Community Gardens Shows Sustainability in Action

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Tompkins Weekly 6-17-20

By Marty Hiller

Sustainability has two main components: planning for the future and resilience in times of crisis. The recent history of the Ithaca Community Gardens demonstrates both.

Our all-volunteer organization manages Ithaca’s largest and oldest community garden, on 2.1 acres of city-owned land in the heart of the Market District. We provide growing space to more than 150 mainly low-income households and community groups each year.

Plot fees are waived for our lowest-income gardeners, and we donate more than 700 pounds of produce a year through the Friendship Donations Network (FDN.)

Ithaca Community Gardens.
Photo by Jo-Marcia Todd

For years, the future of the Gardens has been uncertain, as we’re surrounded by land that’s slated for development. In 2017, the land was purchased by Cayuga Medical Center (CMC) and leased to Park Grove Realty, and in 2018, they contracted Whitham Planning and Design (WPD) to help find a way to accommodate the Gardens in their design.

We started negotiations that summer, and in October 2019, more than a year later, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding, agreeing to reconfigure the Gardens as part of the Carpenter Circle development in return for funding to rebuild the Gardens infrastructure. City officials, in turn, have expressed a willingness to offer us a very-long-term lease, protecting this important food resource for decades to come.

Last fall, we cleared a third of our plots and compressed our gardeners into the remaining space, expecting to start construction in spring of 2020. But in March, the situation changed abruptly, with the arrival of COVID-19.

Cuomo’s PAUSE order derailed our spring construction plans and threw millions of New Yorkers out of work. With our mission to provide food security and self-sufficiency to low-income residents, we couldn’t leave a third of our Gardens fallow in the midst of such a crisis. So, we reopened the Gardens for the year, with plans to start construction in November.

The Carpenter Circle project has continued to move forward. It completed its environmental review and received preliminary approval from the Planning Board on May 26, and on June 3, Ithaca’s Common Council approved an IURA grant to the Gardens of $25,150 to cover a portion of our reconfiguration costs. But since March, our primary focus has been on pandemic safety and on meeting an increased need for food security.

In the early days of the shutdown, a networking group called Mutual Aid Tompkins was created to help protect our community’s most vulnerable residents. Working groups formed around several focus areas, including food.

By mid-April, Gardens leadership started meeting with others in a collaboration that became known as the Solidarity Gardens project. The group expanded week by week to include stakeholders from across the county who share a common interest in using our urban gardens to improve food self-sufficiency. Growing our own food nourishes the spirit as well as the body, and we believe gardening is a crucial activity to foster in this time of physical distancing.

The project supports our existing urban gardens and works to increase their capacity. We are creating new urban gardens in yards and tree lawns and empowering volunteers to get involved and make a difference in our community.

Together, we’re building on existing relationships between our urban gardens and organizations like CCE, GreenStar Community Projects, Loaves and Fishes, and FDN’s Neighborhood Food Hubs and helping to forge connections between urban gardeners and this year’s expanded food distribution networks.

If you’re interested in volunteering with the Solidarity Gardens project, please fill out the intake form at

Solidarity Gardens volunteers have already provided valuable help in the Gardens in our donation plots and in clearing weeds from plots that are offered to new gardeners. With a long-established network of gardeners and community relationships, we’re also in a strong position to help the project.

We’re providing organizational support and growing space and helping coordinate volunteers.

The Gardens has established some solidarity policies for the year. A special donation has allowed us to waive membership fees for low-income gardeners, in addition to the plot fee waiver that we’ve always offered. And we’ve changed the way we handle plots that are vacated in the middle of the growing season.

Those plots are offered first to new gardeners who got wait-listed and then to current gardeners as second plots. This year, instead of second plots, we plan to use them as food donation plots, with the help of our gardeners and Solidarity Gardens volunteers.

We’ve seen so much heartbreak in the past three months. Some days, it feels like the entire nation is unraveling around us. But in the midst of it all, we’ve also seen our community rise to the challenge and work together to protect each other.

We have a rich and diverse network of community organizations; the Ithaca Community Gardens is just one of many. The strength of our relationships makes resilience possible.

Marty Hiller is the president at the Ithaca Community Gardens.

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