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7/11/2023 Harlem

New York City, United States


In the 1960s and 1970s, New York City was swept by a fiscal crisis — it was in 1975 when the city was on the brink of formal bankruptcy. Many buildings were abandoned or set on fire by their owners for insurance purposes resulting in vacant lots. Additionally public land was left unmaintained as the city entered a new austerity regime. 


Out of this, the first community gardens emerged in the Lower East Side of New York City in the 1970s. 


Certain gardens were the result of determined efforts of the locals cleaning and planting on the derelict lots, obtained from the city. Some gardens emerged out of ‘guerrilla gardening’ and seed bombing as in the case of Pleasant Village in East Harlem.


Operation Green Thumb was launched in 1978 by the city as an effort to restore legal control over the community gardens by issuing short-term leases to the gardeners and offering resources to create and maintain them. 

















The positive impacts of the lush green areas also gathers the interest of real estate developers


Today, the gardens’ status is contested. The city sees the gardens as temporary, forcing the gardens to renew their Green Thumb licenses every four years. The positive impacts of the lush green areas also gathers the interest of real estate developers. In 1999 Mayor Giuliani listed 114 gardens for auction causing major resistance by the locals.


Since their conception the community gardens have proven to play a part in protecting the city against storms that flood streets and buildings. Some 25% of New York City’s surface area is permeable, and the gardens form an essential part of the city’s green system. providing permeable ground that can absorb or retain water when the sewer system is overloaded by heavy rains. Some gardens have enhanced this quality by adding trenches, rain gardens and different rainwater harvesting systems. 


The importance of community gardens is widely recognized. A Pratt Institute student project collected data on community gardens, forming a coalition that petitioned the city to designate the green spaces as "critical environmental areas" under state law to protect them from development.


An illustration from a fact sheet published by the Green Guerillas, from 1973. Link to original

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