Without design intent and maintenance, an urban garden is a result of uncontrolled, pre-existing, forces. Airborne seeds or those carried by animals, invasive species, pollutants, litter and storm water reshape the life of the urban site. The process occurs in vacant lots throughout the city.
The size of an urban lot cannot achieve the scale and diversity needed for a self-sustaining ecosystem. The garden must be maintained by its occupants to remain in its desired state. “Nature” is reconstructed in an idealized human form. This is the space for design to enter the landscape of the city.
In order to bring in plants and other wildlife, it is necessary to colonize the site, to import and maintain the life that will flourish there. We tend to see the base condition of garden as a rural, “pure” landscape, the ideal condition of the earth. Topsoil, subsoil and rock make up a layer cake, all resting on a bedrock foundation, which extends deep into the earth.
In low-lying, urbanized Brooklyn, this is not the condition. The land is comprised of a complex system of layers that include organic matter, debris and rubble, soil, historical fill, gravel, rock and sand. Each layer is a physical result of the actions of the people who inhabited and utilized the site over the course of hundreds of years.
To choose to make a garden in such a site is to sculpt and construct a new ground, to embrace and navigate the complexities that exist on the site. Understanding that complete isolation from contaminants is impossible, we must choose the extent and kind of remediation that the site undergoes.
Through understanding of the physical condition of the site, the urban garden can become more than a remediation project or a heroic example of bringing “nature” back into the city. New occupants - plants, structures and people - view the space as a self-contained recreation of an ideal world. Like many of the people throughout the history of New York, this type of design brings in ideas and values imported from elsewhere, interpreting its new context with the hopes of achieving something greater.