Conflicting rights to the city in New York’s community gardens

Staeheli, L. A., Mitchell, D., & Gibson, K.

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Staeheli, L. A., Mitchell, D., & Gibson, K. (2002). Conflicting rights to the city in New York’s community gardens. GeoJournal, 58(2–3), 197–205.

Community Gardens , Property Rights , Public space , rights claims

In the mid-1990s, New York City initiated what would prove to be a long, highly visible struggle involving rights claims related to property, housing, and public space in the form of community gardens. The competing discourses of rights were part of a struggle over the kind of city that New York was to become, and more specifically, whether it would be one in which difference is accepted and in which access to the city and the public realm would be guaranteed. Using interviews with participants in the conflict over community gardens, we evaluate how the resolution to the gardens crisis, which in part occurred through the privatization of what are often taken to be public or community rights to land, transform not only the legal status of the gardens but also, potentially, their role as places where different ‘publics’ can both exercise their right to the city and solidify that right in the landscape.

Main finding
Rights to property and right to community public space are core to this struggle. Greening advocates felt sale of garden land, for housing, wasn’t really the intention nor would be affordable housing for those in the predominantly minority neighborhoods. They agreed the loss of use of the land would render it available for developers and affluent white residents. Garden advocates mobilized using gardens as sites of empowerment arguing their rights to the land came from ownership through sweat equity by having maintained neglected land for decades. Furthermore, the gardens served a key function in the public sphere of the community as sites where differences were recognized and valued toward building a stronger community. A threat to the gardens was a threat to the communities. Using mobilization (not legal arguments) won the advocates legal rights to several garden spaces; however, many of these spaces were put into a land trust.

Description of method used in the article
The authors interviewed 31 participants including community gardeners and government officials. Additionally, news reports and articles about the city’s conflict over community gardens were reviewed.

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