This paper provides an overview of the outreach program
of the New York Botanic Garden and its relationship with ethnically
diverse urban communities in the Bronx, New York. Bronx Green-Up
works with community groups who are reclaiming abandonded, city-owned
lots in their neighbouhoods, lots which have become dumping grounds
by default. The focus of these projects is to turn these spaces
into community gardens and parks.
The paper will detail the ways in which Bronx Green-Up
functions as an integral part of this process, providing on-site
education, technical and material assistance in various forms,
working in conjunction with schools, day care centers, senior
citizen housing, social service agencies and other community-based
groups. The critical aspect which has contributed to the success
of the program, with over 150 projects established in the Bronx
in the past three years, has been the recognition by the New York
Botanical Garden that the form and impetus of educational programs
must be framed by, and directly responsive to, the needs and goals
of the communities involved.
Fundamentally, the staff trains community gardeners,
with a wide range of age and experience, who then teach the variety
of skills required by both urban gardening and community management
of green spaces.
In addition, the program recognizes that access,
at no cost, to the materials required by a given project is particularly
crucial in areas with limited economic resources. Part of the
process which this paper describes are the ways in which the program
coordinates access to the many greening agencies and municipal
services available in the New York area. Informed resource, referral
as well as technical assistance thus function as key points of
the educational process.
This paper, using the author's experience of more than a decade in urban gardening, draws extensively on case histories to demonstrate the ways in which the Botanic Gardens' involvement in the communities and the links between educational and material support have had a broad and reconstructive impact in the larger life of the Bronx.
One hundred years ago, the New York Botanical Garden
(NYBG), situated in the Bronx, was founded by a consortium of
wealthy and influential New Yorkers to provide greater understanding
of the ways in which plants improve and enrich human life, of
the need for ecological protection and preservation, and for the
sheer enjoyment which green spaces allow.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s social unrest
led to a period of decline in the Bronx which brought about the
abandonment and burning of many buildings. This left over 10 000
vacant lots which rapidly became urban dumping grounds.
Responding to this decline, the New York Botanical Garden expanded its mission statement to include the goal, "to play a responsible part in our community". From this desire, and with the support of the Bronx Borough President, the innovative Bronx Green-Up Program was developed at the Garden in the summer of 1988.
In response to the needs articulated by people in
neighborhoods surrounding NYBG, Bronx Green-Up was initiated as
an outreach program which focused on helping the community help
itself, assisting the residents in turning city lots into community
gardens. However, turning a rubble-filled lot into a beautiful
garden or park-like area requires a great amount of time, energy
and physical resources on the part of city dwellers. Neighborhood
associations rarely have the expertise and often do not know where
to turn for help. The staff of Bronx Green-Up work with the residents
of the Bronx, helping them to navigate the City's bureaucratic
maze for permits to use the vacant lots and with the sanitation
department to pick up the rubble.
Bronx Green-Up also initiated a consortium of New
York City greening agencies to facilitate and coordinate their
services for interested Bronx residents.
Yet those services do not entirely meet the needs of the people, many of whom are hampered by the lack of gardening skills, problems with the English language and limited economic resources.
We then began to offer on-site technical training
in gardening skills and garden design. Having access to materials
to make a green space is as important as having the skills to
use them. We found ways to obtain free gardening materials.
When Rockefeller Center changes its outdoor horticulture displays,
we are often the recipients of first-class plant material which
we then distribute to gardens all over the Bronx. The New York
Botanical Garden often has excess plant material and we then invite
Bronx community gardeners into our gates for one of our many "plant
pick-up's". We beg, borrow, and steal soil and compost,
and we pick up fencing materials at another City agency for Bronx
gardens. As the program evolved, we involved another City agency
to teach leadership skills to community gardeners, so that garden
members can address and meet the challenges when members of often
conflicting ethnic groups come together to build a garden and,
in turn, rebuild a community. Many community gardens are adjacent
to drug rehabilitation centers, senior citizen centers and schools.
We also teach teachers who then can go back to the
schools to begin gardening and environmental projects with the
All the community green spaces have added oases of beauty to the bleakest of urban streets as well as providing a means to teach people, young and old, of the Bronx, about environmental issues.
With our limited staff, one full-time and three part-time, along with four university interns two months each summer, the demand on our time compelled us to begin an innovative volunteer program. We asked Bronx residents interested in changing bleak environments through greening projects to complete a training program in gardening and horticulture skills. Many of these volunteers go on to begin new gardens and to act as skilled instructors in their own communities.
One of the goals of our program is to encourage Bronx
residents to participate in the New York Botanical Garden itself.
Because of the nature of the founding of NYBG, many Bronx residents
perceive the Garden as an elitist organization. Through our program,
we invite members to enjoy access to the Garden as an educational
space and environmental preserve.
We do this through picnics, and with learning through
tours of the Rose Garden and the Forest. Children are encouraged
to come and learn about our botanical garden, and at the end of
the summer we ask gardeners to participate in a harvest fair on
Each August, we work with a community to have a garden party to which all Bronx gardeners are invited. Games for children, speeches by politicians and community leaders, as well as voter registration and music are part of the activities. The highlight of the day is the food contributed by all the gardeners. It is a gastronomic delight.
Through Bronx Green-Up, beautiful green spaces are
now part of bleak city streets ... but also important is the way
people of different cultures work together to achieve that goal.
I would like to say that it is so important to protect
endangered regions on a global scale. It is just as important
to work to protect local habitats.
As Margaret Mead said: "Never doubt that a small
group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: indeed
it's the only thing that ever has."
It is my hope that in the near future all botanic
gardens will reach out to serve the communities that surround
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