Re-envisioning New York City’s Green Spaces With Qiana Mickie | Civil Eats

Re-envisioning New York City’s Green Spaces With Qiana Mickie

The first director of New York City’s Office of Urban Agriculture has a vision for growing food in every “underutilized, funky” corner of the city. 

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As a high school student, Qiana Mickie searched for work near her home in the Bronx by flipping through the phone book. She wasn’t picky. “I was just asking random offices to see if they had a job,” she recalled.

She came across an opening for pruning and weeding school gardens and other green spaces across New York City’s five boroughs. She got the job. “I just fell into it. That was really my first foray,” she said. This twist of luck soon grew into Mickie’s life work and passion. She went on to become a sought-after food systems practitioner and worked as executive director of Just Food, a nonprofit dedicated to shifting power by building community-driven food systems in the New York City region, from 2017 to 2020.

“I believe that urban agriculture can be a driver of equity—racial equity, economic equity, and environmental equity.”

Mickie didn’t need to flip through a phone book for her latest job. Last September, Mayor Eric Adams appointed her to be the first director of New York City’s Office of Urban Agriculture. As she put it, she’s charged with “the unique challenge and privilege to try to build a bold, equitable, and innovative urban agriculture plan for New York City.” Mickie is excited about fostering more urban food systems that address the city’s sharp disparities by building living-wage jobs, sequestering carbon in the soil, and increasing access to healthy food.

And while Adams has pledged to make New York City a hub for “indoor ag tech,” Mickie is quick to emphasize the value of all forms of urban agriculture, from community gardens to growing food on rooftops. “People are starting to equate innovation in urban agriculture solely around one emerging sector, which is really not the case,” she said. “Innovation can be high-tech or low-tech.” She points to food forests—diverse, edible gardens that mirror natural ecosystems, free to harvest—as an example of innovation in soil-based urban farming that she’d like to further explore.

While the plan is due out in October, Mickie gave us a glimpse of what we can expect and described her broader vision for the future of growing food in New York City.

When did it crystallize for you that you wanted to focus on urban agriculture? 

When I was getting into work around food justice and getting community advocacy training from Just Food. I started to understand the history of urban agriculture in New York City and connecting that to thriving and social justice and community-based work. The idea of neighborhoods growing food where other folks had left, or creating spaces of respite, healing, and food very much inspired me. I realized it had to be part of the conversation about our food system and agriculture, but also [it shows] what we’re able to do when we get the resources and assets we deserve.

You’ve done a lot of work around food justice and environmental justice. How can urban agriculture bring justice to the food system?

I believe that urban agriculture can be a driver of equity—racial equity, economic equity, and environmental equity. In particular, I think it can effectively help us address critical climate health and food disparities. It also can help folks connect to a very localized source of food and their own community power.

“New York City has a long, vibrant history of neighborhoods and community folks sharing and growing with each other fresh, seasonal, culturally appropriate food.”

Similar to other cities, in New York City our historic land stewards have been folks of color. Of course, we can go all the way back to the Lenape people and how they were growing for their communities, but even in our more contemporary history, it has been folks of color and low-income folks who have been growing in their neighborhoods. Whether it was guerilla-style or advocacy around acquiring land cooperatively, folks identified that they were going to live in their neighborhoods and feed themselves. Most of the time, they’re giving food to folks who need it the most, at its freshest peak, which is not necessarily what we see in food security models, where food is donated or dumped at the end of its lifecycle.

New York City has a long, vibrant history of neighborhoods and community folks sharing and growing with each other fresh, seasonal, culturally appropriate food. That work has happened in community gardens and in urban farms. And it’s continuing to happen even indoors and on rooftops. We’re continuing to see innovations in the landscape, not just different ways to grow food but also urban ag models that focus on carbon sequestration, flood mitigation, and other climate-resilient models.

What is your vision for the future of urban agriculture in New York City?

I’m looking at: How can the city increase its efforts to support access to and the production of local, fresh food? How do we minimize our contributions to the climate crisis? How do we spur economic activities through agriculture? I don’t have a capital budget, but how can I collaborate and ideate with lead agencies to move the needle on more capital-intensive initiatives where we are weaving in urban agriculture and equity?

We continue to see the increase in desire to expand native plants and seed production in our rain gardens. Folks continue to explore how to bring food forests or other forms of native, seasonal, regenerative practices into food production. We’re seeing an upsurge of folks growing food in controlled environments, including herbs, hearty vegetables, leafy greens, and mushrooms. We continue to see folks tending to the land to help work on soil remediation and reducing [atmospheric] carbon.

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I want to see continued opportunities around urban agriculture, whether for free or for profit. For-profit doesn’t mean it has to be problematic profit. I want to find ways to continue to build pathways to economic opportunities for folks who have been historically disadvantaged, from policy to creating businesses to being able to buy land.

An immediate way that I’ve been working on that is by identifying local procurement opportunities within the city. For [food] the city purchases, how can some of that funding go to local growers? Are there pathways that can encourage folks to get their minority- and women-owned business certifications or other certifications to help them be more eligible for [procurement] contracts? We’re going to need new business license agreements that allow folks to tap into the city’s resources or start a business, whether cooperatively or their own structure.

“Are we identifying underutilized [land] that could be used for food forests or other climate-resilient models, which couldn’t be used for another mandate like housing?”

The reality is we need funders, whether federal or private, that value historically disadvantaged folks getting into [urban agriculture]. I don’t believe in setting people up to fail. And I definitely don’t believe in setting people up in a pipeline that doesn’t go anywhere.

I’m also exploring how we can create learning gardens. School gardens tend to be insular, within school property, so there’s not a lot of community access. The learning garden approach is really about taking that concept into the community. One great example is the learning garden in Bergen Beach in District 22, under Superintendent [Julia] Bove. I’ve been learning from her process. It took her years to go from turning an underutilized lot into what will be in the next few years a 2-acre learning garden for the community and plethora of schools in her district. I will continue to look forward to learning how to replicate that in a way that’s relevant for other boroughs.

Could you explain further the changes in the business license agreements that you’re working on?

While the city has an estimated 550 to 1,000 community gardens, most urban agriculture in New York City has license agreements that regulate the operations of sweat-equity work. For some gardens, it’s an appropriate agreement that makes sense for them. The city is essentially taking on the burden of liability, while offering resources, soil, and equipment for [the gardeners]. All of their revenue goes back into the garden because those are common lands.

However, we see some folks who have a history of growing and would love to scale food to production. They want to scale beyond just feeding their immediate neighborhood community. I’m continuing to explore how the city can create new license agreements that would eliminate or at least minimize the barriers to building a business and growing to scale, if that’s your interest and you want to start a for-profit entity.

We need to do this in a way that feels viable and equitable. I want to make sure it’s an opportunity for historically disadvantaged folks to have an entry point to licensing agreements.

Are you envisioning more spaces like the food forest in the Bronx?

Yes. It’s going to take data and additional research to think about how we can increase food forests in the cityscape, but I’m encouraged by other cities that have done so like Seattle and Philadelphia. Are we identifying underutilized [land] that could be used for food forests or other climate-resilient models, which couldn’t be used for another mandate like housing?

You’ll prioritize land that can’t be used for other essential purposes?

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Yes, exactly. I don’t want to set people up for land that might be contested or meet another city need. I’m hoping that within that inventory, we can also [explore] land tenure. For instance, if there is a parcel of land in a floodplain, or it has capital interests that have been earmarked for in 15 years, can we have agreements where folks steward that land [for short-term tenure]? Which models would make sense? I want us to be as open and creative as possible.

“We all deserve to have a piece of beautiful real estate and green space.”

On a fun note, can you share one of your more meaningful memories at an urban farm or community garden.

One that really struck home for me was in the Bronx. A few blocks away from where I grew up, there is now an elder community garden [at the Castle Hill Houses, public housing for low-income seniors]. What had historically been an empty, grassy lot was now filled with multiple raised beds, herbs, and other fruit and veggies.

It made me think of all the years where I walked by this property and never thought anything of it in terms of a green space. But to see the elders having fun and talking about what they were planning to plant gave me inspiration about not just my current projects, but also how we can get more elders engaging in urban agriculture. How do we get more elders that may be homebound or nervous to come out?

We all deserve to have a piece of beautiful real estate and green space. Having the community build it, with many living in this high-rise looking down and seeing this growing from spring to summer, summer to fall, is really exciting. It’s helped me think through programs and opportunities that I’m hoping to kickstart. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. 

Grey Moran is a Staff Reporter for Civil Eats. Their work has appeared in The Atlantic, Grist, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Intercept, and elsewhere. Grey writes narrative-based stories about public health, climate change, and environmental justice, especially with a lens on the people working toward solutions. They live in New Orleans. Read more >

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