Building a Common Ground: Integrating Community, Gardens and the Built Environment

The American Community Gardening Association states that its vision is to have a sustainable community in every garden.  It is a vision that has been playing out across the landscape and in a range of contexts.  This post shares a couple of case studies of how this is being done in new building development projects in New York City.  But first, it is important to preface the discussion by acknowledging that it is difficult to assemble definitive best practices for what makes a community garden work and persist or a community sustainable and resilient.  Communities can work to understand, test and evaluate the varied situations and approaches that can contribute to the successful integration of the people of a community with their gardens – from a single plot to a regional food system – to the larger built environment.

Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello. Photo Credit: Moofpocket, Creative Commons Attribution License.

For example, Thomas Jefferson’s notions about people’s ideal relationships to land are by now embedded in American culture and literally etched into the continent’s surface.  They became a part of the way people organize and use space and build communities and infrastructure.  They are also a part of public policies, laws, and the private capital and real estate markets that shape how things operate over time.  These ideas are present in both rural and urban contexts, from the farmyard garden to the American city grid.  The cultivation and stewardship of the land and environment is part and parcel to the cultivation and stewardship of a community and its built environment.

Sustainability as a concept is now becoming an integral part of this longer cultural development between people and the environment.  It is largely supported by science and increasingly by public policy, and it is embraced through culture (and even marketing and commerce).  Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has even gone as far as to say that sustainability borders on being a new sort of religion.  In any event, it is a paradigm and approach to educate and convince people to reconnect the dots between their actions and the state of their local or global environment.  The understanding and constitution of the built environment is a critical and tangible part of this process.  Awareness of where a person’s food comes from or where their garbage ends up promotes awareness of their impact on others and the environment.  Awareness that an elderly (or young) neighbor has not been by the garden in a few weeks promotes awareness that someone in the community may need care or simply a connection.

Two recently completed affordable housing developments in New York City have incorporated gardens into their community and made sure that their sustainability program worked to include the community into their gardens.  First, these developments each identified key needs for their surrounding communities and the environmental performance of their projects overall.  Second, they looked comprehensively at the residential building program and from the beginning considered gardens an integral part of the developments and, thus, provided space and infrastructure for them; they were considered in the pro forma and cost analysis for the projects.  And finally, community and stewardship via outreach, training, and inclusiveness ensured that the projects were as socially sustainable as they were environmentally sustainable.

Via Verde – Bronx, New York

Via Verde (The Green Way) is a 221-unit rental and cooperative ownership affordable housing development on a former brownfield site in the South Bronx by Phipps Houses and Jonathan Rose Companies.  Many of the units are priced to be affordable to households who earn 60% of the area’s median income as the neighborhood is predominantly lower-income and there is a shortage of affordable housing in the city.  The Bloomberg Administration’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, at the time under the leadership of Shaun Donovan (now serving as President Obama’s HUD Secretary), co-sponsored with the American Institute of Architects an open design competition for ideas for creating new, sustainable housing in the city.  The Phipps/Rose team along with Grimshaw and Dattner Architects won the competition, in part because of the degree of integration of a series of roof terrace gardens and other social and sustainability measures into the project.  The building harvests rainwater, uses solar panels to provide energy to service common areas, and has raised bed gardens to help provide food for the building’s residents.  The South Bronx is an area that has a high occurrence of diet-related diseases, in part due to the lack of affordable fresh food in the community.  The gardens integrated into the roofscape at Via Verde will be used by the community and managed by GrowNYC, a nonprofit best know for running the Union Square Greenmarket and their environmental and food-related education programs.  The critical funding for the manager and maintenance of the gardens was incorporated into the building’s pro forma and startup/operating costs.  The gardens, while serving a practical function in providing social activity and food for the residents, also help to create a sense of place and identity for the Via Verde community.  From these rooftop gardens one has a vista of the surrounding neighborhood and a panorama of the New York City skyline.  These spaces link to various common spaces that were also incorporated into the development such as community rooms, a gym, and even an amphitheater.  These indoor and outdoor common spaces physically connect the broad range of community members housed in the development – singles and families, renters and owners.  The project, while costly, serves as a case study for city and state agencies, the real estate development community, planners and designers on how community and social ideas that relate to people, health, and environment can be incorporated into a building’s development financially, programmatically, and ultimately a built environment.

The Hegeman Residence – Brooklyn, New York

The Hegeman Residence is a 161-unit supportive housing development in Brownsville, Brooklyn for formerly homeless residents.  Brownsville is one of the city’s most economically and socially challenged neighborhoods and has a high concentration of low-income housing.  The project was developed on a vacant site that was at the boundary between an intact row house community and an area dominated by larger institutional and healthcare facilities. Common Ground, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “end homelessness,” worked to find ways for supportive housing to be an asset in the community and not a burden.  The project was designed by Cook + Fox, an architecture firm known for their innovative work with sustainable buildings and for quality of design.  The project incorporates a number of sustainability measures, from energy and water systems, to solar panels and green roofs.  But an important part of the project from the outset was the designing and programming of the open spaces for the site, and making sure the community and garden were given full consideration.  The development included a large garden that is located on the street frontage that links the project with the neighboring residential street.  Neighborhood residents have access of the gardens, as will the residents of the Hageman Residence; it is a place for the community to literally have a “common ground.”  Common Ground has social services and community outreach staff that will work to ensure ongoing access and stewardship of the garden.  While the project had a limited budget, the fact that the garden was considered to be an essential part of the project from the beginning ensured that the cost and development of the project, garden, and community moved in tandem.

While projects like these that incorporate community gardens as a key feature of development and sustainability programs may be exceptional today, they can serve as models to test how this approach toward environmental and social considerations can be addressed moving forward.  The relationship between buildings and program, and between people and nature has the promise to reconnect to the fundamental and common ground that communities share within their built environment.

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