As the urban jungle of New York City closes in on us, Shanti Nagel is fighting the good fight for miraculous pockets of green. It could save our lives!

Shanti Nagel from Design Wild. Photo: Joe Delahunty

Not a fun fact: out of 59 community boards in New York City, Hell’s Kitchen is slap bang in the middle of the one that was 57th in line when it came to the planning gods giving out green space.

Basically, we’re starved of plants, of grass, of trees. We’re suffocating.

As if that wasn’t enough to choke the air out of our lungs, let’s also take a moment to consider the other elements that suck the oxygen out of the atmosphere and contribute to the toxins we breathe in every day: Penn Station, Port Authority, Times Square, Broadway. We live in one of the most people and traffic-dense parts of the planet.

Mental health … test scores, domestic violence, and 911 calls – plants can affect all those things

Before you scream then move to the suburbs, meet Shanti Nagel — she’s one of the people who has been tasked with improving our lives, plant by plant. “What I like to say is that we work at the intersection of landscape design, humans, and community wellbeing.”

In the simplest of terms, she’s creating small green spaces and plantings along our busiest streets and parks. But it’s more complicated than getting a few daffodils in the bike lane.
“Although we do very sophisticated horticulture design, we’re really interested in the interaction between humans and that design, and the way it makes for a better community, a healthier neighborhood, and really a better spirit for individuals.”

Studies have proven the transformative power plants have on the everyday wellbeing of humans, she says. “So, that’s really where I feel like my work is. Especially because we’ve done all this work in Hell’s Kitchen that is just so concrete. Whenever we can bring plants, along come pond eaters and butterflies and all these little moments of wild. If we can bring that into people’s everyday life, that really has a transformative power on mental health, and on all sorts of things like test scores, and on domestic violence and 911 calls. Plants can affect all those things.”

Incredibly, those benefits can be felt without any direct interaction with the plants. “They’ve actually found — and this bit can get super-nerdy — that if you can see plants out your window, your quality of life is better.

“At the bottom of all of it, it’s really that humans belong in the woods, and that if we’re connected just a little bit to that, we feel better.” Mind kind of blown.

Shanti didn’t go to college. She grew up on ten acres in upstate New York with, she says, “back-to-the-land hippy parents — sometimes you can guess based on my name.” Which means “peace”, by the way. It’s a challenge to live up to some days. But she takes that challenge seriously.

Urban planting by Design Wild for HYHK Alliance on W37th Street in Hell’s Kitchen.

Shanti loved gardening from the get-go. When her three siblings bunked off yard work, she stuck around all day with her parents, getting dirty. “So, after high school, instead of going to college, I actually learned how to farm.”

When she was 20, she started her own community supported agriculture farm, working 70-hour weeks, supplying local farmers markets. “It was some of the hardest work that I will probably ever see in my life. I was in great shape! But by 24, I was burnt out.

“It’s something I’m very proud of. It really informs a lot of what I do. Food is so beautiful because it’s a common denominator the world over. People want healthy food, they want their children to be safe.”

After giving up the farm life, Shanti moved to Manhattan and entered the still sprouting field of urban agriculture, managing a large farm, but at the age of 25, she realized that, if she was ever going to make a decent living, she had to go back to school. So she took the New York Botanical Garden’s two-year professional horticulture program.

All of which led her to establish Design Wild, a landscape design firm that is transforming not just Hell’s Kitchen, but the entire city of New York, one plant at a time.

She started working in the neighborhood about 10 years ago, when Joe Restuccia brought her on to bring some green space to land owned by Clinton Housing Development Company. “His concept was that, if there was so little green space in the neighborhood, can we make our street trees like a park? Can we take what we have, which is these little street trees, and plant them like a British garden? Why not make them like real garden beds?”

There are now more than 100 of what she calls “sidewalk gardens — because the word ‘pit’ is sort of a bummer, and it doesn’t even do them justice.”

And over those ten years, they’ve worked out which plants can survive the trucks, buses, and dogs — “which is a tough one for city plants” — and which can’t. Those babies have to be hardy!

“Also in winter, there’s the salt on the sidewalks. It’s all tough. If you had to pick a tough place to live as a plant, this would be it.”

As well as the sidewalk plantings, she’s created gardens inside and outside some of the affordable housing developments, and more recently started working with Hudson Yards Hell’s Kitchen Alliance, on areas like the new park around the 7 station, the area known as the Canoe on W36th St – 9th Avenue, and the bike lanes down 9th Avenue.

“We like to use a bunch of evergreen elements because we have a lot of winter in our climate, so that’s important — they have to look nice in the winter. But in the summer we’re adding a ton of flowers that are really for our pollinators. So I say, ‘I’m planting for the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, but I’m secretly working for the butterflies.’ And the best part is you don’t even have to tell them. The day we installed that, they showed up. So we’re planting Asclepias, which is the butterfly weed, and it’s a big deal in the Monarch life-cycle.”

They’re getting the bees too, though they’re way less fussy than the butterflies. “That doesn’t mean that we don’t try. They love the butterfly weed too, but we have Agastache and other wonderful plants for bees. Right now, there’s witch hazel blooming in the Canoe, and that’s for the very earliest of waking-up bees.”

Shanti Nagel from Design Wild on one of the Hell’s Kitchen rooftops she plants. Photo: Joe Delahunty

She’s had her fingers in many of the community gardens that dot the side streets, and was the mastermind behind the Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project, on the roof of Metro Baptist Church on W40th St – 9th/10th Ave.

But her next big project will be redesigning De Witt Clinton Park. “We want to dig into that this year,” she says. “We’ve spent the last six months really polling the community. What we learned is that De Witt Clinton has tons of uses: there are dedicated dog walkers, there are the ball park people, there are some gardeners. But it doesn’t have a cohesiveness. It has many, many fences. Fences within fences. One of the things that really makes me sad about the park is that the green space and the humans don’t mix.

“Also, we’ve heard from the community that they’d like some programming like a farmer’s market, and some summer programming, maybe a music series. The neighborhood is not just changing, but just the number of residents is dramatically increasing. So we’re working to bring that park into the new era to serve all members of the community better.”

What’s in the box? Find a Local CSA

CSAs make it possible for us city dwellers to enjoy fresh, local vegetables from local farms — often picked the same day — without having to schlep to the farmers market (unless you want to). Here are some …

Chelsea CSA
The season runs for 24 weeks from June through November, with a basic membership costing $545 (less than $23 per week) for weekly delivery of farm-fresh, organic vegetables — and food stamps are accepted. You can add a fruit, coffee, or mushroom share to your box, if that tickles your tastebuds. Pick up is at W26th St – 9th/10th Ave between 4pm and 7pm each Tuesday during the season. And, because it completely run by volunteers, members must commit to a certain number of volunteer hours.

Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project
Get a share of fresh vegetables delivered weekly or bi-monthly from a local farm, available for pick up on Wednesdays at Metro Baptist Church between May 29 and October 23. A half share (pick-up every other week) costs $300 for 11 weeks.

Local Roots NYC
Choose from a subscription to a weekly essentials box, vegetables, or meat. Not sure if you want to commit? We get it. There’s a one-week starter kit for first-timers, which costs $84.50 for a box containing five types of organic veggies, a dozen pasture-raised, antibiotic-free eggs, 3 lb of fruit, and two packs of pasture-raised and antibiotic-free meat.

Kind of like a Fresh Direct for local farms, you can either take out a subscription (and enjoy the discounts and benefits that involves) or buy one off when the need arises. Omnivore, vegetarian, paleo, and vegan diets are all catered for (a current omnivore box contains watermelon radishes, celeriac, sirloin steak, apples, potatoes, leek, and mushrooms — with add-ons available for $56.90). Pay for home delivery, or pick up at free at one of the predetermined locations (mainly in Brooklyn).

This story originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of W42ST magazine.

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