Students exploring the Bronx River

High-school students from the Satellite Academy High School, the Bronx, are learning about the Bronx River ecosystem.

Oyster reefs


Many years ago the Bronx River was know for oysters that provided delicious food for people and filtered water. Oyster reefs and most other original ecosystems in the Bronx River have been wiped out by industrial pollution, residential sewage, and channeling the river for freight transportation.

Rocking the Boat, a youth education organization in the South Bronx, collaborates with other organizations to bring oysters back to the Bronx River. Today I have participated in an oyster monitoring field trip with students and Chrissy Word, the Director of Public Programs in Rocking the Boat. They were observing how oysters are doing in one of oyster gardens, which has been created by Rocking the Boat a while ago. Usually oysters live in habitats that they create for themselves, where younger oysters attach and grow on older oysters. It is not easy to establish a new habitat for oysters, especially in the Bronx River, which still has some pollution and a different composition of species. However, educators and students in the Rocking the Boat are working hard to restore oyster reefs in the Bronx River to make it a more sustainable ecosystem.

Invasive Species Removal

Can you believe that you are in New York City when you are walking through a dense forest on North Brother Island? This Island in the Bronx with the view of the Manhattan skyline had some houses and a hospital, which have been abandoned in 1960s. Now the NYC Parks Department manages this island as a non-cultivated land belonging to the NYC park system. The A.C.T.I.O.N. youth program from The Point Community Development Corporation in the South Bronx helps to maintain this area by removing invasive species several times a year. A.C.T.I.O.N. collaborates with the NYC Audubon on this project because the island is very important for birds nesting in this relatively isolated ecosystem in the middle of the city. This restoration project is a great learning experience for youth helping to improve ecosystems on this island because there are very few non-cultivated areas in the Bronx.

Social-ecological systems

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Photo: The view of Manhattan skyline from the Bronx (Hunts Point).

In our research project we consider the Bronx as a social-ecological system. Social-ecological systems are “complex adaptive systems where social and biophysical agents are interacting at multiple temporal and spatial scales” (Janssen & Ostrom, 2006). This concept is very similar to the concept of coupled human and hatural systems, which are systems in which human and natural components interact. In the past very often researchers were thinking that ecosystems do not include humans, and only natural ecosystems should be protected or restored their native state. However, today more and more researchers view humans are an integral part these systems.

This idea is especially valuable in cities where there are many people and their infrastructure, as well as various species of plants and animals living in modified ecosystems. People depend on natural components of urban social-ecological systems in many ways. For example, trees regulate microclimate and provide cultural services, community gardens provide food and space for exercise, and healthy rivers provide opportunities for recreation. On the other hand, natural components are dependent on people. For example, people maintain designed systems such as urban forests and salt marsh, which provide habitats for wild species of animals.

Bronx River Crossing

Bronx River model

Today I came to the Hunts Point Riverside Park just on the whim after a meeting in this neighborhood. And what a surprise: after I walked through the park and approached the Bronx River, I saw several people from the Bronx River Alliance and Rocking the Boat who I collaborate with. They were doing something with a huge unusual structure floating on plastic bottles on water. It was the launch of the Bronx River Crossing model that represented the Bronx River watershed and was build primarily with reused materials. The SLO Architecture organization had worked with four student teams in the Bronx to build this model that demonstrates complex social and ecological features of the watershed. More information about the Bronx River Crossing can be found on Facebook.com. Building this model might have been educational for youth and has probably developed some skills or knowledge that are different from what you can learn from participation in actual restoration of urban ecosystems.