NYC Put Millions Into Green Infrastructure by the Bronx River. Did it Work? (Part 3)

This is the third article in a three-part series on green infrastructure policy in NYC. Read part one of the series here and part two here.

It’s only a six minute walk from the Hunts Point Ave subway station to The Point Community Development Center. But to reach the center, you have to cross the notorious Sheridan Expressway.

When the city built the mammoth highway over 50 years ago, it didn’t care that it would divide the community, limit waterfront access, and increase particulate matter pollution.

The consequences have been disastrous. The network of highways that wrap around the South Bronx trigger asthma. The lack of green space drives people to the hospital with heat-related illnesses.

On March 6, I sat down with Sharon Lee De La Cruz, The Point’s Director of Sustainability, and her colleague, Fernando Ortiz, to talk about their environmental advocacy.

None of us imagined that in one week, there would be a disaster that would raise the stakes even higher: the COVID-19 pandemic.

We Knew This Was Coming

Of course the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Bronx the hardest of the five NYC boroughs.

The Bronx ranked in last place of all 62 counties in New York State for health outcomes.

As State Assembly member Karines Reyes said, “We had been sounding the alarm.”

The CDC lists a number of reasons why South Bronx residents are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, including some that correlate with poor environmental quality. For example, people with asthma are at greater risk.

The South Bronx is one of DEP’s environmental justice communities because it is disproportionately impacted by environmental issues. The $3B NYC Green Infrastructure Plan is supposed to improve local health outcomes. DEP’s claims are backed by multiple research studies that found green infrastructure promotes social health and well being.

Halfway through the implementation of the NYC Green Infrastructure Plan, what evidence do we have to support the policy’s environmental and social impact?

In the final installment of this series, we will explore the environmental and well being benefits of green infrastructure, and how stakeholders are evaluating the impact in the South Bronx.

Calculating DEP’s Impact

The selling point of the NYC Green Infrastructure Plan was that green infrastructure provides co-benefits that grey infrastructure cannot.

When DEP announced the plan in 2010, it estimated the value of those additional benefits was between $139 and $418 million.

One tool the agency used to estimate the benefits of potential projects was a Co-Benefits Calculator. Unfortunately, the website that host the calculator is down, and DEP did not provide an explanation.

co-benefits calculator screenshot
Image courtesy of Hazen & Sawyer

Users input the specifications for a green infrastructure project, and the calculator outputs expected environmental and social gains. For example, a 100 sq ft rain garden that has 70% shrub cover is predicted to support 0.69 jobs per year.

A local engineering firm, Hazen & Sawyer, built the Calculator using data from literature reviews, lifecycle analyses, and on-site research. In 2015, DEP launched a $10 million, five-year research program to collect data on the performance and co-benefits of the city’s green infrastructure. While some of DEP’s research on the environmental co-benefits of green infrastructure is publicly available, I could not find any research on social co-benefits.

Remote Monitoring Improves the Calculator

In a 2015 study, Hazen & Sawyer used sensors and time lapse cameras to remotely monitor 8 green infrastructure sites in NYC. The remote monitoring equipment captured data on temperature, and vegetable cover. During in-person site visits, the team also collected data on pollinators and soil.

time-lapse camera evaluations
Image courtesy of Hazen & Sawyer

They found that green infrastructure has an overall positive impact on the environment. Surfaces within green infrastructure sites were generally cooler than nearby pavement. Pollinators appeared on all sites, even in highly urbanized areas. There were also higher levels of biological activity in soils, but some pollutant accumulation.

All of these findings helped refine the Co-Benefit Calculator’s modelling.

However, Hazen & Sawyer’s remote monitoring system did not capture data about the social impacts of NYC’s green infrastructure.

Without published research to review, I interviewed local community based organizations on their assessment of the Plan’s impact.

Communities Count Social Outcomes

The Co-Benefits Calculator scores these four social outcomes: jobs supported, aesthetic improvement, creation of green space and educational opportunities.

De La Cruz and Ortiz at The Point believe the creation of green space is the most valuable potential outcome. However, they were skeptical about implementation.

Behind me was a wall with several plans to remedy environmental issues in the South Bronx created by the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and other agencies. As we stared at decades worth of plans, Ortiz shook his head.

“We have to fight for everything,” De La Cruz explained. Many of the plans, such as the Hunts Point Resiliency Project, were abandoned or significantly scaled back. The current rate of green infrastructure construction in the South Bronx reinforced their worry.

They are raised concerns about eco-gentrification. If the NYC Green Infrastructure Plan does improve the community’s aesthetics and availability of green space, will wealthier New Yorkers trickle in and displace the community?

Michelle Luebke, Director of Environmental Stewardship for the Bronx River Alliance, also recognizes the threat. In response, the Alliance works to create access to green spaces and programming that are free to the public. For example, on Fridays, the Alliance organizes free paddling in Concrete Park.

Luebke also takes residents on tours of local green infrastructure projects to learn about their environmental and social benefits. On the tours, she encourages residents to report rain garden maintenance issues to 311. “It’s important that DEP know people in the Bronx are paying attention and care about our spaces.”

Where are the jobs?

The NYC Green Infrastructure Plan has created some new green spaces and educational opportunities in the South Bronx. But the biggest question mark is jobs.

According to Luebke, DEP at some point estimated that 40,000 jobs would be created through the NYC Green Infrastructure Plan. DEP did not respond to a request for comment. However, Luebke has not found a pipeline for graduates of her green jobs apprenticeship program at DEP. DEP employs more than 50 office-based staff to oversee program operations, and 100 field employees to maintain its green infrastructure. The bulk of the remaining jobs are on construction crews who build the green infrastructure, and maintain it for the first 2 years. However, the contractor maintenance model has produced mixed results.

A 2019 report by the NYC Comptroller found “visible maintenance deficiencies at 95 of the 102 rain gardens that auditors visited in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.” DEP acknowledged the challenge of managing upkeep for thousands of rain gardens, but disagreed about the scale of the problem. One of the comptroller’s recommendations was to engage with local communities to assist in maintenance. DEP has a rain garden stewardship program, but the reality is the city needs more personnel. The city must create more jobs through the NYC Green Infrastructure Plan to realize its intended environmental and social benefits.

The Next 10 Years

DEP Commissioner, Vincent Sapienza, describes the agency’s mission as “to equitably provide services that promote the health and well being of all 8.6 million city residents.”

The COVID-19 pandemic casts a long shadow on notions of equality.

However, DEP can still give the South Bronx its fair share within the scope of the NYC Green Infrastructure Plan.

Over the next ten years, DEP needs to drastically reimagine its green infrastructure strategy. There’s too much at stake.

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