Community gardens are essential to the vibrancy of New York City for numerous reasons. The unique educational opportunities that gardens provide for our youth are just some of those benefits. A look at the rise and fall of school gardens in New York City's past can help guide us into the future.
In 1902, Fannie Griscom Parsons started the Children's School Farm in DeWitt Clinton Park on 54th Street and 12th Avenue in Manhattan. She wrote that "I did not start a garden simply to grow a few vegetables and flowers. The garden was used as a means to show how willing and anxious children are to work, and to teach them in their work some necessary civic virtues; private care of public property, economy, honesty, application, concentration, self government, civic pride, justice, the dignity of labor, and the love of nature by opening to their minds the little we know of her mysteries, more wonderful than any fairy tale."
Mrs. Parsons became the Director of the NYC Parks Department Children's School Farms Bureau, and by 1908, the New York Times reported "80 School Farms Now Running Here, Movement Which Started in De Witt Clinton Park has Spread Rapidly." As Laura Lawson writes in her book City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America, "Manhattan principal Margaret Knox wrote that 'When the signs of Spring asked for by the teacher...brings only the answer 'yes, ma'am, I know when spring is here because the saloons put on their swinging doors,' is it not worth while to lead such a child to notice other signs of spring? To me this is what [a] school garden means in a crowded city district.'"
In 1917, the New York City Department of Education published School Gardens for Public Schools of New York City to facilitate more school gardens, because "Our efforts to lay out public parks and private gardens have proved inadequate to reach vast numbers of children who grow up in an environment from which the charm and beauty of nature are absolutely barred."
By 1925, 99 New York City public elementary schools reported school gardens. In 1930, 244 gardens were reported, and that number jumped 24% to 302 in 1931, when the New York Times reported "65 Acres of School Gardens under cultivation."
But over time, most of these acres of gardens vanished, as the general pressures of a growing population and teacher parking lots took priority over the myriad benefits that these gardens offered their respective communities. Even the Children's School Farm in DeWitt Clinton Park disappeared, to make way for what is now known as the West Side Highway. Perhaps the school garden advocates who had worked so hard to secure these gardens never expected that they would disappear, or were simply not around to fight for their survival.
Fast forward to the 21st Century, an era where Richard Louv starts off his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder with a quote from a San Diego 4th Grader: "I like to play indoors better 'cause that's where all the electrical outlets are."
In the past eighteen months, school gardens have seen a significant resurgence in popularity, starting in communities across America and right at The White House. First Lady Michelle Obama has repeatedly attributed her experience gardening with DC public school students as the impetus for her Let's Move! initiative to end childhood obesity and raise a healthier generation of kids in America and worldwide.
Right here in New York City, on May 13th of this year, in the school garden of Brooklyn PS29, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, joined by Rachael Ray, explained that "School gardens encourage more young New Yorkers to eat healthier diets and help them understand where their food comes from." NYC City Council Speaker Christine Quinn told New Yorkers that "Teaching children about healthy eating and where our food comes from is just as valuable as teaching them how to read and write." NYC School Chancellor Joel Klein said that "Research shows that school gardens are excellent learning environments, and students exposed to them do better on science exams."
The resurgence of interest in school gardens means that many, many more of the City's 1.1 million public school students, their 80,000 teachers, and of course the PTAs, will want to incorporate gardening into their education and curriculum. Not every school is as fortunate as PS29 to have space available for cultivation. Therefore, we will likely need to call on the talented and uniquely suited community gardeners of the City to do their part and create partnerships with nearby schools to provide such educational opportunities.
Some might ask if we can afford to ensure permanency of our community gardens for our children and for future generations. But really, the question we need to be asking is "Can we afford not to?"
The NYC Department of Parks and Recreation is currently writing rules that will offer some level of protection to community gardens. They held a public hearing on August 10th in Manhattan. The above is adapted from Daniel Bowman Simon's testimony.