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June/July 2004
What Falls from the Sky: Harvesting Rainwater for Community Gardens
By Lenny Librizzi


Community Gardeners
Gardeners distribute rainwater. Courtesy L. Librizzi.

If there is one thing that most urban dwellers take for granted, it is water. You turn on the tap and a seemingly endless, inexpensive supply of fresh water is available for washing, cooking, drinking and watering plants. After using it the water goes down the drain and we forget about it.

This misconception was shattered for community gardeners in late spring of 2002, when it became clear that community gardens were facing a crisis. A drought emergency had been declared, and it became necessary for NYC’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to restrict access to the municipal water supply. For the first time in 20 years, community gardeners were denied permission to use fire hydrants, which for most gardeners serve as the primary source for watering plants.

As a response, community gardening and environmental organizations collaborated to form the Water Resource Group (WRG) to help gardeners survive the drought crisis. Founding members, the Council on the Environment of New York City (CENYC) and Green Thumb, hatched a plan that involved teaching water conservation practices, helping gardeners understand DEP’s drought restrictions, identifying alternate water sources, building rainwater harvesting demonstration sites in community gardens, and cooperating with other greening organizations.

As the group’s focus expanded, they began to realize the critical role rainwater harvesting (RWH) plays in protecting local waterways. Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs), caused by heavy storm water runoff, is NYC’s most serious local water pollution problem. Catching rainwater using RWH systems and returning it to the earth—thereby keeping it out of the sewer system—is vitally important to preserving local water quality.

Through the work of gardeners and the WRG, community gardens serve as grassroots educational resources. Educating citizens to conserve water is the cheapest, most effective way to increase the amount of water available for human use. It is also a matter of regaining community control over natural resources. NYC’s community gardeners are taking a lead in the movement towards sustainable urban water management. By working to increase community connections with water, citizens will all become better stewards of our water supply. Consider the amount of municipal water saved by conservation efforts instituted in the past 10 years: 200 million gallons per day—a significant amount compared with the average New York City family household’s use of 100,000 gallons annually.

Building the systems has also had many side benefits. Community gardeners and neighborhood residents are being educated about their water supply, where it comes from and how it gets to their faucets. The captured rainwater is stored in tanks where the amount of water remaining in the tank is visible.

Three summer interns, Nava (Israeli), Mohammed (Palestinian) and Kelly (American) from the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies built three of the systems in the Bronx during the summer of 2002. As Nava said, “A Palestinian, an American and an Israeli went into a community garden in the South Bronx…it sounds like the beginning of a joke? Well it isn’t. This is the real truth and the start of a very interesting experience.”

A participatory design project led by a landscape design intern, Sara Cohen, from New Yorkers for Parks at Prospect Heights Community Farm, a 8,400 square foot ornamental and vegetable community garden in Brooklyn, allowed community gardeners to learn about rainwater harvesting and water usage and to help design their water harvesting system. During the design process, the gardeners learned that they would be able to collect about 300 gallons of water in a one-inch rainfall or about 6,150 gallons during the May to October growing season. Much discussion took place about how much water would be needed and ways to supply all of their watering needs from the RWH system. The gardeners explored various types of drip irrigation systems and water conservation techniques. In October 2003, gardeners and community members built the system in three days with technical assistance from CENYC staff.

Together, the 20 community garden sites that have rainwater harvesting systems collect approximately 250,000 gallons during the growing season. Some sites utilize recycled olive barrels for water storage connected together so that they all are filled and emptied through one faucet. Other sites use single large Polyethylene tanks ranging in size from 300 to 1,000 gallons. The sites are low-tech, the most complex part being a water faucet. Water is collected from casitas or sheds in the garden or from adjacent rooftops. The sites are located in all five boroughs of New York City in a variety of neighborhoods.

During the summer of 2003, an Americorps team from New York Restoration Project received training in RWH building design and building techniques and constructed 10 systems with the gardeners over the course of the summer. Community events were held at many of the sites. At the First Quincy Community Garden, the Brooklyn Borough President, Marty Markowitz, attended the opening ceremony. Some of the events were WRG sponsored workshops related to water conservation, and RWH system design and building. Educational signs have been made and a companion brochure was printed to increase each garden’s capacity to educate local residents and passersby. A research team collected data to better understand how the systems are used, and what motivates gardeners to use rainwater.

Through these surveys, community gardeners shared their enthusiasm and previous experiences with rainwater harvesting. Some described growing up in countries where bamboo was used as a gutter on the sides of their homes to catch rain for domestic use, and others described vivid memories of large family cisterns kept clean by a certain type of fish. Many shared their belief that rainwater was better for their plants. Based on these surveys and comments from gardeners and others, improvements to the design including new barrel connectors and first flush systems have been implemented.

Now thanks to the WRG and New York City community gardeners this practice is being used in developed urban areas. As Mary Sciales, NYC schoolteacher and community gardener from the PS 4 Paradise community garden in East New York Brooklyn, said about her system, “This is great, just opening the faucet on this tank. Why didn’t they think of this before?”


Lenny Librizzi ( is the Assistant Director of the Open Space Greening Program at the Council on the Environment of New York City and one of the founding members of the Water Resources Group. For more information on rainwater harvesting, here are some good places to start:;



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