrenÂ’s programs, nature education and recycling, and sports and fitness.

c) Desciption of spatial and time patterns of use

According to the requirements for participation in the Green Thumb program, a garden must be open at least 5 hours per week, although some are open seven days a week from dawn to dusk. According to a survey conducted in 1998 by the NY State Senate, at that time community gardens were on average nine years old, with some gardens in existence longer than twenty years.

Gardens vary widely in their size and spatial layout, but it is common for a garden to have a public sitting area along with distinct individual plots tended by members. Additional features include playgrounds, pavilions, water features, picnic tables, war memorials, exhibitions and murals.

d) Benefits and conflicts for the different parties involved
+ Green Thumb provides assistance and practically free lots for gardens
+ green space within walking distance of their homes
+ low cost, fresh fruit and vegetable supplement to diets
+ formation of social network with neighbors
- no long term, secure guarantee of right to use land

+ vacant, derelict lots are transformed into safe, green attractive spaces at no or relatively small cost to city
- HPD cannot develop land for needed low income housing or auction it to developers for income without protest and bad public relations

- two positive social causes, community green space and low income housing, are pitted against each other

e) Effect for the neighboorhood/ overall city

The community gardens have served as catalysts of community development, as the groups formed over gardens proceed to fix schools and housing, create jobs and serve other community needs. At the same time as being victims of gentrification and rising land values, it has been argued that the gardens also have the unintentional negative impact of contributing to gentrification, the displacement of the poor and working class as the neighborhood is physically improved and the market drives up rents and cost of living. Overall, the gardens have a vastly positive impact on the neighborhood and the city, adding scenic beauty and green oasises to the cityscape. They provide desperately needed open space in a city where two thirds of the districts fall below the NYC standard of 10117.1 square meters (2.5 acres) of open space per 1000 people, and about half of the districts have less than 6,070 square meters (1.5 acres) of open space per 1000 people.

Related Nationwide Trends

Seattle, Washington was first US city to incorpotate policy regarding community gardens into its General Plan and at least five other US cities have since followed suit. Nationwide, organizations like the American Community Garden Association and the Trust for Public Land support efforts and push for policy to promote community gardens and public greenspace.

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legal: renters from City

Garden in NYC

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