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Urban agriculture plan would close the ‘freshness gap,’ say lawmakers

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The plan would promote NYC farming and community green spaces

The Two Coves Community Garden in Astoria, Queens.
Zoran Milich/Getty Images

A new bill backed by nearly 50 elected officials would require the city to develop an urban agriculture plan that would promote farming and community green spaces across the city.

The bill, introduced by City Council member Rafael Espinal, Jr., would require the Department of City Planning (DCP) to take stock of the boroughs’ existing and potential urban agriculture spaces, and identify zoning and land use policies that could be tweaked to cultivate their growth. Such a plan aims to close the “freshness gap” by expanding the availability of fresh greens and fruits in low-income neighborhoods, Espinal stressed at a Tuesday City Council hearing.

“When we support urban farms and community gardens we are creating more equitable access to affordable and healthy food,” he said. “We have to strive past no New Yorker going hungry and go a step further to ensure that no New Yorker is starved of fresh food.”

If the bill is approved, city officials would have until July 1 to craft the plan and deliver it to Mayor Bill de Blasio, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and post it to the city’s urban agriculture website. The feasibility of creating an Office of Urban Agriculture would also be explored in the report, according to the bill.

City planning officials are on board with the idea, but want to ensure that specific issues facing the urban agriculture community are being addressed in the plan to ensure city resources are being used “efficiently and effectively,” said Alex Sommer, the deputy director of DCP’s Brooklyn office.

“We support the growth of urban agriculture broadly and we want to work with you on identifying specific issues, but in terms of the comprehensive plan, we want to make sure we’re identifying specific issues first before moving ahead with that,” said Sommer.

Cities including Boston, Atlanta, and Seattle have already embraced urban agriculture with plans or modifications to land use policies to help their urban agriculture spaces flourish. The first step in that process for New York City, is to strengthen protections for those green spaces, say advocates.

“I think this is a good start, but there’s a lot of work to be done,” said Aziz Dehkan, the executive director of the New York City Community Garden Coalition. “We still need a lot of protection. We need permanence of community gardens. We can’t let the wedge of affordable housing and community gardens continue in this city. They are compatible.”

While acknowledging the dire need for new affordable housing, Espinal pointed to the planned destruction of Nolita’s Elizabeth Street Garden for low-income senior housing, and the Nelson Mandela Community Garden in Harlem for affordable housing, and called city plans to build on those spaces rather than truly vacant lots a “serious blind spot from City Hall.” Both gardens grow produce and use that planting process as an educational resource for area students.

New York City owns 5,027 undeveloped parcels that are considered “vacant.” That includes wetlands, unusable slivers of land along streets or between buildings, and in some cases, community gardens, according to the Department of Administrative Services (DCAS).

Currently, there are different definitions of “vacant property” across several city agencies, says DCAS, but the city is in the midst of developing a uniform definition for such spaces. Of those lots, the Parks Departments uses 850 for community gardens or park space. Some 550 are community gardens, many of which produce fresh produce for their communities.

“We need to pay more attention to what’s actually happening on the ground in order to play a leading role in this conversation,” said Espinal.

Sommer recognized that there are “a whole host of different prorities across the city,” but that there is no black and white answer when it comes to choosing between affordable housing or green space.

“We rely on the ongoing public review process to help weigh those priorities,” said Sommer. “We know it’s very difficult and there’s a lot of things we have to pick between.”