On a recent Saturday afternoon, Iyeshima Harris surveyed the bounty of an urban farm on a Brooklyn block with more greenery than buildings: rows of Swiss chard and collard greens, trellises wrapped with long bean vines, and fig trees drooping with fruit.
Harris is the project director of East New York Farms, which operates three urban farms and a garden, along with nurturing a network of 40 community gardens in the neighborhood. Several of its growers sell produce at the organization’s market just outside of one of its plots, dubbed UCC Youth Farm (after United Community Centers, the nonprofit that operates ENYF), which is the only place in East New York where residents can find local and organic produce. The half-acre grow space on Schenck Avenue produced 7,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables last year, much of which went back into the farmers market.
“We’re a neighborhood that doesn’t have a lot of access to healthy, fresh food, so the community tries to fend for themselves with the gardens,” Harris says. She grew up in Jamaica, but has lived in New York City for much of her life, and has spent that time teaching her neighbors how to grow produce.
To Harris, the work of a community-based urban farm—big or small—goes beyond simply sowing the soil; it has to do with cultivating a healthy neighborhood. “It’s about teaching people how to grow, [and] helping people reconnect with the land,” Harris explains.
Access to fresh food is especially crucial for neighborhoods like East New York, which is considered a “food swamp” that lacks access to affordable, full-service grocery stores. A Department of City Planning (DCP) program, FRESH, has been working to change that by offering zoning and financial incentives to encourage grocers to open stores in the area. But there’s still much work to be done, and urban farmers have stepped in to fill the void in East New York and beyond.
The UCC Youth Farm is part of the city’s larger urban agriculture system: the community gardens, urban farms, and commercial operations that grow and distribute produce throughout the five boroughs. Within that network, there are more than 550 community gardens—some of which don’t produce food at all, and some that are home to wildlife like honey bees or chickens—licensed under the NYC Parks Department’s GreenThumb program.
But these spaces often have complicated relationships with the city. Many community gardens just went through a rocky round of license negotiations with GreenThumb, and none are officially permanent as their agreements must be renewed every few years. Not all of the city’s gardens are on land owned by NYC Parks; some belong to other agencies or are part of land trusts, and many have a history of being imperiled by New York City’s ever-present need for housing. At the same time, commercial rooftop and indoor farms—also a crucial part of urban agriculture infrastructure—have sprouted across the city, but can hit regulatory snags to growing their businesses.
How the city treats these spaces could soon change. Lawmakers have resurrected a 2017 City Council bill calling for a comprehensive urban agriculture plan for New York City. That measure, initially proposed by Brooklyn Councilmember Rafael Espinal and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, would catalog current urban agriculture spaces and future sites, update zoning and building codes, and make policy recommendations “for ensuring community garden protection,” among other goals. (The original bill was amended to create the NYC Urban Agriculture website rather than a comprehensive plan.)
Espinal has also introduced a separate piece of legislation to create a dedicated Office of Urban Agriculture, envisioned as a single resource devoted to promoting the development of gardens and farms. Officials would conduct outreach and make recommendations on how to expand and improve the city’s network of farms and gardens; the office would also include an “urban agriculture advisory board” made up of people with expertise in community gardens and urban agriculture businesses, among others.
“My vision is that we become the leader in this conversation, especially in a city like New York where we’re still struggling with creating food access in certain communities,” says Espinal. “When we talk about creating new job opportunities, new entrepreneur opportunities, I think it’s important that the city plays a bigger role in helping urban agriculture.”
The de Blasio administration, however, has reservations. “We support efforts to coordinate, plan, and to tap into the expertise of the urban agriculture community through an advisory board,” Erin MacDonald, an official with the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health & Human Services, testified during a September City Council hearing. “However, we believe the work can be accommodated in the existing portfolio of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and recommend against creating a separate and specific office.”
And Alex Sommer, the deputy director of DCP’s Brooklyn office, testified at a June City Council hearing that the agency doesn’t feel there are major zoning obstacles but wants to identify “specific issues” before the City Council forges ahead with such a plan.
New York may be behind the curve in making policy changes to promote these spaces compared to other cities (like Boston and Seattle), but that hasn’t stopped growers from proliferating across the five boroughs. The city has the largest urban agriculture system in the country, according to the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute.
So what would codifying this patchwork system of gardens and farms under one city-led agency actually do? According to Espinal, it could create an environment that will help urban farm spaces flourish, while providing fresh produce to those who need it most and fostering communities in the process.
Spaces like community gardens and urban farms, he says, offer a “Swiss army knife” of benefits to the city, including sopping up rainwater that would otherwise inundate sewer infrastructure, improving air quality, and allowing New Yorkers to better understand the environment and the importance of fresh food. But the city lacks a cohesive vision for the future of these spaces and what is needed to support them.
“Over the years we’ve seen an explosion of the urban agriculture industry in boroughs like Brooklyn, but the city of New York hasn’t really played an active role in giving them the resources they need to continue doing their work in New York City,” he says.
One way an urban agriculture plan could do that, according to Nevin Cohen, a professor and research director at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, is by providing clarity on the city’s vision for its farms and gardens: Where should these spaces be located? How does the city determine when a parcel is best suited for agriculture versus housing? How much food-processing infrastructure would the city need, and who would actually pay for that?
“In my mind, the main benefit of an urban agriculture plan is democratic input on the scale and scope and support for urban agriculture in the city,” says Cohen. “This has always been in contention over many mayoral administrations… there’s always tension, even in the de Blasio administration, [about] whether particular sites should be developed into housing or community gardens or farms.”
No major zoning restrictions currently limit where farms or gardens can be placed; they’re allowed in nearly all districts across the five boroughs. (Some commercial indoor operations have run into building code and fire safety issues, Espinal says.) But just because significant zoning barriers don’t exist doesn’t mean that a clearer-cut system for planning these spaces isn’t needed.
“Zoning is not planning, so there’s a difference between having the zoning text allow food production in almost all zones, and a plan to identify where urban agriculture should be either prioritized or made the primary use for a site,” Cohen explains.
The land-use issue is especially crucial because of the friction between housing and green space that has long been a part of the community garden movement. As the city grappled with a glut of abandoned public and private land in the 1970s, enterprising New Yorkers transformed derelict lots into urban oases. Operation GreenThumb launched in 1978 to help communities revitalize their blocks by making vacant lots available for gardens on an interim basis; it eventually morphed into the GreenThumb program.
But in 1999, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration tried to auction off garden land to developers, a move that launched a string of lawsuits. One, from then-New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, effectively paralyzed the city’s development plans. The New York Restoration Project and the Trust for Public Land snapped up more than 100 sites for $4.2 million in 1999, but a comprehensive deal wasn’t reached until 2002 when then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration stepped in to preserve some 500 community gardens and use another 150 to build more than 2,000 apartments.
Under the de Blasio administration, some gardens have become targets for the city as it works to meet its goal of creating or preserving 300,000 “affordable” units by 2026. City Hall is quick to stress its support for neighborhood plots—the city transferred 34 temporary gardens to GreenThumb in 2015—but notes the juggling act it’s forced to perform in prioritizing how best to use scant municipal land.
“The city supports community gardens as well as a range of urban agriculture and food production uses. We believe our zoning rules are flexible to allow these activities across the city,” City Hall spokesperson Jane Meyers told Curbed in a statement. “As everyone knows well, we also face a critical need for housing and must make difficult choices regarding scarce land.”
Currently, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) oversees 873 vacant city lots. Twelve of those parcels are registered with Green Thumb under agreements that allow gardens on an interim basis. Each of those parcels has been selected for development and awarded to teams under HPD’s Neighborhood Construction Program and the New Infill Homeownership Opportunities Program.
If it were up to Espinal, there would be a citywide moratorium from building on community gardens. (The de Blasio administration, he says, has not been receptive to this idea.) Although Espinal acknowledges the city’s need for below-market housing, he says the city must be pushed to “take a more sensitive approach and understand the damage they’re doing to neighborhoods when they pit community gardens with conversations on affordable housing.”
Nancy Ortiz, a co-founder of La Finca del Sur, a community farm in the South Bronx, concurs. “I think we need to reexamine how we use the available [land] that we have. Is it equitable? Is affordable housing really affordable?” she asks. “And do you need to come and build on top of what is a refuge and a therapy for many people and part of their subsistence? Because really, it’s about your existence when you’re raising food for your family to eat.”
No plan will make the tensions between grow spaces and housing vanish overnight. But an urban agriculture office and its subsequent plan could serve as one important puzzle piece in the jigsaw that is how the city deals with these divides, says Cohen.
“I do think that we need to reach a democratic decision about how extensive urban agriculture should be in our city,” says Cohen. “I feel strongly that if we make that decision democratically, that it’ll be the right decision, but if we make it haphazardly in the context of development plans that aren’t including the consideration of urban agriculture, then we will continue to have conflicts with land use.”
Harris is eager for details on exactly how city agencies would work with farmers toward developing that vision. Kristin Reynolds, a lecturer on food studies and environmental studies at the New School, who wrote a recent brief on the urban agriculture plan bill, says the city would have to ensure that voices from communities of color and low-income neighborhoods are not left out of the conversation through plentiful listening sessions and hearings, and that their input is given equitable weight in the process.
“It is duly important to cultivate trust that concerns and ideas expressed at such sessions are taken into account,” Reynolds told Curbed in an email.
In a similar vein, Harris also notes the importance of recognizing how urban agriculture approaches can vary by neighborhood; community-supported agriculture programs, for example (CSAs), where consumers pay a fee for a year’s worth of fresh, seasonal produce, isn’t feasible for cash-strapped households, but could be a boon elsewhere.
“Each community is different,” she says. “Our community would rather pick for themselves. For certain communities it might work, and for others it might not.”
At La Finca del Sur, some 1,000 pounds of produce are produced each year, some of which is circulated back to the community through the South Bronx Farmers Market.
Ortiz says Espinal and Adam’s legislation could be “invaluable” in how spaces like the one she helped start in 2009 grow, but that the process must include gardeners and farmers if it is to truly take root.
“There are lots of negations, lots of ideas,” Ortiz says. “But what’s missing here, for the most part, is the direct input of the people that have been doing this work. If this process is as inclusive as possible, that would create immediate benefits for everyone.”