Foraging for Wild Edible Plants in New York City’s Parks: 
Practical Considerations & Recommendations

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Green Shading Indicates Areas within a 10-Minute Walk of a Park, NYC
Green Shading Indicates Areas within a 10-Minute Walk of a Park, NYC [Source: NYC Department of Parks and Recreation]
What Is a City Park?
On their website, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation (NYC Parks) claims stewardship of “approximately 29,000 acres of land — 14 percent of New York City.” [1] Beyond the parks themselves (e.g., Central Park, Prospect Park), these properties include athletic fields, playgrounds, tennis courts, swimming pools, recreational facilities, nature centers, golf courses, and beaches.

What Are the City’s Rules Covering Foraging in the Parks?
Unauthorized foraging is covered under the city’s prohibited uses of the parks, and carries penalties including fines and imprisonment. I’ll quote directly from NYC Park’s Rules & Regulations: [2]

§1-04 Prohibited Uses
Destruction or Abuse of Trees, Plants, Flowers, Shrubs and Grass

  • No person shall deface, write upon, injure, sever, mutilate, kill or remove from the ground any trees under the jurisdiction of the Department without permission of the Commissioner.
  • No person shall deface, write upon, sever, mutilate, kill or remove from the ground any plants, flowers, shrubs or other vegetation under the jurisdiction of the Department without permission of the Commissioner.

§1-07 Penalties

  • Any violation of these Rules other than Rule 1-04 (b)(1)(i) shall constitute a misdemeanor triable by the Criminal Court of the City of New York and punishable by not more than ninety days imprisonment or by a fine of not more than $1,000, or by both, in accordance with § 533(a)(9) of Chapter 21 of the New York City Charter.

  • Any violation of Rule 1-04 (b)(1)(i) shall constitute a misdemeanor triable by the Criminal Court of the City of New York and punishable by not more than one year imprisonment or by a fine of not more than $15,000, or both.

  • Any violation of these Rules shall also constitute a violation triable by the Environmental Control Board and punishable by a civil penalty of not more than $10,000, in accordance with §533(a)(9) of Chapter 21 of the New York City Charter.

Does the City Arrest and Prosecute Foragers?
Media reports indicate that the city hasn’t been taking legal action against foragers — aside from issuing summonses — since the 1980s, following the arrest of forager Steve Brill, for gathering dandelions in Central Park. The city dropped the charges after media-savvy Brill parlayed his arrest into national print and broadcast coverage that was mostly sympathetic to him. [3]

However, the city stepped up enforcement of anti-foraging regulations during the Bloomberg administration, directing park rangers and enforcement-patrol officers “to keep an eye out for foragers and chase them off,” according to the New York Times. [4]

On the basis of a recent Google search, it appears the de Blasio administration hasn’t yet made an announcement about its policy toward foragers; however, in email correspondence published in Gothamist in December 2014, a spokeswoman for the Central Park Conservancy (a private, not-for-profit organization that manages Central Park under a contract with the city [5] expressed the Conservancy’s vigorous opposition to foraging:

“When individuals forage in Central Park, they’re actively destroying the carefully planned and maintained work of those 200 employees, as well as destroying the experience intended to be shared by 40 million annual visitors.” [6]

What’s a Would-Be Forager to Do?
The city’s argument that unrestricted foraging in the parks is not sustainable has some merit. Unschooled foragers can yank out vulnerable plants like American ginger and ramps by the roots, [7] and some foragers engage in practices that might better be called poaching, as reported by the Times:

“Beverly McDermott, director of Friends of Kissena Park in Flushing, Queens, has confronted foragers directly when she has seen them hauling away everything from plants to top soil to turtles. A garden in the 242-acre park that Mrs. McDermott helped revive a decade ago has been repeatedly pillaged, with herbs, flowers and a whole weeping cherry tree disappearing.”

[On a personal note, in the early 1980s, one sunset after an idyllic afternoon in Central Park, I was surprised to see an old man who looked for all the world like Santa Claus lure several ducklings from the Lake into a canvas poke, which he then tossed over his shoulder and toted off into the darkness. No adult duck was nearby, so perhaps they were his pet ducklings, heading home to a comfy bathtub after a day of free swim? Or perhaps he planned to cook them up like squab? Maybe it’s this ambiguity that defines the conscientious park user’s attitude toward foragers.]

New York City’s parks comprise one of the largest and most biologically diverse networks of urban forests in the world. Within our parks, artificial landscapes and wild areas are host to thousands of native plants and invasive species, many of which could serve as a free source of nutritious food for New Yorkers.

Surely we can begin to explore policies to countenance, and even encourage, sustainable foraging of edible wild plants in the city’s parks. An essay in City Atlas suggests convening an expert panel including foraging advocates, the Parks Department, and academic ecologists among others to help the city chart a course for foragers and other stakeholders of the parks to co-exist and for the parks themselves to flourish even more than they do today. [8]

There are models. For example, Sandy Hook in New Jersey, part of the federal Gateway National Recreation Area, allows harvesting of beach plum fruit, berries, and mushrooms to “one quart container per person, per day,” according to a spokesman. [9]

I, for one, plan to advocate for a re-thinking of NYC Park’s existing regulations prohibiting foraging, starting with this essay. In the meantime, would-be foragers may want to follow progress on my blog [10] and Twitter feed [11], while exercising due caution when coming upon that next mouth-watering stand of lamb’s quarters, amaranth, or any of the multitude of wild edible plants in the city’s parks.

References

  1. About the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. Accessed 16 July 2015: http://www.nycgovparks.org/about
  2. Rules & Regulations of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. Accessed 16 July 2015: http://www.nycgovparks.org/rules
  3. Enjoy Park Greenery, City Says, but Not as Salad. New York Times, July 29, 2011. Accessed 16 July 2015: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/30/nyregion/new-york-moves-to-stop-foraging-in-citys-parks.html
  4. Enjoy Park Greenery, City Says, but Not as Salad. New York Times, July 29, 2011. Accessed 16 July 2015: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/30/nyregion/new-york-moves-to-stop-foraging-in-citys-parks.html
  5. Central Park Conservancy. About Us. Accessed 16 July 2015: http://www.centralparknyc.org/about/about-cpc/
  6. NYC Is Your Salad Bar: A Day In The Life Of An Urban Forager. Gothamist, June 12, 2014. Accessed 16 July 2015: http://gothamist.com/2014/06/12/how_to_forage_nyc.php#photo-1
  7. Enjoy Park Greenery, City Says, but Not as Salad. New York Times, July 29, 2011. Accessed 16 July 2015: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/30/nyregion/new-york-moves-to-stop-foraging-in-citys-parks.html
  8. Urban foraging: a lost art? City Atlas, July 1, 2013. Accessed on 16 July 2015: http://newyork.thecityatlas.org/lifestyle/heyday-urban-foraging-over-not-ready-published/
  9. Urban foraging: a lost art? City Atlas, July 1, 2013. Accessed on 16 July 2015: http://newyork.thecityatlas.org/lifestyle/heyday-urban-foraging-over-not-ready-published/
  10. http://blog.williamaveryhudson.com/
  11. https://twitter.com/wahwahnyc

The information on my blog is not intended as a substitute for legal professional help or advice but is to be used only as an aid in understanding current knowledge.