How important is it to preserve green space in our city? This week Anahad O'Connor, writing for the Science section of the NY Times, examined the claim that exposure to plants and parks can boost immunity in human beings. It turns out that scientists do indeed confirm that "when people swap their concrete confines for a few hours in more natural surroundings -- forests, parks and other places with plenty of trees -- they experience increased immune function."
Trees give off airborne chemicals called phytocides that protect them from rotting and insects - but also cause 50 percent spikes in the production of white blood cells in humans that last for up to a week. In Japan, therapeutic walking in parks is called "Shinrin-yoku," or "forest bathing." We call it: getting thyself to Central Park, or one of the many small community gardens in the City.
We all know the sense of delight enjoyed when we stumble upon one of these small, fecund plots in the City, some topsy turvy and whimsical, others more formal. Volunteer gardeners fill them with trees, perennials, and sometimes vegetable beds. The City currently preserves 198 community gardens in the Parks Department's Green-Thumb program, but under new rules being written as we speak, it is not clear that these oases of green (and phytocides) will continue to enjoy that protection. Community gardens have always been considered temporary, according to Adrian Benepe, our parks commissioner. That's because they are managed partly by Parks but partly by the Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development, whose duty is developing available lots for housing. Sort of like asking the proverbial fox to guard the hen house.
There is more to life in a city than maximizing housing capacity. It's a quantity versus quality issue, really. The greatest luxury any city can have is a sustained connection to nature for its citizens, and it's a luxury enjoyed by all economic groups. The gardeners who have hauled away garbage and auto parts and replaced them with trees and flowering plants understand this. The state attorney general understood this when he brought a lawsuit to stop the Giuliani administration from selling city-owned gardens to developers. The resulting protective agreement expires in September. Will Attorney General Andrew Cuomo have to sue again to keep the developers' hands off our community gardens?