Planet

Secret Gardens: Making City Blocks Green to the Core


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By Adam Brock

Sometimes Manhattan can feel like an uninterrupted smear of asphalt, stone and concrete. If your daily routine doesn't happen to take you through a park, the occasional street planting might be the only flora you see on a given day. But that urban wildlife corridor might be closer at hand than you think: a quick Google Earth survey of the city reveals that most blocks are, in fact, donut-shaped, with apartments ringing the street and a substantial chunk of open space in the middle. In most cases, that open space is divided amongst the various buildings on the block, and suffers from poor maintenance and accessibility.

But what if that donut hole wasn't carved up into dozens of pieces? What if, instead, every city block had a small park at its heart? Besides increasing the amount of urban green space, these "secret gardens" would encourage community cooperation and serve as safe space for children. A precedent, in fact, already exists: the MacDougal-Sullivan garden in Greenwich Village, which has used its donut hole as a common space for decades. An Atlantic Monthly article from several years back by William Drayton (subscription only) described the difference the community green makes in the lives of the block's residents:

For children the MacDougal-Sullivan garden - which measures about forty by 200 feet and occupies the full interior of the city block - is a private playground; for parents it is a godsend; for busy professionals it is a civilized bit of Europe in the concrete jungle.

Though it's worthy of emulation, the MacDougal-Sullivan garden is admittedly a special case: it was initiated when the entire block was owned by one person. Carving out communal green space today would be a more complicated process, requiring buy-in from multiple property owners as well as tenants and the even the city government. Drayton's article suggests legislation modeled on current co-op law, which allows a building to become a cooperative if more than half of the current tenants agree to it.

The most effective catalyst for a comprehensive block greening program, though, is institutional support. The Community Greens initiative, a joint project of the Ashoka Institute and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is dedicated to promoting the idea of communal green spaces by assisting property owners and governments throughout the country. Baltimore, their first test case, has seen modest success: several alleyways have been cleaned up, gated at either end, and turned into vibrant community spaces.
Of course, every city has a completely different set of conditions affecting the creation of communal green space, and what works for Baltimore probably won't make sense in the Five Boroughs. But with a context-sensitive approach and the proper support, Community Greens might just be the answer to turning that backyard junk pile into a thriving private park.

Adam Brock is senior at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, concentrating in Ecological Design. He is a member of NYU’s Green Action Plan taskforce and co-author of Greening The Urban Campus, a sustainability assessment of NYU. He blogs regularly at The Wild Green Yonder.

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