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After a decade-long effort, the city will transform a once abandoned lot into a communal gardening and learning space for students and local residents in Brooklyn’s Bergen Beach.
The city broke ground on the 2.2-acre garden last year, and construction is now underway, said District 22 Superintendent Julia Bove, who has been working on the garden’s development for about as long as she’s been a superintendent. The concept came about after Carol Pino, a parent coordinator at P.S. 312, raised concerns about a nearby garbage-strewn lot, which was owned by the city’s Education Department.
“The community saw it as an eyesore,” Bove said. “We decided to make something that would be not only fitting for the students in the community but the adults in the community and the community at large.”
The distinction in scale is a key part of the project, and the community focus will set this “learning” garden apart from a typical school garden, officials said.
Having access to gardens or green spaces — from indoor windowsill gardens to outdoor vegetable beds — has become increasingly popular at New York City schools. Nearly 70% of public school buildings have access to such green spaces, with more than 1,200 schools reporting having a garden in the 2021-22 school year, according to the city’s Education Department.
But the ambitions for the Bergen Beach lot stretch beyond just an individual school, or even the district as a whole, officials said. Plans for the completed garden include a greenhouse, a fruit orchard, an outdoor classroom, a pollinator garden, a composting area, and a central space for farmer’s markets and other community events.
“Learning gardens are uniquely centered in communities, whereas school gardens tend to be insular to a particular school,” said Qiana Mickie, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Urban Agriculture.
The effort represents a step forward in urban agriculture and a potential model for other communities across the five boroughs, Mickie said. Though a handful of other learning gardens exist across the city, this is one of the first instances of the city taking an underutilized neighborhood lot and transforming it into a community hub for learning and urban agriculture, she added.
“It’s a really good example of how we can reimagine what farm-to-school is in New York City,” Mickie said.
And the benefits extend beyond just the classroom, she added.
“It becomes a place of resiliency,” Mickie said. “There are some natural co-benefits that come with a learning garden: flood mitigation, stormwater mitigation, access to growing, places for respite and healing.”
Those qualities could be especially important as New York City faces the effects of climate change. P.S. 312, the nearby Bergen Beach school where the effort to build a learning garden originated, was forced to evacuate after severe rainfall and flooding recently caused a smoking boiler.
(The school reopened shortly after the storm, and the “vast majority” of water issues across city schools were “minor, requiring only mopping,” according to Education Department officials.)
Brooklyn gets back to its agricultural roots
The project has been a community venture from the outset, according to Bove, who remembers begging local elected officials for funding years ago — a request that was met with generosity, she said. In 2020, local elected officials allocated $9 million in funds to the project, according to the city’s Education Department.
With a planned opening in September of 2024, the new garden aims to offer south Brooklyn students a hands-on learning experience. It comes as Mayor Eric Adams has made healthy living a key issue in his plans for the city’s students and residents — and as NYC has received both federal and state grants to expand investments in equitable and locally grown school foods.
The Bergen Beach project also harkens back to New York City’s urban agricultural roots, Mickie said.
“Our five boroughs, historically, were farms or gardens. There was even windowsill growing for folks that lived in apartments,” she said. “But over the years, we’ve gotten disconnected to that, and what happens with students is they start to not know the cycle of their food.”
The learning garden hopes to change that. Students working in the garden will have ownership over plots of land, giving them opportunities to determine what is grown, officials said.
Students will be involved from Day 1, helping to seed the garden and care for the plants, Bove said. Early work, such as planting trees in the orchard, will also give way to future opportunities for students, like apple-picking field trips.
“The students can form a committee and say ‘We’d like to grow snap peas,’ and then learn all about the care and the cultivation of snap peas,” Bove said. “Maybe another school wants to grow tomatoes and spinach. Whatever it is, the idea is that student voices will be heard.”
The goal is to create a space for students from not just nearby schools, but surrounding districts, as well as others outside of school communities.
“We really did not want it to just be a school’s backyard,” Bove said, noting the garden will include local community partners by design.
Residents at a nearby retirement home, for example, could come in on weekends to help maintain the crops while classes aren’t in session, she added.
“Local residents are not only assisting to sustain it during the times that students aren’t there, but that they too can eat the fruits and the vegetables and give back to a community that they have lived in for their whole lives,” Bove said.
And once open, the learning garden can serve as a model for other boroughs and communities seeking to build communal green spaces that students can take advantage of, officials said.
“I see it as one thing that’s really great for a school community and a neighborhood community,” Mickie said. “But it will also become a part of a larger cohesive network — growing the green spaces in New York City.”
Julian Shen-Berro is a reporter covering New York City. Contact him at email@example.com.