Botanic Gardens Educational Involvement in the Local Community

Terry Keller

Bronx Green-Up Program
The New York Botanical Garden
Bronx, New York 10458, U.S.A.


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.

The Bronx Green-Up

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.

Community gardening skills

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 children.

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.

Volunteer program to increase the resource

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.

Volunteer Participation in the New York Botanical Garden

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 our grounds.

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.

The development of local communities

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 them.

Preface  |  Contents List  |  Congress Report  |  Workshop Conclusions  |  List of Authors