Urban Garden Education in Brooklyn, New York: Just A Passing Fad?
It’s exciting to find that urban gardening, a most graceful intertwining of efforts to green cities and improve public health, has caught on in a major way. Will Allen, the powerhouse urban farmer based in Milwaukee, made the list of Time’s 100: The World’s Most Influential People; the Obamas’ are growing and eating out of a vegetable garden on the White House lawn; and countless restaurants, parks and offices are beginning to seed, cultivate and delight in plots of beloved flora all over NYC. This flourishing scene is especially hot in Brooklyn, the borough chock-full of urban farms including Rooftop Farms (4 and counting?), community gardens and the latest Edible Schoolyard brought to us by Alice Waters, in construction as of this summer.
So, maybe there’s a sense of reaching the summit; we’ve finally made it. Looking at the urban gardening and farming going on in so many major metropolitan areas, America seems convinced of the legitimacy and need for these efforts; we’ve got a Malcolm Gladwell tipping point, a social epidemic perhaps. But for urban gardeners who’ve been at this work for decades, these efforts to increase verdant places is not a fad; it’s a serious commitment. More gardens must open, more urban lots need to be scattered with seed rather than glass, and more children should have the option to eat fresh food from their gardens rather than unhealthful foods so prevalent in poorer neighborhoods. All these individual benefits are worth cultivating in themselves, but at the heart of it all, we need these gardens for the sake of improving and sustaining a good quality of life for people throughout New York City.Approximately 80 percent of Americans now live in urban areas, which also sprawl across a rapidly expanding share of the American landscape. A recent article in the 2010 Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies publication asks a brilliant question in reference to our urban influx: what does it mean to become a city-dwelling species? At the same time, the physical and mental health benefits of urban gardens, parks and farms are no longer simply intuitive; H. Frumkin’s research on land conservation and preserving health makes this clear with a large body of evidence. If it’s good for our health to garden and we are becoming an increasingly urban species, there seems to be little philosophical question; we’ve got to step up the commitment. And really it’s about children. Often we end with the children in conversations about how we need to reassess and modify our relationship to our ecological surroundings, but I think in fact that’s the philosophical basis from which most of us start. We want the children that we love to have a healthy, sound existence. But this doesn’t mean making the whole of Manhattan some gigantic Eden for all the boys and girls in the city; it means involving children in each dimension and step of the very act of greening.
All this urban gardening philosophizing came about after reading Caitlin Flanagan’s Atlantic Monthly piece -in which she soundly pulverized Alice Water’s edible Schoolyard projects- and the reverberating string of rebuttal articles following it. These articles brought up so many excellent questions and a great deal of irritation in reaction to severe short-sightedness on the part of Flanagan. Her piece unjustly shot down the entirety of gardening education programs primarily for the sake of smearing Waters. And it really failed to acknowledge the benefits of place-based learning and the value of specifically-urban gardens serving as spaces that improve both mental and physical health. But what Flanagan’s article did do well was to create an opportunity for institutions and individuals involved in urban gardening in NYC to strengthen their arguments and ideas as to why this budding movement has a permanent place in plans to make our city healthier and more livable. It’s actually a fun charge, given all the support and interest in urban gardens at this time.
In an upcoming series of articles, I will cover some of the urban gardening programs in Brooklyn that directly engage children and adolescents, with a three-fold question in mind: what are children’s urban gardening programs doing in Brooklyn, how is the impact of their work on children’s’ lives being measured, and how does this relate to the larger concept of garden-based education as a means to engage children in the work of making Brooklyn greener? With enough time spent in urban gardens in my favorite borough, munching on cherry tomatoes and other edible splendors of summer, there’s bound to be lots to share when I get back.