Category Archives: Uncategorized


Going outside or staying indoors? How this choice impacts individual well-being

June 18, 2020
People enjoy green space in Central Park, New York City
People enjoying green space in Central Park, New York City

SRN-affiliated researchers have received NSF RAPID funding to study this question, using multiple methods to understand the complex relationships between subjective well-being, green space access, and perceived risk

A team of SRN-affiliated researchers at Columbia University, and their colleagues at Barnard College, have received funding through the NSF RAPID program to expand their research on well-being and green space. As states began mandating social distancing or issuing stay-at-home orders in mid-March, 2020, residents were instructed to stay indoors whenever possible, avoiding contact with people and going outside only for exercise and essential errands. At the same time, this team began wondering—what impact was this necessary directive having on individuals’ subjective well-being?

Utilizing NSF’s Rapid Research Response funding mechanism, which allows for the swift approval of grants in response to disasters and similarly fast-moving events, researchers at Columbia University and Barnard College have designed a study to explore the connections among green space, perception of risk, and well-being in times of a public health emergency that require people to stay indoors and isolated (grant #2029301). Numerous studies, including research by SRN affiliates, have shown that exposure to green spaces has a positive impact on the well-being of city residents. While risk of COVID-19 infection is a very real concern, and social distancing an appropriate response, how do these necessary measures affect individuals’ subjective well-being? Do people in different locations—some with access to a private yard, others with only a neighborhood park to walk to, others who have no green space they can access at all—experience different impacts to their well-being? And what role does the perceived risk of going outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic play in the associations between green space access and well-being?

A pathway in Central Park
A pathway in Central Park

This study combines online surveys conducted during the height of quarantine measures in the US with follow-up video interviews. Researchers are conducting this research with college students, as these students have traveled home from their campuses, returning to a wide variety of residential and landscape forms. This gives researchers the ability to conduct comparative study of how access to green space influences responses to current conditions and well-being. The survey, distributed via email, includes questions about well-being, outdoor activity, risk perception, and personal responses to social distancing measures. Interviewees, solicited from survey participants, are asked questions about available outdoor green space and activity, lifestyle changes in response to COVID-19 and their effect on well-being, the role of outdoor activity in subjects’ well-being, and barriers to outdoor activity under present circumstances. Both statistical analyses and qualitative coding analyses will be used to determine (a) subjects’ access to different types of green space; (b) subjects’ willingness to utilize green space with respect to type, accessibility, and risk perception; and (c) the association of (a) and (b) with subjects’ well-being during the pandemic.

As of this writing, the survey portion of the study has been completed, with 1000 surveys submitted between April 15 and May 15, 2020. Interviews with participants are ongoing, and analysis of survey data is beginning. Preliminary results suggest that going outdoors has a positive effect on well-being. On a scale of 1–10, participants’ mean well-being at time of survey was 6.3 (SD=1.8), their overall well-being was 7.3 (SD=1.7), and their well-being during their most recent trip outdoors was 7.9 (SD=1.6). Respondents were making an average of 4.9 trips outdoors per week (SD=1.5), with the four most common destinations being their neighborhood (28.5%), a public park or garden (17.4%), a store (15.3%), and a private yard or garden (14.6%). When asked to rate how risky they perceived going outdoors to be, only 3.4% chose “very risky, people should not go outside,” while 27.2% considered it “risky, people should limit their time outdoors.” Half of respondents selected “somewhat risky,” and 19.4% chose “not risky at all.”

Green space in Central Park
Green space in Central Park

The research team is currently cleaning the survey data in preparation for a range of statistical analyses. Interviews are scheduled to continue through June, with transcription and coding set to follow. When analyses are complete, we plan to publish our results in a series of research papers, and also hope to be able to inform current and future preparations and responses to pandemics and other extreme emergency circumstances through recommendations on outdoor recreation, well-being, and current and future planned GI design.

Project Personnel: Megan Maurer (Columbia University, SRN affiliate), Elizabeth Cook (Barnard College), Patricia Culligan (Columbia University, SRN affiliate), Brian Mailloux (Barnard College), Ben Orlove (Columbia University, SRN affiliate), and Liv Yoon (Columbia University).


Sustainable Healthy Cities Network, ICLEI USA partner with Metropolitan Council to Develop Regional Climate Action Tool

June 09, 2020

The Sustainable Healthy Cities Network and the Metropolitan Council, the regional government agency for the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, are partnering to develop a first-of-its-kind scenario planning tool to support regional climate action planning incorporating future technologies including autonomous vehicles, dynamic ride-sharing and low-carbon energy pathways.

Researchers will work with the Met Council on the project, which will provide baseline data on greenhouse gas emissions and scenario planning tools needed to track progress and inform decision-making by local governments at the regional scale, focusing largely on questions of land use and transportation planning. It represents part of the Council’s Metro Climate Stats initiative to formalize the collection, distribution, and use of greenhouse gas (GHG) data for comprehensive low-carbon planning in 188 communities in the seven-county Twin Cities metropolitan region.

The project brings together researchers from the NSF-supported Sustainable Healthy Cities Network, as well as those affiliated with a grant from NSF’s Smart and Connected Communities. ICLEI USA, a national membership organization of local governments for sustainability, and LEIF LLC, a sustainability consulting small business, are also core partners on the project.

The overall team offers a unique combination of technical and policy expertise to facilitate the development of a state-of-the-art multi-sector low-carbon scenario planning tool, as well as policy-relevant guidance to help a wide range of stakeholders and communities understand the implications of the results generated by the tool. The project is led by Professor Anu Ramaswami at Princeton University, who is the lead PI and director of SHCN, and brings expertise in urban GHG accounting, including advanced analysis of land-use related emissions as well as cross-sector circular economy planning addressing waste to value opportunities. She also co-directs a Smart and Connected Cities project, which has a particular focus on equity in urban infrastructure planning. SHCN co-PI at the University of Texas at Austin, Kara Kockelman, is a leading authority on urban transportation modeling, incorporating disruptive mobility technologies. Frank Douma, of the State and Local Policy Program at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, will work with the SHCN team at Princeton to develop a broad policy and stakeholder engagement plan to help ensure that the tool is applicable and useful for as many communities as possible across the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

Ramaswami, director of the Sustainable Healthy Cities Network and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton University, has previously collaborated on climate action planning efforts with individual cities, and she was part of a team of experts convened by ICLEI USA to develop the first US Community Protocol for Accounting and Reporting of GHG emissions.

“This is a really exciting project, offering the chance to do something quite new in terms of climate action planning at this scale, with the potential to support action in so many communities,” says Ramaswami. “The work will make a real difference across the Twin Cities metro area, but will also help develop new national standards of best practice for doing climate action planning at the regional level. The Met Council is positioning themselves as a real leader in this space.”

“The increase in regional climate action is a welcome and needed trend. Linking communities that lack the capacity to act on their own with communities that have advanced individually improves results for all,” said Angie Fyfe, executive director of ICLEI USA. “We are excited to contribute to this project and repeat the work in other regions across the country.”

The Metropolitan Council is the regional government agency for the Twin Cities metropolitan area. Centered on the cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, the area is made up of the seven counties of Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott and Washington. The metro area is home to 3 million people in 7 counties and 188 cities and townships, encompassing nearly 3,000 square miles. Created by the Minnesota Legislature in 1967, the Council fosters efficient and economic growth for a prosperous metropolitan region.

The Sustainable Healthy Cities Network is a U.S. National Science Foundation-supported Sustainability Research Network focused on the scientific advancement of integrated urban infrastructure solutions for environmentally sustainable, healthy and livable cities. SHCN brings together people and projects supported by NSF’s Sustainability Research Network and Smart and Connected Communities program. SHCN works with scientists, industry leaders, and policy partners com­mitted to building better cities through innovations in infrastructure design, technology and policy. The network connects across  U.S. research universities (Princeton University, Colorado State University, Columbia University, Florida State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, The Ohio State University, University of Michigan, University of Minnesota, Purdue University, University of Texas at Austin), major metropolitan cities in the U.S. and India, as well as infrastructure firms and policy groups to bridge research and education with concrete action in cities.


NEW STUDIES: Photovoltaic generation, energy system transitions, and more

May 12, 2020

Sustainable Healthy Cities Network researchers published new papers about photovoltaic generation, energy system transitions, and more.

Kangkang Tong and Anu Ramaswami applied a multi-level perspective and co-evolutionary framework to investigate environmentally sustainable transitions in US district energy systems, including context and niche-level practices from operators’ and designers’ perspectives. Read the full article, “Environmentally sustainable transitions of US district energy systems: Perspectives from infrastructure operators/designers through the Co-evolutionary lens,” in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

Cali Curley, Richard Feiockand Kewei Yu investigated how the design of different policy instruments with the same goal shapes the constituencies of residents participating in the program. Read the full article, “Policy analysis of instrument design: How policy design affects policy constituency,” in the Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice.

Joshua P. Newell and Anu Ramaswami wrote an editorial introducing a special issue of Environmental Research Letters, “Focus on Urban Food–Energy–Water Systems: Interdisciplinary, Multi-Scalar and Cross-Sectoral Perspectives.” The issue consists of nine articles, each of which presents emerging research on interconnected FEW systems as they relate to cities and regions. The papers are interdisciplinary, multiscalar, and cross-sectoral as they consider the effects of FEW interactions on the health of cities, their inhabitants, and the distant peoples and pldaces from which they source their resources. Read the full editorial and the special issue.

Wendell Stainsby, Daniel Zimmerle, and Gerald P. Duggan presented a methodology for modeling individual array and system-wide photovoltaic (PV) generation using only weather data, premise AMI data, and the approximate date of PV installation – information available to most distribution utilities. Read the full article, “A method to estimate residential PV generation from net-metered load data and system install date,” in Applied Energy.

Serena Kim combined a unique dataset of 488 public airports, along with interviews with managers and stakeholders at four airports, to  investigate how airports’ institutional arrangements shape their solar photovoltaic (PV) deployment decisions. Read the full article, “Institutional arrangements and airport solar PV,” in Energy Policy.



EDITORIAL: Urban food-energy-water systems

May 05, 2020

A new editorial from Sustainable Health City Network researchers Joshua P. Newell and Anu Ramaswami introduces a special issue of Environmental Research Letters, Focus on Urban Food–Energy–Water Systems: Interdisciplinary, Multi-Scalar and Cross-Sectoral Perspectives.” The issue consists of nine articles, each of which presents emerging research on interconnected FEW systems as they relate to cities and regions. The papers are interdisciplinary, multiscalar, and cross-sectoral as they consider the effects of FEW interactions on the health of cities, their inhabitants, and the distant peoples and places from which they source their resources.

Read the full editorial and the special issue.


NEW STUDIES: Gardening, land footprinting, and more

March 31, 2020

Sustainable Healthy Cities Network researchers published several new papers in the first quarter of 2020.

Dana Boyer and Anu Ramaswami compared urban food systems in four cities across the United States and India, quantifying system-wide water, energy/GHG, and land impacts. Princeton University highlighted this research in a news story from the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Read the full paper in the Journal of Industrial Ecology.

Anu Ramaswami wrote about how multi-objective sustainability planning in cities must address seven key physical provisioning systems. Read the full article in One Earth.

Lin Zeng and Anu Ramaswami developed a tool for examining consumption-based land footprints, which combines indirect land use (land used for providing consumer goods such as food and clothing) with direct use (homes and infrastructure). Read the full article in Environmental Science & Technology.

Graham Ambrose, Kirti Das, Yingling Fan, and Anu Ramaswami measured the emotional well-being reported by study participants while household gardening. Read the full article in Landscape and Urban Planning.


Patricia Culligan appointed dean of Notre Dame’s College of Engineering

January 21, 2020

SRN Co-Director and Co-Principal Investigator Patricia Culligan, currently the chair and Carleton Professor of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at Columbia University, has been appointed the Matthew H. McCloskey Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Notre Dame by University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., effective Aug. 1.

Internationally recognized for her expertise in water resources and environmental engineering, Culligan is a civil engineer whose research focuses on sustainable urban infrastructure, social networks and the application of advanced measurement and sensing technologies to improve water, energy and environmental management. She also is the founding associate director of Columbia’s Data Science Institute and has served as the vice dean of academic affairs for Columbia engineering.

Read more in the news coverage from University of Notre Dame and Columbia University.


LEADERSHIP: SHCN Director Ramaswami Joins Princeton Faculty, Leads New India Center

August 12, 2019

The  director of the Sustainable Healthy Cities Network (SHCN), Anu Ramaswami, has joined the faculty of Princeton University as of August 1, 2019. She has been named the inaugural director of the M.S. Chadha Center for Global India, a professor of Indian studies,  a professor of civil and environmental engineering, and a professor of the Princeton Environmental Institute.

Dr. Ramaswami will continue to lead SHCN from Princeton while maintaining faculty affiliation status with the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, where she was previously a professor and chair of the science technology, and environmental policy program from 2012-2019. Please see a full announcement of Dr. Ramaswami’s new position below.

The following post was originally published by Pooja Makhinjani for the Princeton Environmental Institute. See the original post here

Anu Ramaswami, an interdisciplinary environmental engineer who is recognized as a pioneer and leader on the topic of sustainable urban systems, has been named a Princeton University professor of India studies, civil and environmental engineering, and the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI), as well as the inaugural director of the M.S. Chadha Center for Global India. She will assume her new duties Aug. 1.

The M.S. Chadha Center for Global India, established in 2018 and part of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS), will bring together scholars and students from all disciplines to broadly explore contemporary India, including its economy, politics and culture under Ramaswami’s aegis. Ramaswami  also will build a broadly multidisciplinary anchor program within the center focused on urbanization, innovation and global India.

“The way in which India grows and builds her future cities will not only impact human health and well-being within India’s cities, but also affect people and the environment at regional and planetary scales,” said Ramaswami, who comes to Princeton from the University of Minnesota. “Connecting urban sustainability research — of my own group and others at Princeton — with new partnerships in India developed through the center can potentially transform India’s urbanization trajectory, helping build vibrant, inclusive, sustainable and resilient cities. This all has incredible potential to benefit the some 880 million people who will be living in urban India by 2050, while also solving planetary challenges like climate change.

“The potential for such far-reaching impact is very exciting and compelling,” she added. “Understanding and helping in the effort to shape this transformation sustainably will require sophisticated interdisciplinary, systems-oriented, and community- and policy-engaged efforts that the center will be well positioned to advance.”

“Dr. Ramaswami’s scholarship and teaching will contribute tremendously to our activities in urban environments, food and the environment, carbon mitigation and related topics,” said PEI Director Michael Celia, the Theodora Shelton Pitney Professor of Environmental Studies in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “She also will provide major contributions to our efforts to expand our collaborations internationally, as well as across the Princeton campus, especially with our colleagues in civil and environmental engineering and at PIIRS.”

“Few issues confronting India and the rest of the globe are of greater importance than devising sustainable cities — India’s 470 million urbanites are expected to grow to, perhaps, 880 million in our lifetime — and Dr. Ramaswami is the world’s leading scholar on this challenge,” said Stephen Kotkin, the John P. Birkelund ’52 Professor in History and International Affairs and director of PIIRS. “We welcome her as the perfect leader for our center.”

“Dr. Ramaswami is recognized as a pioneer and leading research scholar on the topic of sustainable urban systems,” said Catherine Peters, department chair and professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Program in Geological Engineering. “Her research has profoundly influenced how city governments in the United States, India, China and elsewhere plan for a sustainable future. Her approach is highly interdisciplinary, combining environmental engineering with industrial ecology, social sciences and sustainability. Her transdisciplinary vision will provide intellectual strengths to the engineering school’s urban initiative, The Metropolis Project. In particular, her focus on rapid urbanization in India and China adds an important international perspective to the project. And her efforts to link social science and human behavior in urban systems offer opportunities to strengthen PEI’s efforts in environmental humanities.”

Ramaswami is unlike anyone on the civil and environmental engineering faculty, Peters said, noting that one colleague commented how, in a department of 16 violinists, she is a pianist. “I particularly like this analogy,” said Peters. “Because pianists can represent the entire orchestra, which strikes me as the right way to characterize Dr. Ramaswami.”

“We are excited that the new center will enhance both the study of India on the Princeton campus and the role of India as a nexus for addressing fundamental issues that encompass the entire globe,” said incoming University trustee Sumir Chadha of Princeton’s Class of 1993, whose gift established the M.S. Chadha Center and for whose grandfather the center is named.

Additional generous support from other Princeton alumni has also greatly strengthened the University’s ability to study India and its increasing impact on the world. These include a gift from Sanjay Swani, a member of Princeton’s Class of 1987, and his wife, Preeti, to endow a professorship in India studies and establish a global seminar that will take a group of students to India in the summer.

“That the center is named in honor of a former director general of the Health Services of India makes a focus on developing sustainable, healthy, resilient and inclusive cities in India all the more fitting,” Ramaswami said.

Ramaswami has been the Charles M. Denny Jr. Chair Professor of Science, Technology and Environmental Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering at the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota since 2012. She is a member of the UN Environment’s International Resource Panel and the National Science Foundation’s Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education (AC-ERE), and has been elected chair of the 2020 Gordon Research Conference on Industrial Ecology. She received her B.S. in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras in Chennai, and her Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering from Carnegie Mellon University.

Ramaswami is scheduled to speak at PEI Dec. 3 as part of the Fall 2019 PEI Faculty Seminar Series.



POLICY ENGAGEMENT: SHC Researchers Collaborate on City-Wide Food Action Plan in Minneapolis

April 19, 2019

SHCN Director Anu Ramaswami and Innovation Manager Dana Boyer are bringing urban food systems research they are leading at the University of Minnesota to a city-wide, multi-stakeholder food policy action planning process in Minneapolis. See the full story below.

The following post was originally published in the Minnesota Daily by  Emma Dill. See the original article here

University researchers help shape citywide food action plan

The new policy will aim to make the Minneapolis food system more sustainable and equitable.

Community members and University of Minnesota researchers are helping the City of Minneapolis develop a more sustainable food system.

Planning efforts for the Minneapolis Food Action Plan kicked off Wednesday at a forum hosted by Homegrown Minneapolis Food Council, a committee that represents the City on food-related issues. The action plan, which will be drafted over the next 18 months, will outline goals to improve the Minneapolis food system, including agricultural production, retail and food waste.

The action plan aims to help Minneapolis achieve sustainability goals outlined in the 2013 Minneapolis Climate Action Plan, the Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan and the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact. Minneapolis signed the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact in 2017.

Homegrown Minneapolis Food Council Local Food Policy Coordinator Tamara Downs Schwei said the new plan aims to fill food policy gaps in the City’s climate plan. The policy will also help keep Minneapolis accountable to its sustainability goals, Downs Schwei said.

“There’s a number of planning documents and aspirational commitments we made, but what we now need is the concrete and measurable framework and strategies and metrics to articulate our … food system actions,” she said.

Kim Havey, the director of the City’s Sustainability Office, emphasized the importance of food in reaching citywide sustainability goals.

“Really when it comes down to sustainability, the buildings that we have, the cars that we drive are not the things that day-to-day are really affecting our livability and sustainability as an individual,” Havey said at the forum. “It’s really about our food systems — how we get our food systems, what we’re eating.”

Development of the food plan will combine research with community input and will occur every other month during food council meetings. Anu Ramaswami, a University professor of science, technology and environmental policy, will collaborate with the Council to draft the plan.

Two researchers present research to a community forum audience.
SHCN Director Anu Ramaswami speaks at the community food forum as part of the food policy action planning process. Also pictured is SHCN Innovation Manager Dana Boyer. Photo Credit: Graham Ambrose

Ramaswami is the director of the Sustainable Healthy Cities Network, which promotes urban sustainability across various sectors, including food systems. She said the citywide focus on the food system is a “pioneering effort” because many plans examine food production in rural agricultural areas.

“This [idea] that cities can change the whole system because we are on the consuming end is rather radical,” Ramaswami said. “We’ve shown through numbers that if we change how we consume things, we can really change the whole system.”

Dana Boyer, manager of research and innovation products at the Sustainable Healthy Cities Network, said the food plan will take a comprehensive approach, examining food production, consumption, waste and equity.

“The approach of the plan is that we’re looking at the whole system. It’s not selective in saying that this part is more important than this part,” Boyer said.

The plan will also study ways to promote social justice in healthy food access and urban farming efforts. Certain areas of the city, including areas around the University, were identified by the United States Department of Agriculture as areas with limited food access.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey told forum attendees food justice is a key component of of the City’s sustainability goals.

“You shouldn’t need to drive a mile and a half to then spend $2.50 on an apple. That apple should be in the community,” Frey said. “You should have accessible, affordable and natural food … and I think that’s a big part of what we’re pushing for right now.”


POLICY ENGAGEMENT: SHC Director Presents at First Ever UN Environment Assembly Cities Summit

March 25, 2019

The UN Environment Programme and UN Habitat hosted the first-ever Cities Summit at the 4th UN Environment Assembly (UNEA)  in Nairobi, Kenya earlier this month. SHCN Director, Anu Ramaswami, was in attendance to present during a plenary session on the future of integrated urban infrastructure systems.

The summit focused broadly on innovation for livable and sustainable cities,  approaching the discussion with a view toward the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) and SDG 12 (Sustainable Consumption and Production).

Major topics of discussion included: integrated participatory planning, technical and institutional urban systems integration, data needs for informed urban systems decision making, national resources for urban systems, private sector engagement and public-private-partnerships, finance innovation, circular development, and community engagement for social equity.

A detailed outcome document from the Cities Summit can be accessed here.

Framing language from the first-ever Cities Summit at UNEA.

The event was organized in collaboration with ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, Cities Alliance, the Global Task Force for Local and Regional Governments, and United Cities and Local Governments. Participants in the Cities Summit included representatives from local and regional government, academia, industry, international finance institutions and multi-lateral agencies. The original agenda for the summit can be accessed here.

Broadly, UNEA is an annual convening attended by the highest-level environmental decision makers globally. Ramaswami  attended UNEA4 in her role as a member of the International Resource Panel.


NEW STUDY: In East Harlem, Community Gardens Provide More Than Food

January 10, 2019

SHCN faculty researcher Ben Orlove, of Columbia University, is a co-author of a new study of 35 community gardens in East Harlem considering questions of motivation and social value. Read the post below to learn more.

The following post is excerpted and condensed from a larger piece written by Phebe Pierson originally published on State of the Planet, a blog of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Access the full post here

The original study was published in the journal, Landscape and Urban Planning. Access the full article here

En un jardín crecen más cosas que las que siembra el jardinero.”
“In a garden more things grow than what the gardener sows.”

Community gardens have long been a part of New York City’s alternative spaces. But many of us may take the gardens for granted, unaware of their rich history and of the vast benefits they bring to our communities and the city as a whole. Walking by a community garden in your neighborhood and peeking through the gate, you may recognize it as a green space but not understand it as an anchoring presence in your community.

Researchers at the Earth Institute recently published a paper that investigates the environmental and social dimensions of community gardens in East Harlem. The study was conducted by Nada Petrovic, Troy Simpson, and Ben Orlove, all from the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University, and Brian Dowd-Uribe of the University of San Francisco. Orlove, who is one of the directors of CRED, says the group wanted to study “what motivates people to engage in green infrastructure—to use it, support it, or maintain it.”

Community gardens help to combat the heat island effect of the city, and they absorb water during weather events to lessen flooding in a city filled with impervious pavement. Simpson says the gardens are also “fascinating physical symbols of people creating value and different forms of community in the areas where they live. [This study] was an opportunity to understand how people relate to the built environment and how it’s changing all the time.”

The study

The researchers investigated the “basic characteristics” of 35 gardens in East Harlem, and the extent to which these characteristics correlated with the gardeners’ feelings about the gardens, particularly their attachment to them. During the summer of 2012, the researchers visited each of the 35 gardens, mapping them and inventorying things like trees, open space, garden beds, seating options, and structures like casitas or gazebos. Simpson recalls “riding bikes around East Harlem and getting to know the gardeners and getting a sense of the whole neighborhood.” The inventories took time— about 1.5 hours each—and sometimes required multiple visits, so the researchers got to know the gardens and communities well.

To collect social data for the study, the team interviewed gardeners in 16 of the gardens, with up to four gardeners interviewed per interview garden. During the interviews, the team assessed members’ feelings about their gardens. They investigated the relationship between place attachment—or the positive emotional bond that develops between individuals and their environment—and the various attributes of the gardens.

A community garden in East Harlem. Photo Credit: Troy Simpson

The findings

In the paper, the team writes that “It is immediately clear from the interview data that the gardens are deeply significant spaces to their members.” The vast majority of gardeners agreed with statements such as, “I am satisfied with the garden,” and “The garden means a lot to me.” Gardeners also indicated that their gardens increase their pride in the neighborhood and make them less likely to move away.

However, almost half of the gardeners reported feeling insecure about the future of their gardens; the researchers noted that this perspective was especially noticeable among members of gardens managed by HPD that could be developed by the city at some point. Annel Cabrera-Marus of NYRP says that with the addition of the 2ndAvenue subway line, there’s a “pending sensation that there are more things coming” to the neighborhood.

The researchers also investigated gardeners’ motivations for participating in their gardens. While they learned that growing food is one of the primary motivations, most gardeners grow only enough food for a few meals a week. The yield appears not to matter, though; the researchers write that, “many garden members indicated that growing food gives them a sense of ownership, connection, and responsibility to the garden,” regardless of the size of their harvests.

The researchers also found that community gardens play a central role in the social lives of their members. Most gardeners that were interviewed had attended at least one event held at the garden in the last month, and during field visits the researchers encountered or were told about barbecues, birthday parties, permaculture classes, dominoes games, and markets. As such, gardeners reported that they know their neighbors better because of their gardens and that they socialize with people they may not see otherwise.

A community garden in East Harlem. Photo Credit: Troy Simpson

What does it mean?

One of the takeaways of the study is that growing produce is very important to the gardeners—but the quantity of produce is not. Kenneth Williams, GreenThumb outreach coordinator in East Harlem, says this aligns with his experiences. “When we pursue growing food, what we physically produce is a [by]product of the overall outcome we seek to achieve: healthier lives, self-reliance, autonomy, etc. By the time we accomplish growing that food and reflect on that process, we discover the various milestones we had, not only with what we physically grew, but also within ourselves.”

Cabrera-Marus notes that food is strongly tied to people’s sense of home and belonging. In immigrant communities, gardens can provide a space to put literal roots down and grow plants and herbs from a gardener’s country of origin; Cabrera-Marus points out the popularity of the herb papalo in gardens with Mexican gardeners by way of example. “People often lose sight of what food means to new Americans. We all come from cultures that grow food, and the herbs can connect you back to that,” she says. One of the gardeners interviewed in the study commented that, “I never thought it was possible to have a piece of land in the middle of the city. It reminds me of my home in rural Puebla, Mexico.”

Orlove notes that “The environmental benefits that matter to many planners and policy makers are different from the social benefits that matter most to the gardeners.” Community gardens are important to the health of the whole city, and yet the benefits come out of the labor and love of relatively few dedicated members.

These findings could inform the development of more, stronger community gardens, and possibly other green spaces, in the future. The researchers point out that policies made supporting community gardens focus almost exclusively on promoting health and environmental benefits because those are easy to quantify. Of course those benefits are valuable, but policies of that type are more likely to succeed if they take into consideration what is important to community gardeners, such as healthy community ties, land security, and agency over decision-making.

Access the full story here