Agroecological and social characteristics of New York city community gardens: contributions to urban food security, ecosystem services, and environmental education

Abstract

There is growing public interest and participation in food-producing urban community gardens in North America, yet little research has examined agricultural production and ecological processes in these spaces. We describe the agroecological and social characteristics of 61 food-producing gardens in New York City, drawing on gardener interviews, land-use maps, plant species inventories, arthropod scouting, and soil sampling and analysis. Gardens contained agricultural crops, food production infrastructure, ornamental plants, and recreational areas in varying proportions, indicating that gardens serve multiple and distinct purposes depending on community needs and interests. On average, gardeners devoted the greatest proportion of garden area (44 %) to food production, and supplied a large share of their households’ produce needs from their community gardens. Solanaceae, Brassicaceae, and Cucurbitaceae crops dominated food crop areas, hindering effective crop rotation to prevent disease and pest problems. Most gardeners grew crops in raised beds constructed with clean fill and compost. These soils generally had sandy textures, low water-holding capacity, high organic matter levels (with a large proportion from recent inputs) and excessive nutrient levels. Soil water content at field capacity increased exponentially with total soil carbon, suggesting that organic matter enhances water-holding capacity. Insect pest densities greatly exceeded action thresholds in nearly all gardens for aphids and whiteflies on Brassica crops, aphids on Cucurbit crops, and two-spotted spider mites on tomatoes. Predator and parasitoid densities were generally low (less than one per plant on average), perhaps partially due to low floral and woody perennial cover in most gardens (12 % and 9 % on average, respectively). Dominant groups of natural enemies were minute pirate bugs, spiders, and parasitoid wasps. A wide variety of people of differing experience levels, incomes, and ethnicities participate in community gardening in NYC, and most gardens host multiple languages. Promising directions for urban gardening research, education, and practice include: 1) Cover cropping to improve soil quality and nutrient management, and diversify crop rotations; 2) Improving access to soil testing and guidance on appropriate use of soil amendments, 3) Enhancing habitat for arthropod natural enemies that provide biological control of insect pests with floral and woody perennial plantings; and 4) Incorporating ecological knowledge and inquiry-based approaches into gardening workshops, educational materials, and technical support, and offering these resources in multiple languages.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For this analysis, food insecurity was indicated by a “yes” response to at least one of three interview questions (all relating to food security or insecurity in the past year): (1) if the gardener had worried that her/his household would not have enough food, (2) if the gardener or other household member had been unable to eat sufficient fruits and vegetables due to lack of resources, and/or (3) if the gardener or other household member ate smaller meals or less frequent meals than s/he would have preferred due to lack of resources.

  2. 2.

    An action threshold is the “point at which pest populations… indicate that pest control action must be taken,” and corresponds to pest populations that, left unchecked, will cause economic damage (U.S. EPA 2012).

  3. 3.

    This is based on our measurements of total soil C, which averaged 58.2 g/kg (~6 % of soil mass), and the common ‘rule of thumb’ that SOM is approximately half carbon by weight (Brady and Weil 2008). Average SOM content in Brooklyn soils can therefore be estimated as 6 % × 2 = 12 %.

  4. 4.

    Organizations offering gardening workshops in NYC include: Bronx Green-Up/New York Botanical Garden (http://www.nybg.org/green_up/), Brooklyn Botanic Garden (http://www.bbg.org/greenbridge), East New York Farms! (http://eastnewyorkfarms.org/), Green Guerillas (http://www.greenguerillas.org/index.php), GreenThumb (http://www.greenthumbnyc.org/), GrowNYC (http://www.grownyc.org/), Just Food’s City Farms Workshop Series (http://justfood.org/city-farms/community-workshop-series) and Farm School NYC (http://justfood.org/farmschoolnyc).

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Acknowledgments

Our thanks and appreciation go to all of the community gardeners in NYC who welcomed us into their gardens, shared their knowledge and experiences, and facilitated ecological data collection. We thank our colleagues in the Healthy Soils, Healthy Communities project, particularly Hannah Shayler, for facilitating initial contacts with NYC gardeners and assisting in development of our interview guides. Bilen Berhanu of GreenThumb NYC, David Vigil and Deborah Greig of East New York Farms!, and Hannah Riseley-White of Green Guerillas also generously shared their knowledge of community gardening in NYC and introduced us to many gardens and gardeners. John Ameroso shared his extensive knowledge of agricultural management challenges in NYC urban gardens and helped us select key insect pest problems for further research. Charles Day of Wave Hill Botanical Garden helped us identify many ornamental and weedy plants in the gardens. Finally, we are grateful for the help of field and lab assistants Erin Eck, Abigail Cohen, Bonnie Schiffman, Margaret Pickoff, Alicia Miggins, Ross Hathaway, Sarah Zipfel, Melissa Harbut, Johanna Katz, and Rob Meyer. Funding for this project was provided by the Toward Sustainability Foundation, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Hatch and Smith-Lever Grant No. 2010-11-293, and the Food Dignity Project (supported by USDA/ National Institute of Food and Agriculture / Agricultural and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant #2011-68004-30074). MMG was supported by an National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (2009-2012) and a Land Grant Fellowship from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (2012-2014).

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Correspondence to Megan M. Gregory.

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Prior to administering garden coordinator and gardener surveys, we submitted the interview guides (including an oral informed consent protocol) to the Institutional Review Board for Human Participants in the Cornell University Office of Research Integrity and Assurance. They were deemed exempt from review due to the non-sensitive nature of the information sought. Participating gardeners received updates via mailings, a project website (http://blogs.cornell.edu/gep/), and presentations.

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Gregory, M.M., Leslie, T.W. & Drinkwater, L.E. Agroecological and social characteristics of New York city community gardens: contributions to urban food security, ecosystem services, and environmental education. Urban Ecosyst 19, 763–794 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11252-015-0505-1

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Keywords

  • Community gardens
  • Ecological knowledge
  • Ecosystem services
  • Food security
  • Gardening education
  • Insect pest management
  • Land-use
  • New York City
  • Soil fertility
  • Soil quality
  • Urban agriculture
  • Urban arthropods