Green on the Urban Landscape

Article excerpt

"God the first garden made, and the first city Cain," wrote 17th-century poet Abraham Cowley. Clearly he wasn't talking about New York's Manhattan, but he could have been. Like the song says, New York is "a wonderful town" but it is also the definitive urban jungle and, if the evolutionary biologist Edmund O Wilson, author of Biophilia, is right in his hypothesis - that man has an innate need to be in nature, indeed, that our very existence depends on "our propensity to explore and affiliate with {nature}, that our spirit is woven from it {and} hope rises on its currents" - New Yorkers could be seriously missing out. The people at the city's Green Guerrillas think so too. A non-profit community gardens action group, they are dedicated to "greening" the city. "When you live in Hell's Kitchen {on Manhattan's East Side}, and you don't have a front yard and you don't have green, then in the summer, when it gets hot and dusty and there's glare bouncing off the concrete, it's a brutal environment," says Phil Tietz, associate director of Green Guerrillas which, as well as assisting in the setting up of community gardens, advocates the anarchic "bombing" of vacant lots with wild flower "seed grenades" (the recipe is given in its newsletter).

There are more than 1,000 community gardens in the city, which have evolved on the most unlikely sites - the Liz Christy Garden (named in memory of one of the group's founders) at the busy intersection of Houston and Bowery. The gardening equivalent of the fishes and loaves story - and every bit as much of a miracle - it has been transformed from an abandoned 50 by 150ft lot, littered with rubble, into a haven of flowers, vegetables, grape vines, and trees. There's even a pond - with frog - and a working beehive.

"It's the garden as a community centre," says Tietz. "When there's green it keeps people in the neighbourhood which makes it safer and acts as a catalyst for other self-help endeavours. When people get together and build a garden they realise they can do other things by community." According to Dr Michael E Soule, writing in Biophilia Hypothesis, solitary communing with nature is just as important. "Our little acts of biophilia - buying bird seed, caring for pets, nurturing our gardens - sustain us emotionally," he writes. The significant thing is that nature is responsive. One of the most terrifying aspects of the future world envisioned in Blade Runner is the rarity of real nature - never mind that androids have emotions and fake snakes and owls are indistinguishable from the real thing. Fakes don't need and don't respond to human care and it is that, as much as anything, that makes the non- organic urban landscape seem unsympathetic to humans. Perhaps therein lies the extra pleasure we take in the little oases of flora and fauna - all the more extraordinary for being so hard won - which are sprouting up all over New York. "People have been making gardens with potted shrubs and rectangles of Astroturf on the roofs across the street," says New York illustrator Guy Billout, who was inspired by the view from the windows of his Lafayette Street studio in one of his illustrations for The Atlantic Monthly. Branches of trees speak surrealistically from the tops of buildings all over the city and the Rockefeller Center, between Fifth and Seventh Avenues and 47th and 51st Streets, has several roof-gardens. Sadly, they are not accessible to the public, but are visible from the eighth floor cafe of the department store Saks Fifth Avenue, and from the windows of those who work in the buildings nearby. "They are exquisite," says one local office worker. "But I've never actually seen anyone walking in them." Those stuck at ground level can find solace in the pretty Channel Gardens (so-called because they are located between the French and English buildings of the Rockefeller Center) which lead to the skating rink. …