Category Archives: Discourse

Building Resiliency into a Community Garden District

A conceptual cross section illustrating each of the strategies in the Gardens Rising sustainability and resiliency toolkit.

At a time when national environmental efforts appear to be on the verge of reversal, we must find opportunities to address the risks of climate change on a local level. One such opportunity presents itself in our own urban “back yards”: activating a network of existing community gardens to support social and environmental resiliency.

In 2012, Superstorm Sandy devastated Manhattan’s Lower East Side with inland flooding, storm surge damage, and widespread power outages. In response, members from 47 community gardens formed a coalition, “Gardens Rising,” in order to secure funds and grants to implement resiliency strategies, both to protect individual gardens from future catastrophic events, and to strengthen resiliency for the larger area of the Lower East Side.

Over the course of the last six months we have been working closely with Gardens Rising to build a resiliency and sustainability tool kit for these 47 community gardens in the Lower East Side. The aim is to demonstrate, through specific hydrological metrics, the critical role community gardens can play in any city’s climate change resiliency plan.

Three key components make up the tool kit for the Lower East Side:

1. Community Engagement and Communication,
2. Green and Social Infrastructure Strategies (the tool boxes of the tool kit),
3. Quantifiable Evaluation Criteria for each garden that includes resiliency outcomes and an assessment of the organizational structure.

A net quantification by subdistrict of select benefits provided to the city by proposed sustainability and resiliency strategies.

Resiliency isn’t just about controlling the flow of water. The toolkit provides a set of sustainability and resilience recommendations for each garden that have been synthesized from both technical considerations identified during fieldwork, and the expressed objectives of the community gardeners. As they are, individual community gardens already represent multiple ecosystem services: providing habitat for pollinators and wildlife, improving air quality, reducing heat island effect, and improving the mental and physical health of community residents. With the support of volunteer gardeners, community members, local government agencies, and additional funding, a community garden network could expand green and social infrastructure services to benefit the city socially, ecologically, and even financially.

Due to the communal nature of community gardens, building social infrastructure along with green infrastructure could enhance the resiliency outcomes of the district even further. Lively and operative community spaces create social resiliency by bringing communities together. As social hubs, they could provision communities that are difficult for FEMA and Red Cross to access in an emergency. Vulnerability challenges such as language isolation and inaccessibility of elderly or disabled populations can be reduced when an established social network provides accountability and assistance in aid and relief.

Our goal, as lead Landscape Architects for the project, is to strengthen and maximize the potential of these gardens and their surrounding neighborhood, to change the perception from “cute gardens” to critical ecological and social components in New York City’s resiliency plan, and ultimately provide a replicable model for communities around the globe.

WE Design encourages you to get involved! Find, visit, and/or join your local community garden here.

Gardens Rising Project Announcement

Greenways are the New Black

Greenways are to the beginning of the 21st century what Parks were to the beginning of the 20th century. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, overcrowding and pollution due to rapid industrialization plagued American cities, raising tremendous public health concerns. Politicians, powerful business owners, and other elite traveling in Europe experienced first-hand the respite of large urban parks as buffers against increasing urban strains. Upon their return, these influencers lobbied for new park designs, and development in American cities soared. Throughout the United States, landfills, shanty-towns, and other undeveloped sites were transformed into urban oases, providing an escape from the discomforts of overcrowded housing, chaotic streets, and toxic air.

These first large urban parks, such as Central Park in New York City or City Park in New Orleans, were pastoral landscapes primarily designed for contemplative enjoyment. They emphasized strolling, carriage rides, and non-motorized boating. The need for active recreation and athletic fields would come later.

Taylor Map - Central Park

Central Park, 1879

During the mid-1900s, city populations plummeted as people fled to the suburbs to escape crime and pollution. However, a century later we are once again seeing a migration back into the American City. As urban populations increase, scarcity of space and the impacts of climate change put more demands on the parks of today. It is no coincidence that the urban greenway has emerged as today’s leading urban open space form.

After Aerial Photo of Greenway

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in Boston, MA

In the densely developed environment of the city, new parks must be inserted into the leftover, abandoned, and residual spaces. Highlines, lowlines, bluebelts, underlines—these are a sampling of the new urban greenway typology.  Long and thin, these linear parks weave through the dense urban fabric, stitching together fragmented urban neighborhoods while providing an armature for trees, pollinator gardens, green infrastructure, and alternative forms of transportation.


Punggol Waterway Park, Singapore. Integrating recreation and transportation infrastructure into waterway infrastructure is good for our environment and our health.

In the next series of posts, I will describe the benefits of different greenway types, and provide examples of each.