5 Questions with Mike Rezny, Assistant Director of Open Space Greening

January 7, 2016
Posted in Community Gardens

As part of our end of the year review, we caught up with Mike Rezny, Assistant Director of Open Space Greening at GrowNYC, to talk about the year in urban agriculture, all the new gardens we built, and what's on tap for 2017.

For those that don't know, what does GrowNYC's Open Space Greening program do?

Open Space Greening builds and supports community gardens, urban farms, and school gardens all across New York City.  That includes building farms and Green Thumb gardens on city-owned land, gardens in public housing developments, gardens at NYC public schools, and, one time, a garden at JetBlue's terminal at JFK.  

Most commonly, that means we're working with Green Thumb to identify a vacant lot and working with them and community members to organize a group to steward the space, designing a garden, building garden beds, seating, shade structures, and anything else a garden needs, and turning it over to that neighborhood group who will make their garden into a community hub for growing healthy food, for neighbors to meet one another, and for running public events.

What were some highlights in 2016?

We definitely had a busy year!  We built eight new farms and gardens, creating more than 54,000 square feet of new green space in New York City.  We also renovated more than 20 additional gardens, built 11 rainwater harvesting systems that collect more than 100,000 gallons of water every year, and had our 3rd successful year of our farm on Governors Island where we ran 9 school tours a week from March to November and worked with more than 5,000 NYC schoolchildren.

What was your favorite garden project of the year?

Hard to choose, but it's got to be the 2 new gardens we built in the South Bronx, United We Stand and 138th Street Community Garden.

For about 25 years, 4 contiguous gardens thrived on 137th and 138th Street in Mott Haven.  They had hundreds of members, grew an enormous amount of food, and were some of the best known gardens in the city.  Then, in the winter of 2014/2015, a fire broke out in one garden, spread to the other gardens, and decimated all 4 spaces.  Casitas, garden beds, picnic tables, fruit trees -- all ruined.  The gardens were closed for an entire year and everyone that used to enjoy the gardens was really devastated.  

Green Thumb flagged the project for us in February of 2016, and shortly thereafter we took funders and some city agency partners on tours of the space.  We started work in April, our first volunteer groups came in May and we wrapped up construction with a garden opening in September.  So many city agencies helped out - Department of Sanitation cleared the space, the Mayor's Office of Environmental Remediation's Clean Soil Bank brought in 300 cubic yards of fill, and we worked with NYC Parks to run a dozen community design charettes.  

The garden has been an unbelievable success.  Where there were once 4 separate gardens all separated by fences, there is now 1 big space connecting 137th Street to 138th Street in the middle of the block.  There are hundreds of garden members, 80 garden beds growing a ton of food, a huge performance stage, and so many happy people. 

What's next for 2017?

We built one garden with New York City Housing Authority in 2016 and we see lots of great opportunities to build more gardens in public housing in the future. 

There is so much green space around public housing buildings that is just dying to be used.  One unique thing about community gardens is that they give residents the opportunity to design a public space in their own image, to organize how it is managed, and to use the space on their own terms.  The best gardens are extremely reflective of the neighborhoods in which they exist, with young and old people working alongside each other to do something for the entire community to enjoy.  

What kind of support could you use in 2017?

Volunteers have been a huge part of what's made our garden program so efficient in recent years: of the 94 gardens we've built since 1975, 31 have been built in the last 4 years, and a lot of that is thanks to volunteers.  We worked with more than 2700 in 2016 and we can always use more.

The United We Stand and 138th Street Community Garden projects couldn't have been completed without generous funding from companies like Timberland, Heineken, and Samsung, all of whom funded our work and brought hundreds of employees out for volunteer days.  If your company is interested in coming out to volunteer, let us know!

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