Scott Intern speaks on urban gardening

A few years ago, Elizabeth Haegele was working as a programmer for a big business firm, but every day after work she found herself drawn to a local garden. Finally, she decided the business world wasn’t for her, and that public horticulture was the way to go. “I found I was really missing something,” she explained. “I wanted something more fulfilling.”

For the past few months, she has been the Curatorial Intern for the Scott Arboretum. Yesterday, she gave a lecture on the power and proximity of public gardening and community green-spaces.

She sees the Arboretum as an incredibly special resource for the students, college, and town. “The Arboretum is a really special place,” she told her rapt listeners. “A lot of colleges have arboretum’s associated with them, but they are totally separate. In Swarthmore, you leave your dorms and you are right there.” And Swarthmore is no average arboretum. “Our magnolia collection is one the most significant in North America,” she explained.

Still, she explained that the Arboretum’s mission is not purely to serve the college and students. Instead, “it was founded to grow ornamental plants that are from the Delaware Valley,” and has become an important resource to local home gardeners. These could include Swarthmore students. If students are interested in gardening, “there are always places where you can start planting stuff.”

The core of her talk, however, was about how communities have come together to create green spaces in the midst of cities. ‘Why do people garden?’ she asked. The obvious answer is that people like to “beautify living space in order to make property worth more.” She doesn’t believe this explains the passion with which people through their lives in to the endeavor, however.

Instead, she proposed that it was part land-use management, part beautification, part passion, and part sustainability. In cities, it frequently takes place in “abandoned spaces” when “people just start planting things.” Communities come together to reclaim their green-spaces, and when “the city services are there to support them”–as is often the case in PhilAdelphia–it is a very achievable goal.

Haegele has worked especially closely in New York City during an internship at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. New York presents a series of challenges to a home gardener. Unlike many other cities, New York has a complicated community gardening structure. “There are all of these different scattered garden organizations, and it isn’t clear how to get involved,” said Haegele. Some of the best include the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, Trust for Public Land, the New York Horticultural Society, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, the Bronx Botanical Garden, the Bronx Frontier Development Corporation, the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, and Operation Green Thumb.

Community gardening in New York City faced a crisis in 1995. A public project known as Green Thumb which had bought and preserved gardens was ended by the Guiliani administration. Guiliani intended to auction off all of the formerly-preserved gardens. After a lengthy fight, the city was only blocked by a Supreme Court decision and a office by actress Bette Midler to purchase and preserve the gardens. Midler cited Eugene Lang as her inspiration for taking this bold step to preserve the city’s open spaces.

While Midler did a wonderful thing, “this is not a way to create sustainable green spaces in a city” argued Haegele.

Philadelphia is a better example of a city with “involvement at all levels.” Instead of relying on generous individuals, Philadelphia relies on “resources from the government and interest from the community.” The state’s horticultural division provides resources and support for urban gardens, and in turn the gardens deal with a lot of things including “using vacant space, education, storm water run off issues, healthy land, healthy space, dealing with the lack of green space.”

In West Philadelphia, Haegele used Carol Park as an example of how community and government can work together. The park “had been abandoned by the community and the city,” until a long-time resident “woke up one morning and said she wanted her park back.” With her neighbors, they began to cut down dying trees and repainting benches, “and then the city came back! They installed lights and helped the residents. And now it is a beautiful park, it even has a fountain.” When the city saw the community was ready to support the park, the city was ready to work with them.

Haegele hopes to encourage gardeners at Swarthmore and in Philadelphia to consider trying to make their own patch of green amidst the urban sea of concrete, and this lecture was one of the many early steps.


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