Anna Ezzy: Defining Urban Agriculture Policy in NYC

The broad question “what are policy supports and barriers for urban gardeners to obtain healthy soils?” led me this summer to examine the ecosystem services and land distribution changes of community gardens in New York City as sites of transformative degrowth. I believe that a close look at the environmental science of community gardens paired with analysis of the economic adaptations of said gardens can guide us to questions of how gardens can best be supported at policy levels.

My research crafts around the idea that community gardens are an important component of degrowth. Degrowth as an eco-political theory contains several interpretations, those I am focusing on largely advocate systemic, structural change in order to address the large scale producers of climate change and directly challenge the theory of GDP growth. Agricultural systems are important candidates for degrowth. Howden (2010) argues agriculture can achieve the highest adaptive benefit through ‘transformational adaptation,’ highlighting landuse or land distribution change as a particular form of transformation (as cited in Rickards & Howden, 2015). In the city, land use is highly relevant to community gardens as sites of degrowth, as the form of policy protection for community garden land is to transfer their land to the NYC Parks Department and have community gardeners sign a lease with the Parks Department for access to their gardens. My research in this area is asking what are the best ways to support democracy for urban gardeners in decisions surrounding their farmed land. I am looking to other US cities, such as San Francisco and Cleveland, which have defined more specific land use categories of urban or neighborhood gardens.

Figure from Howden (2010) showing varying levels of adaptation in agriculture.

I believe degrowth in urban areas is already taking place in urban gardens and my research intends to outline this. During a class visit to Rise and Root farm in Orange County, New York, I was able to speak with Karen Washington, board member and former president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, about power and urban gardening. She emphasized to me that every person–farmer and consumer–has power to exercise in their food systems. I connected with the idea of democracy that this point emphasizes about the food system and I want to continue my research into city policy as a means to reinforce this democracy and not limit it.

Rise and Root farm in Orange County, NY, visited on Aug 2.

I was able to visit a site of NYC policy supporting urban gardens, an NYC compost project hosted by Big Reuse facility in Queens. Started by the Western Queens Compost Coalition, this site collects scraps from individuals and organizations but not restaurants. Wood chips, an important carbon input for compost, are sourced primarily from cemeteries, a representative from this site said. Compost is distributed for free to schools, community gardens, essentially anyone who is not using it just in their backyard. This example of collaboration between city departments as well as the sources and end points for the compost are important trails to trace for my research.

BigReuse resulted from a collaboration between NYC Department of Sanitation and NYC Parks Department. The facility distributes compost to community gardens and schools, anyone besides an individual.

When I visited East New York Farms, a community organization based in Brooklyn, I got to hear about their non-government compost distributions. A representative spoke to me about an emerging soil program which mixes ENYF compost with soil, creating 38 additional garden beds in the community so far. ENYF also manages a farmer’s market, where home gardeners can sell their fresh fruits and vegetables to the public. I want to explore how the fostering of community power which ENYF demonstrates provides a model for future policy.

East New York Farms UCC Youth Farm site, an educational production farm in Brooklyn.

I look forward to further outlining how community gardens are sites of transformational degrowth and how policy can further support democracy in urban food systems.

Rickards L., Howden S. M., Transformational adaptation: agriculture and climate change.  Crop & Pasture Science, 63, 240–250.