Natural resources expert talks Big Apple agriculture

Philip Silva

A Cornell graduate student has returned to his roots, so to speak, and is taking his love of metrics to new heights in the five boroughs of New York City.

Just when most students are wrapping up their spring semesters, Philip Silva, a native of Newark, New Jersey, is ramping up his field research along city streets.

The Ph.D. student in the field of natural resources described several urban agriculture projects during an “Inside Cornell” talk for journalists at the ILR Conference Center in Manhattan May 21.

During a video presentation, Silva illustrated how labor-intensive maintaining Five Borough Farm, a project of the Design Trust for Public Space, can be. The first phases involved identifying farms and community gardens – there are at least 900 of them in New York City. They include public housing developments, parkland, private land, previously vacant lots, rooftops and schoolyards.

Silva recently trained volunteers, who will train others to manage data collection at community gardens. He’s also set up a system to measure and compare crop production, composting and waste, and the number of hours donated by volunteers.

Silva also co-founded TreeKIT with Columbia University instructor Liz Barry. TreeKIT helps the New York Department of Parks and Recreation digitally map more than 12,000 curbside trees on about 700 blocks throughout Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Volunteers use traditional surveying tools and techniques, citing the longitude and latitude of trees to compile detailed maps. The up-to-date detail is now used by residents for tasks as basic, but important, as watering trees.

“Urban ecologies are incredibly complex,” Silva said, but advantages abound. Community gardens bring people and neighborhoods together, he explained. They create green spaces, and they provide public health benefits, in some cases supplying fresh vegetables and fruit to local food pantries.

Silva is launching a second season of data-gathering within the gardens, which includes measuring the impact of the gardens on children’s attitudes about healthful foods. In the Bronx, Silva learned that some of the elder, longtime gardeners groused about enlisting the help of new student volunteers last summer. But once the youths’ contribution was quantified in hours, the established gardeners became convinced of their worth, he said.

On Randall’s Island, a volunteer mounted a camera on a pole to shoot aerial images of their community garden, helping measure and plan for future gardens. “It’s not just about data gathering. It’s about goal-setting,” he said.

Most community gardens are a mix of flowers and produce, with culturally diverse neighborhoods experimenting with new herbs and crops. And the annual growing season has been getting longer, with some folks seeding vegetables in planters or window frames as early as March.

A vibrant network of urban gardens also can be found thriving in such cities as Chicago, New Orleans, Seattle and San Francisco. Small cities are catching the community garden bug as well; Silva recently trained volunteers in his hometown of Newark.

For anyone exploring the possibility of creating an urban farm or garden, Silva suggests contacting a local botanical garden, the Design Trust for Public Space, Green Thumb or the New York Horticulture Society.

“Get out there and have fun,” he said. “Garden is a verb as much as a noun.”

Jon Craig ’80 is a journalist based in Westchester County, N.Y.