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The Last Word - March 2018

The Last Word with…
… Bill LoSasso

By Deborah L. Vence

Before Bill LoSasso became the director of GreenThumb, an arm of New York City Parks that oversees more than 550 community gardens, he was a volunteer community gardener in a large and active GreenThumb community garden in lower Manhattan.

He ended up serving as the executive director of the garden for several years, planning events, providing programming, expanding membership and working closely with NYC Parks on a number of initiatives at the garden.

"So, when the GreenThumb director position became available it seemed a natural fit for me. It's been amazing to work in an agency as large and diverse as NYC Parks, and to help New Yorkers get access to land they can use as their own," LoSasso said.

GreenThumb is the community gardening program of NYC Parks. Supporting more than 550 community gardens and 20,000 volunteer gardeners, GreenThumb is the largest community gardening program in the nation. "We support our gardeners through property management and by programming, materials and technical assistance," LoSasso said. "We were founded in 1978 to support neighborhood volunteers who started gardens on vacant lots, and we are celebrating our 40th anniversary this year. Some of our gardeners have been with us since the beginning."

As the current director, LoSasso is responsible for oversight of the GreenThumb department, and oversees a staff of about 40 and a budget of about $3 million.

"I try to visit as many gardens (and gardeners) as possible each year, and I've been to more than half of our 550 community gardens since starting nearly two years ago," he said. "It's important to hear directly from our gardeners about their needs and how we can best support them, so I try to attend garden events and gatherings where I'll have an opportunity to interact with gardeners."

He also tries to listen, above all else. "Sometimes that means hearing about new, novel gardener projects, sometimes it's hearing a great idea for a workshop that we can host for gardeners, and other times it means hearing what we can do better at GreenThumb," he said. "It's always valuable information since our volunteer gardeners are the end users of our services and are in the best position to advise how we can support community gardening in New York City."

LoSasso always has been interested in the outdoors, and, during his free time, enjoys traveling, hiking in upstate New York, exploring the 30,000 acres of parkland in New York City, as well as visiting and staying active in GreenThumb community gardens.

As an urban planner, he is particularly interested in how New Yorkers are using open spaces throughout the city to relax, engage in activities and interact with one another, and how the city can provide more opportunities for that. "Working at NYC Parks' GreenThumb has allowed me to pursue those interests," he said. "This is very much a dream job for me. The best part of my job is the people—getting to support and work with our network of 20,000 volunteer gardeners.

"Decades ago, during New York City's financial crisis of the 1970s, neighborhood activists cleaned up vacant, abandoned lots to create community gardens, and today volunteer gardeners continue to care for these green oases across the city," he added.

He said GreenThumb gardeners volunteer out of the belief that the city is a better place when it's green, sustainable and New Yorkers are interacting with one another. "Each GreenThumb garden is unique and is a reflection of its block and its neighborhood. Some are urban farms while others are intended more as a community gathering space," he said.

LoSasso added that it's rewarding to spend his days making New York City a greener place with stronger communities. "New York is thought of by many as a vast sea of concrete, but our community gardens provide green spaces on blocks throughout the city for New Yorkers to interact, grow fresh food and relax," he said.

Having been a community gardener prior to joining GreenThumb, LoSasso understands the difficulties of managing an active space and garden in a dense urban environment. "It has helped to know many of the leaders in the gardening community, and they've been helpful in keeping me informed of what is happening across our expansive network of gardens," he said.

"GreenThumb's mission is to support our 550 community gardens and 20,000 volunteer gardeners as they care for gardens across the city," he said. "We have grown tremendously in recent years—our staff and budget have essentially doubled, reflecting the ever-growing interest in community gardening in New York City.

"I'm particularly interested in expanding GreenThumb's reach and impact," he added, "so we're focusing on starting new gardens in areas of the city that don't currently have them, and in engaging more of the public in participating in a community garden near them."

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