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Bronx Green-Up

Number 9 - July 1994

T. Keller

Abandoned apartment buildings, vandalized playgrounds, vast tracts of empty lots strewn with debris; these are the images that the world has come to associate with the Bronx, New York City, USA. The borough has become a symbol of urban blight. People of many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds make up the local population with the two largest groups being African American and Latino.

In such an environment learning about ecology and conservation is not usually a priority but the New York Botanical Garden is attempting to change things. Situated in the heart of the Bronx, the Garden runs an innovative outreach program, helping to turn some of the borough's 10,000 vacant lots into community gardens and parks.

Community Gardens

The process of turning a trash filled lot into a green oasis is not an easy one. Bronx Green-Up is committed to a community led approach providing help and assistance to community groups who want to reclaim their surroundings.

The first step, once a piece of land has been identified, is to seek permission from the city to lease or use it. Bronx Green-Up can help community groups to cut through the mass of red tape that this usually entails. Once permission has been granted, BGU can provide: lessons in ecology, horticulture and conservation; tools, supplies, plants, seeds, transport; and technical assistance with the physical work of clearing the lots and creating green spaces.

Over 1,000 families have now worked with BGU staff, creating 170 neighborhood gardens. Groups that BGU have worked with include senior centers,schools, social services, drug rehabilitation facilities, and special education learning centers. Many people working on the programme find that as well as developing horticultural and ecological skills and knowledge, they have learned about city politics, improved their problem solving skills and gained valuable insights into human relations.

Community gardens are enhancing neighborhoods and providing residents with common grounds. People come together to plant and nurture not only seeds of new plants and fresh vegetables, but also the seeds of understanding and friendship. Working together, residents are taking charge of their environment, building pride in themselves and their community.

Perhaps the greatest and most lasting benefit will be to the children of the Bronx.These children now have gardens and parks in which to work and play. They now have a chance to learn their first lessons in environmental stewardship and to develop an appreciation of the natural world.

In order that the work might continue, community volunteers are trained in basic horticulture and gardening so that they in turn can offer assistance to community gardeners. In this way the Bronx Green-Up program is helping to establish a reservoir of expertise that will serve the borough for years to come.

Bronx Green-Up Compost Program

The amount of waste created by the inhabitants of New York City is phenomenal and concern for this has resulted in the setting up of a city-wide recycling program of glass, aluminum, bottles and newspapers.Much more waste however, could be recycled.

This awareness has led Bronx Green-Up to rise to the challenge of developing a city-wide compost program.The program is funded by the Department of Sanitation of the City of New York.NYBG's Bronx Green-Up is the leader of the program which works with two other New York City botanical gardens - the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Staten Island Botanical Garden - and a Manhattan greening organization, the Green Guerillas.

Community gardens are ideal places to teach local residents about composting.Bronx Green-Up has set up one demonstration site with a variety of composting methods: wire or wooden home-made devices, barrels, the latest technology in ready-made containers, as well as creative homemade devices such as stacking spare tires one atop the other - recycling tires to recycle organic matter!

Three more demonstration sites are being prepared: one at another community garden in proximity to private homes, one in the grounds of The New York Botanical Garden and one on a public housing site.New York City is the largest landlord of public housing in the United States.The substantial amount of grass clippings from its grounds can be mulched and the end-product used to enrich the soil of flower and vegetable beds.

An extensive educational program involving both community groups and schools has begun.The success of these demonstration sites and accompanying educational programs will form the basis of a city-wide effort to separate compostable items from garbage.It is an exciting program and one which is necessary.


The Bronx Green-Up program is continuing to have a dramatic effect on the environments and lives of local people.Education has given people the tools to build community gardens and compost projects.A greener urban environment is emerging together with a stronger sense of community responsibility.