“Learn How Vital Parks Are to the City”: Stories of Community Engagement with Hafeez Zahirudin

As New Yorkers, we’re often conditioned to think that there’s not many places in the city that we can go to experience nature, look at wildlife, or even go for a hike.

But did you know that New York City has 28,000 acres of municipal parkland, which include urban forests, and 14 miles of public municipal beaches?

In fact, according to NYC Department of Parks & Recreation, there are more than 1,700 parks, playgrounds, and recreation facilities across the five boroughs.

One person who does know this fact, and many more about the public green spaces in the city is Hafeez Zahirudin, Volunteer Coordinator at Van Cortlandt Park Alliance (VCPA). Van Cortlandt Park is New York City’s third largest park at over a thousand acres, and is home to the country’s first public golf course, the oldest house in the Bronx, and the borough’s largest freshwater lake. VCPA and their volunteers play a huge role in preserving, supporting, and promoting the recreational, ecological, and historical value of the park.

As a part of our ongoing Stories of Community Engagement Interview Series, I spoke with Hafeez about his role at VCPA, why parks are so vital to NYC, and his favorite gardening tips.

Hafeez Zahirudin, Volunteer Coordinator at Van Cortlandt Park Alliance
Hafeez Zahirudin, Volunteer Coordinator at Van Cortlandt Park Alliance

Jessica Califano: The first thing that I always ask people, as part of this series is to talk about any communities that you’re a part of, and how you got involved with those.

Hafeez Zahirudin: Sure. For me, my volunteering experiences really started off last year during the pandemic. I was out of work, and was looking for different ways to get engaged and maybe start a new career path.

I started volunteering with a group called ICNA. It’s a Muslim food bank organization. They were distributing food boxes in the Bronx area, and I got involved with them through a Muslim church member.So I was doing work with them for several months and enjoyed that experience.

And I also wanted to do some work in my local park, which is Seton Falls Park, where I’ve lived for over 20 years. I grew up in that neighborhood in the Bronx. So I started doing some volunteer work in the park. I reached out to my local friends of park group there and we started doing some volunteer organizing. And I thought to myself, I wonder if there are some other larger parks groups that I can learn from. And I found Van Cortlandt Park Alliance here at Van Cortlandt Park, and I started volunteering with John last summer doing water chestnut removal in the lake.

Seton Falls Park in the Bronx
Seton Falls Park in the Bronx has more than 30 acres of preserved natural land, including a waterfall, and is home to over thirty species of birds.

So that was a lot of fun, and after my first experience doing that I continued to come back. After the season of water chestnut removal was over, around this time of year in August, they started doing other volunteer work in the park, which was trail maintenance on the cross country trail. And that was really cool for me because in high school, I was on the cross country team, and we did cross country meets right here at Van Cortlandt Park which they still do today. It’s a world famous cross country trail, so all the high schools and colleges in the area, and even some colleges from across the region of New England region come and race here.

That was really interesting for me to come as a volunteer to help repair the trail. As a runner back in high school I never thought about, oh, somebody has to come and maintain this kind of stuff. I thought it was beautiful back then, and something I always enjoyed was running on that gravel and rock dust track they have here. It makes some really great sounds when you run on it.

Trails in Van Cortlandt Park
NYC Parks has designated 640 acres in Van Cortlandt Park as Forever Wild, ensuring the preservation of the delicate ecosystems within. Image via NYC Parks.

So that was later on in the fall, and then John told me there was a position available through AmeriCorps to continue working with them full time. I was really interested in that, and applied through City Corps program and got the job with John.

JC: Can you tell me a little bit more about the AmeriCorps program? What they do and how do they put people at various positions?

HZ: Sure. I just finished it up in June. I was in an eight month program through AmeriCorps, which has several divisions, and the Division I was working under was City Corps. It’s the city’s version of AmeriCorps. You get placed in different city government jobs, organizations or not for profits that run inside New York City.

There are several green garden, top dial organizations involved and Van Cortlandt Park is one. Staten Island Greenway is another. And there’s another Bronx group in the city that works in the parks, that I forget the name of at the moment.

So, it’s an eight month program, and lot of younger people tend to do it right out of college. It’s a great way to get your foot in the door at different organizations that you’re interested in. They do a lot of training career training programs that they offer you–things like resume building, interview development, Microsoft Office training. There’s a lot that’s beneficial to someone who’s going through the program, even networking opportunities. They teach you all about applying to New York City jobs through their website, which can be pretty complicated. They have all these steps and then different tests that are available through the city that you have to take to get to these jobs, so they teach you all about those kinds of things.

JC: That sounds great. Jumping off of that, when you were growing up in the Bronx, were you always interested in the built environment, and specifically, parks?

HZ: I’ve wasn’t really interested in parks or green spaces, but growing up I always enjoyed science. I actually studied mathematics in college. I enjoyed that throughout high school and decided to study that in college.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home where my dad had a plot of land where he grew a garden. So, gardening and growing your own food was always something I was interested in.

And then as I got older, and I got my car, I was able to drive to upstate New York and do a lot more hiking around Bear Mountain, the Catskills, and the Adirondacks, and even travel around the United States and Canada doing hikes in national parks. That’s something I really enjoy. And I also got into rock climbing, which I still enjoy, and that got me more into the outdoors and interested in green spaces.

When I was volunteering here at the park and the job opportunity became available, I thought, you know, I really enjoy working outdoors. The physical activity of it, and the greenery, and the sunshine from being outdoors. I got a little tired of always sitting behind a desk and a computer at work, and going to work early in the morning and coming out in the afternoon–especially in the wintertime. The sun’s already set, it’s already dark, and you missed a whole day of sunshine. That was always a bummer but that was, you know, living in New York City in the wintertime.

So I took this opportunity to try something new and see what the experience would be like to have an outdoor job. And it’s something I really do enjoy.

JC: So maybe now you can tell me a little bit about your role at Van Cortlandt Park and what your responsibilities are. What does your day to day look like?

HZ: Sure. My title is the Volunteer Coordinator. We have several different types of volunteers that work with us in the park. We have our in-person volunteers that I see regularly. This summer, for example, every Monday we did a volunteer event where we would go through the public areas in the park, which are like the open fields, the barbecue areas, the picnic areas, and assist the park maintenance staff in cleaning up the litter throughout the park.

The Alliance started this program last year because of the pandemic. Parks’ city budget was slashed dramatically, and a lot of the seasonal workers that are usually hired in the summertime to help do the maintenance of the park, like picking up trash, were not hired. So that left the staff severely short and the park a mess, so the Alliance decided to step in and have volunteers come in every Monday and help remove trash. I think last year was a lot worse. This year is significantly better. I think they were doing three trash removal cleanup events per week last year. This year, we were able to hire seasonal staff workers in the parks department, so we cut it down to just one day a week, every Monday, and it was a lot less trash that the volunteers had to deal with compared to last year. So, coming out to Van Cortlandt Park and seeing a nice green lawn, or walking the trails where you see no trash at all, that’s a big job that the Parks Department does and we have to give them a lot of props for that work.

A dense mat of water chestnut plants
Water chestnut is an aquatic invasive plant that colonizes shallow areas of freshwater lakes, ponds, streams, and rivers and negatively impacts aquatic ecosystems. Image source.

So, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday the Alliance have been holding volunteer events for water chestnut removal in the pond that’s right next to the golf house. It’s a quite large pond and it’s very much infested with water chestnut, which was introduced into the system from flows from Tibbets Brook Park and pond that’s in Yonkers, and then down to the Van Cortlandt pond where it terminates, enters the sewer system, and then goes out to the Hudson River. It grows similar to lilies, which means it floats on the water, but it grows in very dense mat.

What we’re trying to do is to remove as much of it as possible. So we take it out of the water, trying to remove the roots along with it, to get rid of the seeds that grow and then drop in the water this time of year. Our work is racing against the clock to try to remove as much of it as possible to diminish the seed bank of the water chestnut in the bottom of the lake. One seed can survive up to 10 years, so it’s long term work that we’re doing, that will take several years to impact and remove water chestnut from the system. So that’s Wednesdays and Fridays.

On Wednesdays in the afternoon I go to Amalgamated Housing which is a community of apartment buildings that borders Van Cortlandt Park. We have a youth run farm stand there that is run by our interns, and my coworker Sarah Kempton. I work in the same area as them in the train park that’s in that community. We collect kitchen scraps for our compost system that we run at the garden. We have a garden and compost education site at Van Cortlandt Park, near the horse stables. So we do two hours of kitchen scrap collection from two to 4pm every Wednesday and that’ll be running until the end of October. Whatever I’ve collected I drive back to our garden and compost education site, where I meet with one or two volunteers that come to meet me there, and we process that by chopping it up and mixing it with wood chips and then adding it to our compost bins. We let that sit and turn into compost, which we then use in our garden to grow fruits and vegetables on site, which we then, in turn, sell back at our farmers market.

VCPA is conducting several ongoing research projects, including water monitoring using Temboo’s platform, to better understand the water chemistry, geochemistry and biological diversity of the park. Image source.

On Tuesdays myself and two or three other staff members assist Alex Byrne, our in-house field scientist, with an experiment he’s doing on Japanese knotweed, which is another introduced plant in the park that grows in large groves. It will totally inhabit an area and prevent any other species from growing in that section. So he’s doing a research project to figure out if we can use solar tarps to eradicate the root system of the plant, to prevent it from regenerating.

And then on a Thursday we might do some sort of forest restoration work in the floodplain forest which is the footprint of the pond and the brook. We’ve been cutting vines, or removing introduced shrubs or trees in different areas where you want to increase the health of the forest, and planning for future planting sites where we might plant native species of trees and shrubs.

JC: It’s really cool that you get to do different stuff every day and it’s not always the same repetitive thing. Not not a lot of people have jobs that that are like that so that’s pretty awesome.

HZ: Yeah, I really enjoy that aspect of the job.

JC: So you had mentioned seeing less trash this year in the park, and I was wondering if you think that the pandemic has helped people appreciate the green spaces and outdoor spaces that are available to them in New York City more than before the pandemic. Especially due to having to be outside to see friends and family and that sort of thing.

HZ: I definitely think that more people have gotten into New York City Parks during the pandemic, especially last year. It was far more crowded than usual on the weekends. We were seeing a lot more people in the park, having events, barbecues, and parties. I think a lot of people use the parks and open spaces as event venues instead of being able to book a place to have a sweet 16 or even a baby shower. So we saw a lot more folks using the park as their event space for large gatherings, which is a great thing and I totally enjoy seeing it. I do wish people would be more mindful and clean up a little bit more after themselves, and not use those piñatas full of glitter and those little pieces of plastic string that are impossible to remove out of the grass.

JC: Yeah, totally. I completely understand how that would be annoying to try to clean up.

To go into the community side of things, do you think that engaging with the community and with volunteers is so important to building a sustainable and resilient future for the area and the park?

HZ: Van Cortlandt Park is the second largest park in the Bronx, and it’s a very big space. We’re a staff of six, and we alone can’t do it. So it’s very important for us to engage with volunteers to help manage the work, for one.

But more importantly, through engaging with the community and the people who live around the park we found that a lot of the volunteers who can consistently come back to volunteer with us on a weekly or monthly basis live right around area, and they’re the ones using the park. So it’s important for us to educate them on the best ways for them to be able to contribute to and help improve the health of the park. We actually have a volunteer program where we educate 40 different members of our community who volunteer with us on a monthly basis, to walk trails that we assign to them to pick up trash.

So that’s vitally important to help keep our trails in the park looking really beautiful, because that’s not something that the maintenance staff with Parks Department typically goes out to do on a regular basis. They do more work in the open fields and public space areas of the park.

Multiflora Rose is ranked among the top forest invasive plant species for the northeastern area by the US Forest Service. Image source.

And then we continue to work with those volunteers to enhance their education with plant identification, tree identification, and water monitoring education programs. So we hold some educational workshops once a month for them. Out of the original 40 people who say yeah we’re going to go out and pick up trash, we actually have started teaching them how to do trail maintenance. We have supplied them with pruners and saws, and through educating them, they can now go out on their assigned trails and trim the corridor of branches and shrubs growing into the trail and crowding it, or even help to repair the tread of the trails. They have an assigned area right alongside their trail which needs improvement for the health of the forest and they do that by removing certain invasive plants or shrubs that have become overgrown. Things like Multiflora Rose, which grows into these large maps and has lots of prickly thorns. Garlic Mustard which grows in large mats also and can crowd out other species of plants that grow in the understory of the forest, and several other species that we teach them to identify and to be able to remove that help increase the look and feel of the of the forest floor and the health and the biodiversity of the other native plants, allowing them to be able to regenerate naturally and spring back up and bring more biodiversity of plants of insects and birds and even fungus in the soil. So that’s a great thing.

Through that we to help those volunteers, educate them, and help have them be part of the forest–not just being able to come here and walk and enjoy but to understand what’s going on inside the forest and how to how to interact with it. Not just walking around looking, but actually understanding what plants and animals also live in the forest and how we’re also a part of that system.

JC: That sounds like a really cool program. It’s great that the volunteers get so much out of it, while at the same time, you all do too. I think that’s very crucial to to finding good volunteers who want to like stay and keep coming back.

So, what do you hope to see for Van Cortlandt Park and the Bronx in general in the future? What do you hope that your work leads to?

HZ: For my work in Van Cortlandt Park with the Alliance what I would love to see is even more volunteer engagement. Working in the trails, working in the natural areas. You know we currently have 40 volunteers. I would love to be at 100 volunteers and have volunteers in every trail in and around the park. We typically have a lot more volunteers on the northwest side of the floor of the park, and on the south end and on the east end of the park is where we typically don’t have a lot of engagement.

Also I’d like to see more people volunteering at our garden in the park and learning about how to grow your own fruits and vegetables. We’re actually going to be repositioning our garden to a new space next year, and it’s supposed to be an even larger, more inviting space from the exterior. So a lot more people will be able to see that we’re present here in the park and feel welcome to volunteer with us. We also have a larger education space included in our new design and one of the things I would love is to just have more programs to teach people about composting and reducing their waste at home and in the kitchen. That’s really something I personally feel passionate about–composting and reducing our waste. That would be amazing to see.

For the overall Bronx Community, I would love to have a Friends of park group in every major park in the city. Everywhere from the local park I grew up near, Seton Falls Park, which is 33 acres of forever wild area, to Van Cortlandt Park, which has 700 acres of forever wild area, and a total area of over 1000 acres to a Friends of park group in Pelham Bay, which is the largest park in the city, or even Corona Park. So, I know there are some park groups that work in those areas, but they’re not as large as the Van Cortlandt Park staff or doesn’t have an office and year round volunteer events like we do here at the Alliance. So I would love to see more of those kinds of things in all these different parks in the Bronx and throughout the New York City area. That way we can have more involvement with the community in the parks, and help them to understand how parks are really important for the entire area, and which cover over a third of the entire surface of New York City.

Pelham Bay Park is the largest park in NYC, spanning 2,772 acres. It includes two golf courses, various hiking trails, and the only beach in the Bronx. Image via Wikipedia.

I mean you’re very familiar with that being from an environmental group, but I only really started learning about these kinds of things after joining the alliance and working here. So, I think it’s really important for more people to learn about this stuff. Learn about how vital the park system and all our natural areas are in the park and how to engage with them. Also helping to restore it or even just inviting more people to just walk the beautiful trails that we have here in New York City. You know, for hiking, my girlfriend wants to drive two hours to Fairmount and or the Catskills, and she’s not really familiar with the really awesome trails we have here at Van Cortlandt Park or Pelham Bay, or some of the other parks we have down in the city that are really great, large park areas.

JC: I just have one more question before I let you go. Can you share some of your best gardening tips? I’m just learning how to garden so this isn’t mostly for me but we’ll share it in the interview too.

HZ: Moisture control is really important. I like to put down a layer of mulch on the surface of the soil. I’m starting to learn about the practice of permaculture, which kind of teaches you that soil should never really be bare. It should always be covered. So if you’re gardening and you have garden bed, putting down a mulch layer on top of the soil and around your plants is really helpful for moisture control. You know you water your plants and it all evaporates. This helps keeps that soil wet, and your plant irrigated. So you’re using less water and you’re helping the soil by attracting more insects and bugs that travele through the soil and aerate the soil which allows more water to seep into it. So you actually have to do less work, because the soil doesn’t get as compacted and you don’t have to go back and weed and dig up the soil, which is kind of bad for the fungal networks that live in it. You could do that with leaves or with wood chips if you have them, or cardboard. Those are all great natural ways to put a wood mulch layer in.

Now for growing tomato plants, don’t water them from directly overhead like it’s like raining down on them because that will lead to splattering of the soil onto the leaves of tomato plants which will eventually introduce bacteria and fungus. You’ll rot out those lower leaves of your plants, so it’s always best to water directly at the the base of the plant.

Rainwater is way better for your garden plans than water from your hose, because your water from your hose has lots of chemicals, plus chlorine that’s naturally in our tap water. So if you can collect rainwater, it’s way better for your garden. Just use a watering canister. It’s free, it’s healthier, you’ll grow plants faster. If you can’t get rainwater, fill a bucket or a large container full of water from your hose and you let it sit for 24 hours. The chlorine will naturally dissipate out of the water. As long as you’re reusing that water within a week to ten days time, you won’t have to worry about mosquito larvae being laid in your water because it takes them two days for the eggs to hatch and eight to ten days for the larvae to hatch into mosquitoes. So if you’re using that water in that amount time you don’t have to worry too much about it.

One interesting thing I really like about tomatoes, is when you’re growing them a stem will either be a stem that grows flowers the where you’ll get your tomatoes from or the stem will grow just leaves. But if you find a stem that has both leaves and tomato flowers on it you can cut that plant, and you’ll get a whole new tomato plant.

JC: That’s so cool. Thanks so much for talking to me today and for the helpful gardening tips!