Complex problems don’t have simple solutions. Despite best intentions and enormous investment, social and economic problems burdening communities persist through generations. What are we missing?

Copious recent studies demonstrate that like all living creatures, human beings are inseparable from their environment. Asthma and obesity, brain development, crime, economic resilience, even voting levels, are all inextricably linked to physical environment, which amplifies and forms the social fabric at the heart of our shared lives. Municipalities, laboring under competing agendas, limited human and financial resources, resistance or lack of resources to innovate, and outdated bureaucratic structures, have been unable to develop an integrated and effective response that addresses the deep interdependence of people and place.

If we are going to ease chronic poverty and other social ills, we need to recognize the role of our physical environment. The work of community development must include the proactive design and creation of community — inspired, built ecologies so that human and natural systems thrive together. While the public sector may desire this change, it is fundamentally not structured to achieve it. As a private, independent, non-profit organization working in the public realm, New York Restoration Project (NYRP) addresses these issues head on, and with creativity, resulting in a new paradigm for community strength.

Since our founding in 1995, NYRP has acted with a holistic and integrated understanding of how to design and create community vitality by joining forces with the community itself. Working on properties wholly owned by NYRP as well as on city-owned land under multiple jurisdictions – Parks, Transportation, Housing Authority and Education – we have pioneered a powerful new land-based approach to building stronger communities. Our integrated process includes community engagement, design and construction, maintenance and operations, education, and activation of open spaces through a range of arts and fitness programs.

The impact of this comprehensive approach can be most effectively delivered in the 52 community gardens under NYRP ownership. In many neighborhoods, our gardens are the only clean, safe, green space within walking distance. We engage communities surrounding our gardens in their governance, modeling productive modes of social interaction and conflict resolution. Through the ongoing and reliable engagement of on-the-ground NYRP staff, we also provide ad hoc job training in horticulture and landscape management skills. Because we know the stakeholders well — both individuals and community based organizations — we can mount a fast, flexible response when necessary to resolve issues, support community initiatives, or bring new resources.
Any one garden may include urban agriculture, children’s play areas, contemplative corners, and gathering and performance spaces. It may also include composting, storm water management elements, soil amelioration, and plants chosen to attract butterflies and birds and to increase biodiversity generally. Or it may contain all of the above! These features work in tandem to increase environmental quality at the neighborhood scale, and when aggregated, can impact the total urban environment at the city scale. Taken together, the physical nature of spaces under our management and the human needs they meet demonstrate how linking environmental justice and social equity enhance the ability to achieve both.

Positive and Systemic Outcomes

The impact of this work extends beyond the boundaries of our gardens. Time and again we have witnessed how our activities influence quality of life and learning throughout our neighborhoods. When we distribute trees through our free “Tree Giveaway” program, recipients understand that by planting that tree they are changing the essential nature of the urban environment; residents are transformed into partners who help steward the urban canopy. When we work with volunteers to turn a once trash-filled and unusable space into a safe, clean and beautiful community garden, neighbors understand their own power and act to reclaim other nearby open spaces.

A more orderly public environment creates a sense of safety, and residents spend more time outdoors. Public spaces with more people and less trash and disorder lead to reduced negative behaviors like vandalism, public illicit activities, and verbal harassment. Ultimately, our goal is transformation at the neighborhood scale. In a connected, safe, beautiful community, every walk — from home to school, work to the subway, subway to local commercial areas — reinforces the importance of an individual life, while also communicating a message that every person is a valued participant in the wider culture of the city.

Cultivating Community

NYRP’s Cultivating Community Program stands as the philosophical and practical underpinning of our day-to-day work on the ground in public parks, community gardens, through tree-planting efforts and community activation in all five boroughs. NYRP effectively and responsibly manages more than 100 acres of public open space for the benefit of millions of New York residents.

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Our approach to urban land management is comprehensive and holistic. On the land we own – 52 community gardens throughout the five boroughs – with direct community participation, we:

  • Design and build with resources derived through private fundraising;
  • Program community events;
  • Deliver adult and youth education, both formally and on an ad hoc basis;Provide technical resources and supplies to create gardens, 70% of which support agriculture in neighborhoods lacking adequate access to fresh produce;
  • Provide technical resources and supplies to create gardens, 70% of which support agriculture in neighborhoods lacking adequate access to fresh produce;
  • Clean and maintain, while also training and developing related skills in the community so they may participate in the care of their neighborhood public open spaces;
  • Initiate public dialogue around community values, inspiring a commitment to stewardship of land and community; and
  • Make and maintain places where people love to congregate and engage in neighborhood life

Similarly, in the public open spaces we are entrusted to manage under agreement with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, we have become an essential partner — the only conservancy acting citywide. On public land, we undertake all tasks described above, and also:

  • Model and pilot best open space program and management practices for the municipality;
  • Developing unconventional public assets, such as the Peter J. Sharp Boathouse; and
  • Quickly and efficiently provide resources when needed, such as cleanup and recovery after Hurricane Sandy.
  • And through our Million Trees NYC program we have:
  • Successfully increased the urban canopy by planting or causing to be planted nearly 250,000 trees on public and private property;
  • Educated New Yorkers about the benefits of the urban canopy;
  • Trained tree stewards; and
  • Impacted the total environmental condition of all of New York City by reducing energy usage and airborne pollutants and increasing biodiversity and storm water infiltration.

As NYRP grows, so does our mandate to ensure that what we build and manage in partnership with the City of New York and our many partners is continually maintained, stewarded and programmed directly for and with the community. This systemic, needs-based, and community-initiated approach represents a commitment to the individuals, families, businesses and communities within our city.

Deborah Marton is Executive Director at the New York Restoration Project, a citywide conservancy that brings a comprehensive approach to urban land management, including community engagement, capital construction, cultural programming, landscape maintenance and environmental education.