BY SARAH FERGUSON | Three years ago, Superstorm Sandy swamped the East Village, turning basements into swimming pools and flooding the streets with rivers of water.
On Monday, Nov. 10, New York City Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver and other city, state and federal officials gathered with scores of beaming gardeners at La Plaza Cultural on E. Ninth St. to announce a $2 million state grant to install rainwater-capture systems and other projects to mitigate storm runoff in the more than 40 community gardens in the East Village and Lower East Side.
For New York City’s gardening movement, the announcement marks a milestone. For decades, city officials considered community gardens as temporary oases, space savers for future development. Now, they are being recast as “green infrastructure” to make Downtown more resilient against flooding from major storms.
“This is a momentous moment,” declared Aziz Dehkan, executive director of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, which will be administering the grant in partnership with GreenThumb and the grassroots group LUNGS (Loisaida United Neighborhood Gardens). “We believe it might be the first time that the state has given money directly to community gardens. We’re finally being recognized as a vital environmental asset,” Dehkan said.
The $2 million grant comes via the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery and is part of the $25 million in community development block grants that Lower Manhattan became eligible for under the post-Sandy reconstruction program dubbed New York Rising.
Half a million dollars will fund a feasibility study and master plan called “Gardens Rising” — using engineers and landscape architects to come up with the best means to capture stormwater in the neighborhood’s 47 gardens, located in the area between 14th and Delancey Sts. and east of the Bowery/Fourth Ave.
The remaining $1.5 million will be used to implement solutions. Ideas range from installing underground cisterns and rainwater collection systems that funnel water from the roofs of neighboring buildings to bioswales — which utilize plants and stones to divert water and allow it to be absorbed more slowly into the ground.
The goal is to help protect the gardens from storm damage, while protecting their surrounding communities from flooding and sewage overflows that currently clog basements and discharge into the East River.
The plan will be finalized by October 2016, and all construction must be completed by September 2019.
Of course, transforming the gardens into better water sinks could entail uprooting large portions of turf. But the gardeners themselves will be allowed to propose projects and choose whether they want them to be implemented in their spaces. A steering committee of gardeners will be elected to help make the final determinations in the master plan.
“This is really being led from the ground up,” noted LUNGS founder Charles Krezell. “I’m really grateful to the state for allowing this to be a grassroots effort.”
According to Krezell, the the 47 gardens in Community Board 3 — which span more than 7 acres — already absorb about 10 million gallons of water a year, just by virtue of being permeable ground. So the goal is to expand on that rate.
Krezell said he believed the Gardens Rising plan could help transform the L.E.S. gardens into a “green lab for the entire city,” and bring in further funding for things like composting and solar installations here and in other gardens across the five boroughs.
Councilmember Rosie Mendez, who represents the neighborhood, is a key backer of the plan.
“When we talk about sustainability and resiliency, we’re talking about the Lower East Side,” she said, citing the homesteading and garden movements that rose up in the wake of the 1970s fiscal crisis as prime examples of citizen-led preservation efforts.
Mendez spoke personally about the physical impact to the community caused by the toppling of giant willows and other mature trees in the East Village gardens during Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy. She said the Gardens Rising plan was vital for “taking our beautiful gardens and making them permanent and available, beyond any other storm that may come our way.”
It will also mean more green jobs Downtown. For starters, the NYCCGC has posted offerings for several positions on its Web site, including a new communications director and full-time community organizer. The deadline to apply is Nov. 6.
Some gardens aren’t waiting for the master plan to get started. At La Plaza Cultural, landscape architect Ross Martin and fellow garden member Marga Snyder a bioswale that diverts rainwater that formerly used to wash out into the street. They and other volunteers dug up the asphalt along the E. Ninth St. fence and filled a 3-foot trench with rubble and rocks to filter rainwater back into the ground.
Instead of ending up in the gutter, the rainwater now nourishes the dwarf fruit trees and vegetables planted along the fence in raised “Hugel” beds created from old tree branches and soil. As the wood in the Hugel beds decomposes, it forms a natural compost that feeds the plants.
“The Hugel beds act like a sponge to soak up water,” Martin said.
Parks Commissioner Silver seemed impressed by what he saw.
“This is like an organic park,” he noted, gesturing to the grape arbor made from reclaimed wood joists and the fanciful “whirligigs” on the fence created from recycled aluminum cans and detergent bottles. “You wouldn’t see this normally in any park.”