Extreme Weather Is Soaking New York City. Community Gardens Can Help.

Intense storms are on the rise, which probably means more flooding. Local green spaces are on the case.

The wooden shed in a community garden in northern Manhattan is not just for storing rakes, hoes and shovels.

It is also playing a small part in fortifying New York City against the devastating storms that have flooded its streets and buildings and overloaded its sewer system. New York’s network of more than 550 community gardens has long been a refuge for cramped apartment dwellers, offering space to grow fresh vegetables and soak up sun and fresh air. Increasingly, they have also become neighborhood outposts in the city’s efforts to control flooding.

Rainwater rolls down the shed’s corrugated steel roof into a white pipe that connects to a large plastic tank. The setup, which was installed last year at the Mobilization for Change Community Garden in Upper Manhattan, captures up to 2,000 gallons of storm water runoff a year that would otherwise flow through the city.

“Community gardens are part of the solution because they are a permeable space in a city that is full of impermeable surfaces,” said Mike Rezny, the assistant director of green space for GrowNYC, a nonprofit that has worked with community gardens to build 115 rainwater collection systems since 2002.

The situation at the Pleasant Village Community Garden in East Harlem illustrates the tensions that can arise between housing and environmental needs. It has been around since 1978, when residents decided to haul away rubble from a site where buildings had been burned down.

These days, it has 60 members who tend apple, pear and peach trees, grow vegetables in 40 individual plots and collect eggs from a chicken coop. The members put in native pollinator plants to absorb rainwater that flows down to the street. During the pandemic, they composted over 10 tons of food scraps from the neighborhood. But this fall, they will have to vacate the part of the garden that sits on city-owned land that is overseen by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, in order for affordable housing to be built there.


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