Community Empowerment Through Public Garden Outreach

Ellen Kirby

Director, Brooklyn GreenBridge

Brooklyn Botanic Garden,

Brooklyn, New York USA

Home | Contents | Introduction | Horticulture Transforms Lives | How Program Began | Examples | Methods of Education | Collaboration |


There is a story that points to a common truth in the life of urban gardeners. It is told that a group of people in New York City were starting a community garden. Long barren, the hard packed soil needed deep cultivation to loosen and break it up. When the gardeners dug down about ten feet, their shovels began to bring up bricks. Looking deep into the hole, they saw people far below them walking along a train platform. The gardeners had dug right through the brick roof of a subway station!

Indeed, the story is not that far fetched from those we hear from the nearly 400 community gardens in Brooklyn, home of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden out of which a new program of community horticulture has grown since 1993. People in our city long for green space in their neighborhoods but they are confronted by rubble filled lots, vandalism, poor or contaminated soil, limited access to plants and trees and difficult watering conditions.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a 52 acre oasis in the middle of the largest of New York City's five boroughs. With nearly 2.5 million people, living in some of the densest urban neighborhoods in the world, in the American city with the least open space, this setting presents a huge challenge for a botanic garden to be more than a living museum. With a very high visitorship to our botanic garden, in fact we are the fourth most visited cultural institution in the city of New York, our leadership determined that there is so much more we could do if the resources of the botanic garden were extended to the neighborhoods.

Aptly named Brooklyn GreenBridge at the suggestion of our Vice President for Science, Dr. Steven Tim, this program's primary goal is to strengthen the quality of life for Brooklyn's neighborhoods and residents through horticulture. We believe, in fact, we know that communities can be empowered through horticultural activities. Around something so basic as watering street trees, composting yard waste, planting vegetables in a community garden, teaching youth about wildlife in the garden, neighbors get to know each other, neighbors look out for each other, neighbors enjoy life on their block more and neighbors learn to fight for other essential improvements in their quality of life.


Horticulture Transforms Lives

Our efforts at Brooklyn Botanic Garden were inspired by community leaders like Mrs. Hattie Carthan, depicted on this mural beside the Magnolia Tree Earth Center. Mrs. Carthan, the daughter of freed slaves, is like multitudes of Brooklyn residents who have immigrated to crowded urban conditions from more rural roots. As she witnessed the gradual deterioration of the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn where in less than ten years only three trees were left to shade her block , she started a campaign to protect a rare southern magnolia grandiflora on the next block. This tree, which has now been declared a national treasure, was threatened by plans to demolish the building that protected it from cold winter winds. By saving one tree and getting the city and others to plant hundreds of new trees and start community gardens, a renewed sign of dignity developed in Bedford Stuyvesant.

Since that time new community leaders have emerged and our GreenBridge program is working with them to transform rubble filled empty lots into community and school gardens that will provide places for planting, learning, socializing and playing safely off of the busy and crowded streets. Most often we work with other organizations for the task is too huge to go it alone.

Joining with the Horticulture Society of New York and the Brooklyn Public Library, we are converting bare space around public libraries into beautifully landscaped community garden spaces.

Working with appropriate social service agencies, we not only aim to transform space, but also through horticulture to transform lives; lives that have been broken by homelessness, like these women in a shelter in one of the most run down neighborhoods of New York City. In this new garden lot sponsored by the Transitional Living Center of East New York, women are growing vegetables, herbs and flowers. We have provided plants, seeds and technical assistance. We also assisted in the advocacy effort to save this lot from sale to developers by speaking for it at the community board.

At Phoenix House, a halfway house for people in recovery from drug abuse, our community intern who learned to garden in our children's garden program, assists residents to landscape the garden in front of their building.

In a rooftop solarium, one of our volunteers, in career transition from college teaching to horticulture therapy works with persons living with HIV/AIDS to change a barren roof into an absolutely beautiful place to grow flowers and create a relaxing haven for the 50 residents.


How Our Program Began

The children's garden at Brooklyn Botanic Garden is known around the world as children have gardened at Brooklyn Botanic Garden since 1914. With over an acre set aside for nearly 400 children a year, the emphasis has been on good horticulture and community building skills. By taking these methods out to the community close to where children live, many more can be introduced to the wonders of growing and nurturing plants. Whether in a community garden, street scape or schoolyard, Brooklyn GreenBridge takes advantage of the good name and wealth of experience at BBG in children's gardening and introduces these concepts to community residents. To do this we have developed a program "City Kids Get Green" where we have recruited and trained over 200 adult leaders to work with children in their area.

The initial jump start for our community horticulture program began with an innovative relationship between the botanic gardens of New York City and the NYC Department of Sanitation.

Most people think of NYC as tall buildings, but the trees and lawns in our parks and streets do produce tons of leaves and yard waste, which is now part of our Urban Compsoting project. Now into the fifth year of a contract with the city which has brought nearly $1 million in funds for our community horticulture program, we are part of the citywide recycling campaign to reduce solid waste in NYC for in 2001 our landfill, the largest in the world, is due to close and all that waste has to go somewhere... and..we hope...not to your countries!

This aerial view of the landfill gives you some idea of its massive scale. The four botanic gardens in NYC are engaged in this same project; chosen because of the positive relationship between composting and gardening. We all have compost demonstration sites, in our case adjacent to our world renowned Cranford Rose Garden where it can get prime visitor attention.

With kitchen scraps the single largest component of residential waste in Brooklyn, our project includes promoting on site home composting, particularly in those neighborhoods with small backyards. Our staff even gets involved in waste audits in local neighborhoods in an attempt to figure out whether all this composting education is making even a little dent in the amount of waste sent to the landfill. The outreach also includes public education through workshops and bin sales in the city parks and compost givebacks of NYC produced compost for home and community gardens.

By using the grounds of BBG where we compost on site all our leaves and other garden materials, we can offer training for large institutions, like NYC's public housing grounds personnel including visits to BBG and our staff visiting their sites to provide technical assistance.


Examples of Programs

To attract people to horticulture activity, we are challenged to think creatively of how to engage the broadest base of people. Two contests have become part of our regular efforts.

The Greenest Block in Brooklyn Contest is our way of reaching many people who have no garden of their own but have a street scape which offers a multitude of opportunities to improve life on the street for those who live there and all who pass by. In four years we have reached over 300 blocks and thousands of citizens. Through this program we not only reward those who do exceptional things, we also provide technical assistance on how to get access to water (fire hydrants) and even those who've run into problems with illegal dumping on lots in their block.

Before the contest judging begins in the spring, we sponsor a window box kit sale. In the past four years we have sold nearly 1000 kits including window box, soil, flowers and tip sheet. The whole contest is a joint effort between the blocks, the Borough President and funded by a bank.

The other contest is our annual fall Harvest Fair where all entries, whether vegetables like these collard greens, flower and herbs must be grown in New York City. Some folks lug their entries in shopping carts on the subway to get to our conservatory; some have to have a truck their produce is so big! Children are honored too and this year's contest includes Savings Bonds from Citibank to the small fry entrants.

Our methods for education emphasize environmental education. Not only do we promote recycling yard and kitchen waste, we also recycle PLANTS!

Every year the 10,000 tulips that are planted in display beds at BBG are dug up and redistributed to over 100 community groups. The people rummage through big dumpsters looking for the precious bulbs, which are planted for the following year bloom and show up in all sorts of places, including this schoolyard parking lots outside a synagogue four blocks down the street from the BBG entrance.

We recycle soil! Through our network we were able to get 20 truckloads of excellent topsoil from the grounds of a nursing home construction site distributed free to community gardens all over Brooklyn.

Families of public officials were invited to a picnic at BBG and our staff taught them how to make planting pots from recycling newspapers. These pots, along with our worm bins in the classroom program are big hits with teachers who are looking for such ideas. Learning about other critters, such as beneficial insects, are part of our organic gardening emphasis.

Since soil in the city is often contaminated with high levels of lead, raised beds, especially for food crops are a necessity. Drought tolerant gardening can be a way not only to conserve water, but also to plant beautiful flowers in areas where water is inaccessible.


Methods of Education

The content of our education always emphasizes conservation and our methods try always to include intergenerational, inter-active processes. Learning by doing comes naturally with horticulture, especially when engaging children and youth, but most adults prefer hands on action as well. By sponsoring community gardens tours we are able to introduce people of different neighborhoods to each other. Parents often can teach their children, given a relaxed casual setting like this one in a public park.

Education that is practical is also important. Urban gardening requires gardening in small space. This square foot design is one we've used frequently as a way that multiple crops can be grown. We attempt to find ways to introduce other subject matter into the methods including, design, mathematics, construction, literature, etc.

Through our community activites like our "Greenest Block in Brooklyn" Contest, our staff from BBG get out into the neighborhoods and discover a new relationship to the public we serve beyond our gates. They hear about the needs, problems and concerns of residents. They see a greater connection between the plants we display and the plants people enjoy in their own gardens. But most importantly, residents and BBG representatives become more vitally linked in the bigger picture of community development.




Collaboration is a key strategy in making all this happen. Being a part of the BGCI network is terribly important in broadening our view of what to do and how to do it. None of us dare work in this day and age without a global perspective. We learned so much from the experience in 1995 of hosting over 200 educators from 40 different countries at our garden during the BGCI Educators' Congress.

In Brooklyn, we work with public officials, like our Borough President. We work with the Board of Education and the Parks Commissioner (the ones with the white gloves!) to launch new initiatives in schoolyard gardening. And we work with, and gratefully receive funding from, city agencies who have a common interest, primarily, the NYC Department of Sanitation.

We enjoy what we do. People are funny and plants are fun. We have a great time with what we do. (Photo of boy with corn cob in his mouth and photo of Elephant Amaranth).

Horticulture is a great equalizer and can be a fine way for people to meet each other. Garden settings relax people and give them a break from some of the harsher realities of daily living. Neighbors are more likely to spend time together in front of a beautifully landscaped library or on a stoop in front of their building if it is pleasant to be there.

Somewhere in Brooklyn our van is roaming the streets, perhaps delivering plants, seeds or compost...or just meeting some of these little people who give us hope that the future will be better for all if we work together. As you look into the eyes of these vibrant children who I met in a community garden just last week, let their eyes call you into your communities with all the hope and expectation and challenge that is embedded in the future which they represent.

Thanks for the opportunity to share our story with you.


Copyright 1999 NBI