Citizens + vacant lots = community open space: a case study of the Union Settlement Community Garden, East Harlem, New York City

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Virginia Tech


Communities have responded to an alarming increase in the number of vacant lots in the inner-city by initiating the design, development, and maintenance of community open spaces. This paper addresses the historical development of community gardens in the U.S., their benefits, and studies in more detail the case of the Union Settlement Community Garden in East Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, to show the process by which a community garden comes to life. Other issues discussed are the potential uses of community gardens as alternative public recreation spaces, and the role of public participation in the potential success of community-controlled open spaces, as opposed to less participatory traditional parks.

The paper is based on my experience working as a summer intern in community gardens in New York City in 1991 and 1992, and on a field study conducted in December 1992. The study involved interviews with the personnel of five different public and private non-profit agencies dealing with community gardening in New York City, Union Settlement Association personnel, and with some of the gardeners. The Union Settlement Garden is typical in that it is an example of private, public, and local partnerships to provide public and private services to the citizens. The garden provides public recreation facilities for the citizens and private vegetable plots for individual use.