There is a small town America that is idealized in myth and literature, but even in the internet age thrives outside our largest cities. In these places community spirit and what used to be called civic virtue (or values) is nurtured through local schools, churches, little league, scouts and a wide variety of community based organizations. The force of economic power is as present in these places as in large cities, and I do not want to leave the impression that all is light and joy in these places, but community is always present and taken for granted.
Here in New York City community must be nurtured in the face of big anonymous institutions and the speed and intensity that is always present and taken for granted. We see community being nurtured when families bring their kids to crowded ball fields, when neighborhoods rather than the “street fair industry” host block parties and in the hundreds if not thousands of community based organizations that come and go throughout the five boroughs. Some of these organizations are started on front porches in Flatbush and never hire staff or even last very long. Some grow, raise funds and eventually incorporate as nonprofit organizations. In his classic, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville commented about the tendency we Americans have to join organizations, a phenomenon he observed in the 19th century:
Today, we find social web sites like Facebook provide a way to create and join groups and thousands of these virtual groups have been formed. Just as de Tocqueville discovered at the start of the American Republic- Americans are joiners. The environmental movement is no exception- it is as American as apple pie. It began at the community level and continues to demonstrate enormous strength at the grass roots. In the next few months we will use this space to highlight some of the great community-based environmental groups that are hard at work throughout New York, making this city sustainable.
One of the best known community based environmental groups is Sustainable South Bronx. Founded in 2001 by Majora Carter, who received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award three years ago, Sustainable South Bronx is dedicated to achieving “environmental justice through innovative, economically sustainable projects that are informed by community needs.”
Carter launched Sustainable South Bronx after organizing a successful campaign to fight a proposal to locate a new waste facility in the South Bronx. The facility would have brought 40% of the city’s waste to an area that already received a disproportionate amount of it. Once residents made the connection that community health problems, such as high child asthma rates, were intrinsically linked to these land use patterns, people began to mobilize.
According to Deputy Director Miquela Craytor, “We wanted to offer opportunities which don’t have to come at the expense of health. The communities that haven’t had green space and haven’t had opportunities are the ones that most deserve them.”
One of Majora Carter’s first accomplishments prior to starting Sustainable South Bronx was to secure a $1.25 million federal grant for a feasibility study on developing a greenway for bicyclists and pedestrians along the South Bronx Waterfront. Two waterfront parks have already been constructed, which serve as destination points as part of the greenway plan, and construction of the greenway, which connects these parks and South Bronx communities, will begin next spring. The greenway will eventually stretch 11 miles, and will address the disparities in open space and waterfront access in the South Bronx compared to other areas in the city. A 5K run planned for this Saturday will celebrate the coming of the greenway.
In another effort to “green” the community, Sustainable South Bronx is planting hundreds of trees along the greenway and throughout the Hunts Point peninsula. “When we started we had the least number of trees per acre of any community in New York City,” says Craytor. “We were comparable to Warsaw after World War II, looking like a bombed out city.” So far, almost 400 trees have been planted.
In 2003, Sustainable South Bronx initiated the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training. “We realized a lot of jobs can be generated from green space; someone has to maintain it. No one was training people, so we took the jump to start a job training program.” The 10-week program is free and open to anyone in New York City who is over 18, has the equivalent of a high school diploma, and has a “drive to be outside,” as Craytor puts it.
This year the program will reach 100 graduates. “We’re very proud of it. The people we train face a lot of barriers––many were formally incarcerated or are coming off of public assistance,” says Craytor, who rattles off the program’s success rates, “As of last year 85% of our graduates were employed or in college, and 70% of them were in the green collar field.” Graduates are now working for the parks department, doing remediation for brown fields, and working at Sustainable South Bronx to maintain the street tree network in Hunts Point and the new waterfront parks.
In February this blog covered a partnership between Sustainable South Bronx and students at Columbia University to develop a business plan for a green-building retrofit program, to make buildings “green” through installing energy efficient and environmentally friendly features. The business plan is now finished, and Sustainable South Bronx is currently seeking funds to pilot the program, with hopes to eventually incorporate it into their Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training.
Advocacy is also a big focus at Sustainable South Bronx. As part of a broader coalition they brought forward the city’s first equitable trash plan, which requires Manhattan to begin managing some of its waste. (It currently handles no city waste, while the South Bronx handles 25%.) That legislation passed the city council and is now at the state level.
Sustainable South Bronx worked on successful legislation to address shortfalls in PlaNYC’s storm water management provisions. “PlaNYC didn’t create a clear plan of action for how the City would assess and encourage best management practices on public and private properties, nor how implementing these strategies would result in the creation of jobs” says Craytor.
As a key member of the S.W.I.M. coalition, the organization has also pushed legislation for a tax credit for green roofs, which has passed both houses in the New York State legislature. In addition to the legislation, Sustainable South Bronx launched their own green roof company last fall. Since then they have installed four green roofs, including their own. The roofs have soil and vegetation, which help cool buildings and lower energy costs, and reduce pressure on water treatment systems by absorbing rainfall.
Sustainable South Bronx’s newest program, FabLa
b (short for Fabrication Laboratory), was established through a partnership with MIT and serves an incubator for green manufacturing and design. According to Craytor, “These FabLabs give people the opportunity to visualize and create solutions to problems that their communities have. We are using it to think about waste and how to reuse it.” The FabLab has generated furniture made out of recycled wood and cardboard, is working to create environmental monitoring devices.
As Craytor sums up, “We’ve changed the landscape of what sustainability means for poor communities. Our hope is that the South Bronx will no longer be associated with burned and blighted buildings but with green, innovative projects.”
Community-based environmental groups play a vital role in representing the public to government and in developing and implementing environmental improvement projects. Groups like Sustainable South Bronx are particularly important because they help achieve environmental justice—ensuring that poor people do not bear the brunt of our society’s environment environmental insults.
To learn more about this terrific group visit http://ssbx.org.
Photos courtesy of Sustainable South Bronx.