The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Whether it's urban gardens or stop-and-frisk, we must lose the desire to "control" communities

Sceptical of the narrative that cities have wholeheartedly embraced urban gardening initiatives, Matt DelSesto spies a connection between city crackdowns on urban gardens and police crackdowns in poor communities. He argues that we should seek to connect urban movements rather than simply count and control them with abstract policy.

Matt DelSesto

Matt DelSesto

Cities: New York-Newark

Topics: Participatory governance, Sustainability, Property and real estate, Community organisation, Parks and green space, Food and agriculture

As the spring season gets underway here in New York, tens of thousands of gardeners from more than 700 farms and gardens across the city are making preparations for the coming growing season. Most urbanists these days are not surprised to hear of such an active urban agriculture movement in a large metropolitan area such as this.

In reality there is much that should surprise and inspire us. The existence of a burgeoning urban environmental movement is anything but inevitable. We ought to acknowledge that the resurgence of grassroots urban environmental organisations has occurred in spite of a history of struggle against resistant city governments and market-driven displacement.

More exploited than encouraged

Gardeners have often been exploited for the beautifying effect that they can bring to neighbourhoods, then swept aside. The New York City government has frequently given a lease to local residents, just long enough for property values to rise, so that the land can then be sold to a developer to build unaffordable residential apartments. The greenness of gardens is taken for granted while the processes that actually produce these beautiful urban spaces and the important community relationships involved are ignored. 

Little Puerto Rico, the Latino neighbourhood on Manhattan's Lower East Side, is a classic example of this process. Gardens in the neighbourhood had brought life back to a distressed part of the city and supported struggling residents. As the 20th century drew to a close the gardens of this Puerto Rican community were destroyed. Some lots were sold immediately to developers, but many of them were left vacant years after being uprooted. In past decades more than 100 parcels of productive and lively community-used land in New York City have been demolished in such a process.

The trauma experienced in the wake of these evictions demonstrates that they are not simply about destroyed physical land; they break apart social ties and disrupt the community cohesion that allows lower income residents to survive in the city. Efforts to "relocate" lost garden spaces are largely ineffective as they ignore the context of the relationships that created and sustained the gardens. Gardens and communities across the country have met a similar fate, as The Garden shows in its portrayal of a South Central Los Angeles farm. The impacts of such evictions disproportionately burden poor black and Latino residents.

Despite outright official neglect of the creative capacity of low-income communities, the environmental movement has come surging back across the city in response to food insecurity and community health concerns. Community-led non-profit Campaign Against Hunger and other community groups in Bedford Stuyvesant, a mostly low income and black neighbourhood of Brooklyn, presses on in its campaigns and actions for food justice even as it remains somewhat marginal to the agenda of the city. With an urban farm that produces 2,600lb (1,200kg) of fresh fruits and vegetables, a food pantry that serves more than 12,000 community members, and active education programmes, the campaign meets the direct needs of struggling residents while embodying a larger vision for a more sustainable and just food system.

The mentality of order and control

It's about time we recognise just how deep our collective desire for rational and specialised order has been inscribed within our own urban practice. In New York, urban gardens have often been considered disorderly occurrences, like graffiti, that need to be formalised or paved over. What is the legacy of our destructive approach to nature in the city?

In the poem "Fearless", Tim Seibles offers a metaphor relating the resilience of nature to the resilience of people:

Good to see the green world
undiscouraged, the green fire
bounding back every spring, and beyond
the tyranny of thumbs, the weeds
and other co-conspiring green genes
ganging up, breaking in,
despite small shears and kill-mowers,
ground gougers, seed-eaters.
Here they come, sudden as graffiti

These words can serve to broaden our approach to urban sustainability. Seibles encourages us to see that cities are more than just disorderly spaces in need of control. His language helps us to discover unlikely connections between seemingly disconnected urban issues. The debilitating urban crisis of mass incarceration and increased policing is very much connected to perceptions about nature in American cities. Our attitudes in both of these cases have long been about specialisation, control, discipline, and order — for example the "small shears and kill-mowers" that evict community gardeners and cut down any opposition.

While ordering, controlling and relocating supposedly disorderly gardens fits into some orderly framework invented by a planner or designer, policy has similarly favoured the ordering, controlling and relocating of people through increased policing and incarceration. In New York City, poor non-white communities are typically seen as the largest threat to the urban order, becoming the most targeted by the NY Police Department's "stop and frisk" tactics. Policing is also used as a proactive tool; for example, Occupy protesters were cleared with a law and order justification, just as residents who temporarily use vacant land can be removed at a moment's notice. 

Research has consistently shown that keeping more people behind bars does not solve the "crime problem" of cities. Ultimately this law and order approach to urban governance merely remakes the image of the city so that the wealthiest residents come to dominate urban life.

Building connections rather than indexes

There continues to be a growing movement of somewhat marginalised neighbourhoods and communities seeking to claim their right to create the sustainable city of the 21st century. Our goal as urbanists should be to strengthen, catalyse and connect these movements, rather than invent new metrics like sustainable city indexes and green city indexes to measure progress at an abstract level.

As more connections are drawn, it becomes clear that efforts to build a sustainable city will need to engage with larger questions about who has the power to shape cities and why they exercise power in particular ways. Urbanists are charged with diving beneath the appearance of separate urban or environmental problems to build an interdisciplinary movement for sustainability and social justice. We need to acknowledge and engage more deeply with the resurgent natural and social forces that have long resisted rational scientific urban policies and forms.

Especially in academic circles and grassroots community groups, I meet people who are eager to acknowledge the ineffective and discriminatory nature of past urban policy and governance. But the question remains, what do we do now? As we work to rebuild traumatised and historically neglected communities, how do we unite research in the academy with long-ignored local community needs and demands? What kinds of policies and programmes will begin to heal these old wounds and bridge differences within social movements?

Matt DelSesto is currently completing the MA in Theories of Urban Practice at Parsons The New School for Design.