Drew Gardens

Urban Forest

Located in the heart of the Bronx (the West Farms area), Drew Gardens is an excellent example of natural urban landscapes that provide various services for the environment and people. In my opinion, Drew Gardens is like a miniature biosphere reserve on the banks of the Bronx River, which contributes to wildlife conservation, local economy, environmental education, recreation, and hosts community events. The garden is supported by the Phipps Community Development Corporation (Phipps CDC), which builds affordable housing in the Bronx and Manhattan, and then serves communities around these houses in different ways. Today I was given a tour of the Drew Gardens by Jennifer Plewka who manages environmental and nutrition education programs in Phipps CDC, and coordinates activities in Drew Gardens.

The garden has three zones, all of which are maintained by volunteers, gardeners, and youth from education programs:

  • Urban forest, an area with local species of trees and bushes (see photo above). Trees retain stormwater runoff, and provide habitat for local and migrating animals, including birds and butterflies.
  • Community garden, which includes 50 raised beds with vegetables grown by people who were born in several countries (such as US, Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, Mexico and Korea) and speak different languages.
  • Open-space area, which includes a lawn, ornamental plants, and a performance stage above the river for visitors and community events.

This unique combination of different natural areas, I think, is very educational because it shows relationship between and importance of different types of land use. Urban forest teaches to appreciate wild nature and demonstrates its ecosystem services (although some urban youth have negative feelings towards a forested area when they come to this garden for the first time). Community garden sends some of its produce to local farmers market, thus contributing to local economy and better nutrition. And public area invites people to meet each other and observe the nature. It is a huge advantage that this garden is on the banks of the Bronx River because it links this green area with other communities down- and upstream, and provides opportunity for learning about aquatic ecology, and about the city water drainage system. In the opinion of environmental educators in the Bronx, if people in cities learn to care about nature, they will care about it when they go elsewhere.

Hunts Point neighborhood

Hunts Point

Several organizations with environmental education programs – including Sustainable South Bronx, A.C.T.I.O.N. at the Point CDC, and Rocking the Boat, and the Bronx River Alliance – work with people in the Hunts Point (Bronx Community District 2). This is a neighborhood the South Bronx where the Bronx River flows into the East River with 47,000 residents (75% of Hispanic origin, and 37% are not proficient in English).

Environmental justice movement in Hunts Point reminds that this neighborhood has several undesirable sites, including the water treatment plant, prison, and the largest in the world food distribution center, and very few green areas. Surrounded by two rivers, until recently this neighborhood did not have waterfront access for local people. Two beautiful public parks (Barretto Park and Hunts Point Park) were just opened, but majority of residents still cannot find green areas within 10-15 minutes walk from their house.

I just thought how different environmental stewardship or civic ecology programs can be in remote rural areas where there are few people vs. Hunts Point where open space areas should be created first. In fact, some education programs in Hunts Point focus primarily on environmental policy topics (letter writing, public hearings, community presentations, etc.) to enable youth to be advocates of their environment, and to create green areas.

Concrete Plant Park

Concrete Plant Park

Educators from YMPJ and BxRA suggested me to visit the Concrete Plant Park a while ago. I finally found time between educator interviews to come to this park, and it was beyond my imagination, although it was still under construction and was scheduled to open in fall 2008. The former Edgewater Concrete Plant on the Bronx River was closed in 1987, but its remnants, now mixed with recently planted trees, have been left intact to provide a historical background for a new park, which gives a futuristic feel. Some local people told me that although these remnants seem fascinating for new visitors, they remind residents about the industrial past of this area, and struggles that local communities and organizations went through trying to transform the abandoned site into a safe waterfront park, which will be part of the Bronx River Greenway.

Through public rallies, community visioning meetings, and local clean ups, many groups have invested enormous community spirit and determination to transform this neglected industrial site along the riverbank into a viable park,” says the website of the Bronx River Alliance. So, communities participated in shaping the design of this park, and it is interesting whether in the future local people will have opportunities to care about it and maybe do further transformation in this area as needed. In the environmental policy literature there is a notion of “working forest” – a forest that provides ecosystem services and also contributes to local economy by sustainable harvesting of wood and other forest products. I wonder whether we can talk about “working urban forests/parks,” which would provide opportunities for local people not only to be passive observers of urban nature, but also to actively engage in the management of urban natural landscapes.

Urban Biosphere Network

UN headquarters

At the time when over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, environmental conservation in cities becomes a priority. Yesterday I learned about UNESCO’s opinion that until recently conservation of natural resources was focused mostly on undeveloped areas, and often ignored metropolitan sites. For example, the World Network of Biosphere Reserves protects biodiversity and ecosystems in places that were not significantly altered by human activities, but there are no similar international agreements about urban areas, which also provide significant ecosystem services.

This week I had an opportunity to learn more about current UNESCO efforts related to the urban environment after my advisor, Dr. Marianne Krasny, connected me with Christine Aflsen-Norodom, Senior Programme Specialist for Sciences in the UNESCO Office in New York. Located in NYC, this office initiated and coordinates the Urban Biosphere Network, which works closely with the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and brings together researchers, policy makers, and citizens from about 10 cities worldwide, including New York Metropolitan Region, Cape Town Region, Bangalore, New Orleans, and Helsinki.

Christine mentioned that biodiversity in cities can actually be higher than in surrounding landscapes, and ecosystem services can be very valuable for nature and local economy. Now UNESCO NYC office and other cities in the Urban Biosphere Network develop maps of ecosystem services in urban areas, which is one of the main steps to understand the role of natural resources in resilience and sustainability of the urban environment.

These UNESCO’s ideas about the urban environment reinforced my experiences in the Bronx. Here environmental issues were neglected during a long time, and only now an increasing number of organizations and local initiative groups are caring about urban nature. To be honest, before this summer I was quite skeptical about the importance of ecosystem services in cities. In my opinion, nature in cities was important mostly because of psychological, recreational, educational, and other human-related impacts. After talking with conservation teams in the Bronx, communication with scientists who studied the urban environment, and participation in some restoration activities with the Bronx River Alliance my opinion has changed. Now I do believe that urban forests and other open spaces in cities contribute to storm water retention, soil and riverbank stabilization, clean the air, and provide habitats for local and migrating animals.

Trees in Shoelace park

Trees North Bronx

The Bronx River Alliance with the Mosholu Preservation Corporation just hired two mentors who would supervise 10 teens during the Summer Youth Employment Program. High schools students will be weeding, maintaining urban forests, planting, and protecting riverbanks from erosion in Shoelace Park and Fort Knox. Today BxRA conservation crew members, youth mentors, and I went to see plots where this program will take place beginning this week.

When we came to Shoelace Park near 219th street, we noticed that something very sad happened with trees, which BxRA planted near the Bronx River a few days ago. All twenty or thirty young trees and shrubs on this plot were pulled out by somebody, and some of them were found dead near the edge of the water. Donovan Goulbourne, a Conservation Crew Member on the photo above, shows one of the vandalized trees. I don’t know the cause of vandalism; maybe it is the absence of the fence around plots with new trees to protect plants from people who do not appreciate them. We also know that local adult residents or their children were not involved in this particular tree planting event, so maybe some of them did not develop a sense of ownership of these trees, not sure. The Summer Youth Employment Program, however, gives a hope that some young people will become more connected to this public land, and will become more responsible citizens protecting their environment in the future.