Local Self Reliance: Building a Community Park

Because local residents were involved in its planning and creation, a New York City neighborhood north of the Bronx successfully established a community park.

| May/June 1979

  • 057 community park - matthew cole - Fotolia.jpg
    Input from local residents is one key to turning a vacant lot into a successful community park.

  • 057 community park - matthew cole - Fotolia.jpg

Three years ago, New York City spent several million dollars on the rehabilitation of the 147-acre Crotona Park in the South Bronx. Crewmen planted hundreds of trees, resurfaced basketball courts, replaced hoops that had been torn down long before, and added new facilities, including a swimming pool.

But—within one short year—the new courts were littered with broken glass, the hoops had vanished again, most of the young trees had been uprooted, and the pool was destroyed. Millions of taxpayers' dollars were completely wasted.

A New Kind of Park

Several blocks north of this urban disaster, a community park was built at a cost of only a few hundred dollars. A group called the Community Involvement Program covered a small comer of a vacant lot with topsoil, named it "A Farm in the Bronx," and Invited about 20 residents to raise vegetables on the site. A fence, built by local teenagers, helped the crops grow unharmed all summer. And this year—as more and more area residents want gardens of their own—the group plans to expand the "inner city farm" concept.

There are at least two reasons why one park was ruined, while the other thrives: 1) residents themselves planned the community garden with the understanding that the project wouldn't succeed without strong community support, and 2) the cooperation of local teenagers. Also, they organized a security network that included senior citizens watching the park from their windows, so small problems never had a chance to become big ones.

The Idea Spreads

Based on this kind of grassroots experience, a new urban parks program has started In the South Bronx that may become an inspiration to other cities throughout the country. During the next year and a half, at least 20 community groups in this ravaged section of New York City will turn 15 vacant and rubble-strewn lots into gardens, parks, and playgrounds, which local citizens will design, construct, and maintain themselves. The individual neighborhoods have committed almost a million dollars in volunteer labor ("sweat equity") and have donated material and tools to match government support. Some of the sites will eventually be converted to land trusts owned by non-profit organizations made up of the people who actually use the new facilities.

Furthermore, every one of these South Bronx communities has already undertaken at least one modest park and garden venture of its own. The Bronx River Restoration Project, for example, spent an entire summer clearing a river bank of accumulated old cars and trash. Then during the following summer, the volunteers grassed over the area against erosion and built a walkway (reinforced with a plentiful supply of old tires) between the bank and the river.

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