In one of the most sophisticated cities in the world, the simplest form of community engagement is grafting together communities from the ground up. New York Restoration Project.
Plant by plant, tree by tree, for the past 22 years a charitable organisation has been helping transform some of the least loved parts of New York City. The New York Restoration Project (NYRP) teams up with community members to plant patches of tranquillity amid the concrete. On pocket-sized scraps of land, vege gardens, benches and play areas now flourish where there was once litter, graffiti and vandalism.
These community gardens serve as anything from simple social gathering places to urban farms and outdoor classrooms.
And it all starts with someone from the NYRP’s community engagement team dropping by for a simple chat. No sophisticated apps, online chats or other social media tools here.
The NYRP was founded by Bette Midler – yes, the Bette Midler – back in 1995. The project aims to “make New York stronger one tree, garden and park at a time”.
The community gardens part of its brief sits alongside a raft of other hefty initiatives. These include helping manage about 80 acres of parklands for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation under a public private partnership (PPP) licence agreement.
The NYRP also spearheaded the MillionTreesNYC PPP with the department. The aim was to get a million trees dug in and being looked after in just 10 years. The final tree went into the ground in November 2015: two years ahead of schedule.
While the NYRP works right across New York City’s five boroughs, its core community garden work is in some of the city’s lowest income communities such as Central Brooklyn, Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx.
Executive director Deborah Marton visited Auckland recently to present at the Resource Management Law Association (RMLA) #Liveable Conference. Speaking with Local Government Magazine prior to the conference, she said the NYRP employs five community engagement specialists.
“The goal of their work is always pretty much the same,” she says. “It’s to build capacity and a sense of ownership in the communities. We want the land that we provide to become a jumping-off point for building strength in that particular community by increasing social ties between the people there.”
These community engagement specialists are tasked with getting to know the individuals and organisations working in, or near, the community gardens.
“In New York City only one in three high-need families has a reliable internet service, and many of the people we serve are immigrants who don’t really speak English and don’t have a high level of digital literacy,” says Deborah. “So we believe strongly that you have to be there and talk to people.”
That means NYRP’s community engagement staff get out and about, looking to form partnerships with organisations and finding out exactly what local people want.
There’s an established process starting with engagement staff spending a full day in the area when they know there will be foot traffic, and asking people what they would like to do in that particular space.
“We invite local schools, the community board, the local environmental advocacy groups, elected officials; so we cast a wide net in terms of how we define the community,” says Deborah.
“People may tell us, ‘there’s a playground down the street but we could really use somewhere to grow vegetables’, or whatever.
“Then we come back for a second meeting. Typically we will show models because many people have trouble reading a plan. Then at the third meeting we’ll bring a drawing and say ‘this is what we heard from you; you wanted these particular things’.”
Deborah says the NYRP doesn’t ask local people to design the areas themselves. “But we attempt to create a landscape that will serve multiple constituencies. We try to make flexible spaces. There might be an area with raised beds and maybe a quiet area where seniors can sit and read.
“Some of our gardens have outdoor classroom areas with movable blackboards for teachers. It really just depends on what people tell us about how they want to live and how they want to use these spaces. For example, we have one garden where down the street is a collective of fabric artisans. They wanted to grow plants that are used for natural dyes and give some of their classes in the gardens. In exchange, they make sure the garden’s open for a certain amount of hours a week and help us care for that space.”
This article was first published in the October 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.