Gowanus Residents Protesting Community Garden

Photo: Seemann/morguefile.comHere's a strange story out of New York: residents of Gowanus are fighting the installation of a community garden on an empty lot in their neighborhood. They're claiming the garden (which is actually being relocated from a site slated for development) would attract rats and other pests, and they want no part of it in their clean, carefully maintained community. The fight is pitching residents against developers and garden advocates, but what doesn't seem to be happening in the midst of the scrum is an honest conversation about urban farming and the real issues here.

Residents say they've spotted rodents and insects at the site of the existing community garden, A Small Green Patch, and they don't want those issues being exported to their neighborhood. That's an entirely legitimate concern, especially in New York, where exterminators are constantly fighting rodents and insects in a crowded environment with ample food supplies. Residents who have fought hard to keep their community rat-free have good reason to be afraid of potential rodent attractants.

But it doesn't mean they can't have a community garden. It just means that the garden needs to be managed effectively and appropriately with the interests of the community in mind. Urban farmers don't want rats and insects either, because they damage crops and create a nuisance, so they should be communicating with the community about mitigation measures and what they'll be doing to prevent problems.

For example, compost and organic waste should be secured so they don't attract rats and other animals. Compost also needs to be well-managed, and vermicomposting would help it break down quickly. If compost is handled correctly, it's low-odor and doesn't draw insects. It's also important to promptly harvest crops, remove mulch and debris, and keep plants trimmed and well-maintained so no shelter is created for small animals and insects. A New York exterminator can provide specific advice on controlling pests at the site to keep it healthy and clean.

There's no reason an urban farm has to become a vermin hangout, and in this case, A Small Green Patch could become a beautiful green oasis on a currently empty lot, generating food and providing an opportunity for people to get outside, volunteer, and perhaps enjoy picnics and other events at the site. The resistance to the relocation is illustrative of a common problem in urban development, where communities become disgruntled because they feel like they aren't being heard, or like things are being thrust upon them without any opportunity to offer their opinion, let alone ask questions and learn more.

As urban farming grows more and more common across the US, advocates need to take special care when it comes to not stepping on the toes of the communities they enter. In this case, landscapers and their compatriots are responsible for education and outreach to show residents the benefits of the garden and illustrate how they will address the very real, and valid, concerns brought up by the neighborhood.

Hopefully the conflict can be resolved so Gowanus residents have a chance to benefit from an urban garden, and hopefully advocates learn something important from the experience.

Katie Marks writes for Networx.com.

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