On 134th Street, between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, an agricultural oasis stands amid a bustling, urban Harlem. Rows and rows of leafy plants and vegetables spill over the edges of raised, wooden garden beds; netted and plastic-covered greenhouses protect organic produce from the elements; and colorful, hand-painted murals with sayings such as “Our Neighborhood Place” are juxtaposed with concrete buildings. Outside the tranquility of this garden, daily life in New York City goes on.
This oasis is the main farm of the non-profit organization Harlem Grown. Founded by Tony Hillery in 2011, Harlem Grown has been, as its slogan states, “empowering children through the act of growing food” for close to ten years. Originally an overrun community garden filled with trash, the area now serves as a space that teaches children the basics of sustainable living practices such as gardening, composting, and recycling. Children from nearby schools are able to both engage all of their senses and independently plant, grow, harvest, and taste organic, locally grown produce at the farm. Harlem Grown utilizes this plot on 134th Street, as well as its ten other spaces — ranging from hydroponic greenhouses and small school farms to larger, soil-based farms — to advocate for food justice while bringing diverse Harlem communities together. Ninety percent of the children that work with the farm live below the poverty line; 98% are on food stamps, and 40% live in homeless shelters. Together, they grow 680 pounds of fresh produce annually.
Harlem Grown is certainly not the only example of the resurgence of urban sustainable agriculture in metropolitan hubs such as New York City. There exist a plethora of opportunities across the five boroughs for people of all ages and members of different communities to involve themselves in. The Battery Urban Farm grows food in one acre of Battery Park to be harvested by students and donated to food pantries and school cafeterias. North Brooklyn Farms hosts community dinners with its produce and provides educational programs. Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project utilizes dirt-filled kiddie pools to distribute produce through its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Farms such as these promote a wide range of agricultural uses throughout the boroughs and to inform the public at large on specific ways in which they may work towards a more equitable and sustainable city.
While these specific organizations have been in operation for years, New York City has seen a rapidly increasing influx of urban agriculture endeavors since 2018. This is largely due to the recent passing of the city’s first-ever Urban Agriculture Policy Bill (Int. No. 1661-A), which requires the Department of City Planning, Department of Small Business Services and the Department of Parks and Recreation to develop a website solely devoted to urban agriculture; this comprehensive database was created to provide guidance to people who wish to become involved in existing urban farming opportunities. Why the sudden push for involvement in organizations such as community gardens?
While urban agriculture is often praised for stimulating local economies, improving air and soil quality, and promoting sustainable growing techniques, one of its most important qualities is its encouragement of community cooperation, growth, and socialization. According to the authors of a 2009 paper, urban agricultural opportunities “give rise to a range of social processes, including social connections, reciprocity, mutual trust, collective decision-making, civic engagement, and community building, all important processes associated with improving individual health and strengthening neighborhoods.” Such place-based social processes are fostered through activities such as group harvests, neighborhood and leadership events, and volunteering, all of which “support efficacy, a powerful mechanism for enhancing the role of gardens in promoting health.”
In the case of Harlem Grown, students foster positive relationships with their peers and other gardeners through group bonding activities, individual attention, and mentorships with full-time employees. One unnamed youth stated enthusiastically in a YouTube video about the organization, “Harlem Grown is like my second family!”
This promotion of social cohesion and sustainable development of communities displays the value of urban farms. Urban living is often characterized as extremely isolating, especially in New York City. Although we are living in a city alongside approximately 8.6 million other people, it is easy to feel as if one does not possess a place or a purpose among them. Urban dwellers reside among dense, high-rise buildings, ride in cramped bus and metro cars, and pass thousands of people each day in crowded streets. Urban agriculture provides a tangible opportunity for urbanites, including various marginalized communities, to take a moment to slow down, to appreciate their natural surroundings within the city ecosystem, and to engage in meaningful work, all the while creating real connections with community members with whom they would not normally spend time.
Furthermore, agriculture in the midst of cities acts as a way of healing both people and the planet. It unites and empowers members of a larger community over a singular, sustainable goal. Urban agriculture enables people of all backgrounds to create a powerful, collective whole that can tackle large-scale environmental issues that often appear intimidating and too difficult to address alone. Working together at farms such as Harlem Grown could be the path to a more sustainable future that we so desperately seek.