“THE best place to find God is in a garden,” George Bernard Shaw wrote. “You can dig for him there.” Anyone who has ever cleared his mind while clearing weeds from a flower patch, or enjoyed a quiet moment while watering plants, knows what Shaw meant.
New York’s community gardens, planted on city lots, are more than just pretty patches of green in the concrete jungle. They provide open space and healthful food, increase the value of neighboring property and offer a strong sense of community. Gardens are as much a part of our city as the Empire State Building or Times Square.
Yet it wasn’t long ago that their existence was threatened. As mayor in the late 1990s, Rudolph Giuliani tried to auction them off to developers. But gardeners dug in, held rallies. One protester chained himself to a building in a garden. The state attorney general filed a lawsuit to stop the auctions. Some of the gardens were sold to nonprofit groups. And, in a settlement agreement in the lawsuit, almost all of the rest — nearly 300 of them — ended up under the jurisdiction of the Parks and Recreation Department. The city agreed not to sell many of them for eight years.
That eight-year period ends next month, and our gardens are in need of permanent protection. To begin, the city should strengthen rules governing the two-year licenses issued to the volunteers who operate the gardens. The licenses should be automatically renewed as long as the gardening group is cooperating with the Parks Department, providing public access and otherwise complying with regulations.
Although it is important that the city be able to evict gardeners who violate the rules, gardeners should not lose their licenses for activities that occur in the surrounding area — public drinking on the sidewalk, for example.
If a group of gardeners does lose its license or walks away from a plot, the neighborhood should be offered an opportunity to keep that garden running. The Parks Department should reach out to the local City Council member, the community board and nearby gardening groups, and allow 180 days for other people to apply to take over the garden.
All notices relating to gardens should be written in English, Spanish, Chinese and any other language the community requests.
In order to encourage new gardens, the city should let the public know when city-owned land becomes vacant and no specific use is envisioned.
Finally, we must insulate the gardens from changes in city leadership. Rules are a good first step, but a new mayor could have them changed. We need to make the gardens permanent — perhaps by designating them as parkland, entering into long-term leases or putting legal restrictions on the use of the land.
New Yorkers planted a seed when they created the gardens more than three decades ago. Now we must make sure the city government never uproots them.