Community gardens sprout in city

Asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks might not offer the best atmosphere to grow fruits and vegetables, but New Haven community gardening and green space programs offer city residents a chance to cultivate their own gardens in the midst of an otherwise urban jungle.

Officials said these programs, including the Community Garden Program, the Greenspace Program and the Community Garden at Edgerton Park, have made New Haven a high-profile proponent for community gardening in urban environments. Community Garden Director Cordalie Benoit, who is currently compiling a list of similar urban programs in Connecticut, said her early research indicates that New Haven is one of the top-ranked cities in the state.

Community gardening programs like that responsible for Winchester Garden, shown here, are working to benefit urban New Haven neighborhoods.
Blair Benham-Pyle
Community gardening programs like that responsible for Winchester Garden, shown here, are working to benefit urban New Haven neighborhoods.

Benoit said the Community Garden Program was originally conceived decades ago by a New Haven citizen in order to improve the aesthetics of a city littered with vacant spaces. The program has continued, despite the lessening availability of vacant space due to urban renovation and construction, because of the way these gardens strengthen the communities around them, she said.

“Although there’s no longer an acute need for the program, it’s useful in community building, beautification, and creating leadership among the gardeners,” she said.

The Community Garden Program provides individuals with areas to grow their own fruits and vegetables within the city. The organization has about 50 gardens throughout New Haven on various types of land, from vacant city lots to public housing sites. The gardens are split up into raised land beds that are given to interested citizens free of charge.

Benoit said the organization distributes plots to residents with a variety of backgrounds, including undergraduate and graduate student volunteers.

“Each garden is a grass-roots activity,” she said. “The wonderful thing is that people from all socioeconomic backgrounds like to garden, and this gives everyone the same opportunity.”

The Greenspace Program offers another way for urban residents to access greenery. Run by the nonprofit Urban Resources Initiative for the past 12 years, the Greenspace Program focuses on urban forestry, giving communities the opportunity to grow sustainable plants in the public domain. Although the URI helps the communities by providing the necessary materials and offering design guidance and expertise, Greenspace Director Chris Ozyck said the residents do all the work themselves.

Ozyck said the program not only enhances community bonding through the physical labor of gardening, but also helps revitalize run-down urban areas.

“Turning a vacant lot where people used to dump garbage into a resource where kids can play sends a message that people who live in that community care,” he said.

Although the benefits of such programs are garnering attention in New Haven, the fundamentals of city planting may still pose problems because of health risks in urban soil. Cultivating fruits and vegetables in city environments might lead to contamination of the products, officials from Greenspace and New Haven Land Trust said.

“We’re concerned about what’s in all urban soils, so we’ve been trying to get a handle and figure out what the lead issues are and other heavy metals that might be present,” Ozyck said.

Both Ozyck and Benoit said their organizations have taken measures to ensure the safety of food grown in the city, mostly by providing raised land beds and safe soil for the gardens.

Although personal food production is the primary goal of these programs, Benoit said, there have been efforts to expand the projects so as to supply local farmer’s markets. The New Haven Land Trust, which fosters the Community Garden Program, and CitySeed, an organization that coordinates local farmer’s markets, have been working together to provide the locally grown food to CitySeed’s network.

But CitySeed Director Jennifer McTiernan H. ’99 said problems with the relatively small sizes of the urban gardens and the limited amount of food the gardeners supply might hinder collaborative efforts.

“The gardeners [only] grow enough food for themselves and their neighbors,” McTiernan H. said. “[But] bringing in community farms could stock our entire farmer’s market.”

Benoit said she hopes to one day create a large-scale farm in an urban environment, as she believes local food is healthier.

Charles Alvarez ’09, who had a fellowship with CitySeed last summer, said it is important to make local food more available because of the health benefits it provides as well as the economic boost it gives to area farmers.

“[The Community Garden Program allows] for a special focus on underprivileged communities and places that don’t have much access to healthy foods,” Alvarez said.

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