Raindrops are falling slow and heavy on the concrete walkways, children’s playgrounds, and brick, V-shaped apartment buildings of the Bronx River Houses, one of New York City’s largest housing projects. But today’s rain won’t slide off the roofs, walkways, and hard-packed lawns into the Bronx River across the street. Instead, it will gather in the project’s bioswales, rain gardens, enhanced tree pits, and blue roofs, which together can capture 32,000 gallons of water.
Unlike the monotonous lawns and ordered trees that characterize the landscaping here and at other housing projects, the rain gardens add a splash of yellow, a spray of white flowers, and an explosion of bushiness. “With the installation of the rain gardens came a lot more foliage which brightens up the area,” says David Shuffler, who grew up four blocks from here. Shuffler works with many residents of the Bronx River Houses in his role as executive director of the Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, headquartered across the street. “People enjoy how it looks. It adds a lot of color,” he says.
The Bronx River Houses’ rain gardens and blue roof are a pilot project for a $2.4-billion green infrastructure program New York City will roll out over the next 15 years. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has already installed 250 smaller projects, such as bioswales and rain gardens, on streets and sidewalks in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. It also has worked with the New York Housing Authority and the Parks Department to retrofit 10 public properties, including the Bronx River Houses, to better capture runoff. Thousands more such projects are in the works.
New York is not the only US city with such a program. From Seattle to Cleveland to Buffalo, cities across the country are trying to capture and filter storm water and see if they can simultaneously provide aesthetic, ecological, and health benefits to residents. But, in order for cities to achieve these benefits, researchers and community advocates agree, neighborhood residents should be afforded a larger role in green space design, installation, and maintenance. Involving citizens in the planning and decision-making process would give residents a sense of ownership and thus help ensure they are invested in the program’s success.
At the Bronx River Houses, for instance, there are signs explaining the rain garden’s features and purpose to curious passersby and also describing how it connects to unseen infrastructure, such as storm water chambers and perforated pipes. Despite this effort to interest residents, the garden seems neglected. An Arizona iced tea can, a Doritos bag, a Styrofoam tray, and other trash lie abandoned among the grasses. A low, black metal rail fences out residents.
“A lot of people at first were like, ‘What is this?'” Shuffler says, explaining how residents of the Bronx River Houses first responded to the new green infrastructure. “So I think that’s one area where the city can improve is figuring out ways to integrate the storm water practices and community engagement and ongoing engagement and ongoing maintenance and ongoing involvement. I remember a few years ago there was talk about this being an opportunity for NYCHA residents to get jobs doing some of the maintenance of the rain gardens, and my understanding is that that has not happened.”
Shuffler is nonetheless grateful for the green infrastructure’s role in reducing the pollution of the nearby Bronx River. “We have two of the city’s worst CSOs [combined sewer outflows] in this neighborhood,” Shuffler says. “Why does a community of color like ours have to be impacted by so much of the CSO?”
When it rains too much in a short period of time — as it is wont to do in NYC, which gets 40 to 50 inches of rain every year — the city dumps raw sewage into its waterways. That’s because, like other US cities, NYC has “combined sewers”: Storm water goes into the same tanks and tunnels as untreated sanitary waste from houses, apartment buildings and businesses. When the tanks and tunnels fill up, the city has to open discharge points. “That causes pollution — not just the untreated sanitary flow but also all the things that the storm water picks up as it makes its way into the catch basin from the streets and sidewalks as well, which can also have a lot of pollutants,” says Margot Walker, director of the DEP’s green infrastructure program.
The Environmental Protection Agency, with the authority granted by the Clean Water Act, has placed cities with combined sewers under federal consent decrees: They must stop dumping untreated sewage into their waterways. Each city has worked out an individual plan about how, and when, it will fix its storm water problem.
“That’s sort of the impetus of the green infrastructure program,” Walker explains. “To get to that compliance and improve water quality and do it in the most cost effective way that’s the best for New Yorkers and also provides a lot of those cobenefits: urban greening, urban heat island reduction, CO2 sequestration, providing aesthetic improvements, and there’s an education piece and hopefully a job piece as well.”
“It’s a rather experimental approach — to see if one can bring a collection of benefits rather than a singular function,” says Dr. Kathy Wolf, a social science researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle who studies the effects of green space on public health. “We’re doing this for storm water! And health! And aesthetics! And all sorts of other things that can be bundled together!”
According to Wolf, time spent in parks or other natural spaces can help reduce stress and anxiety and restore cognitive function, and physical activity in green spaces can help alleviate depression. Similarly, research conducted by Dr. Gina Lovasi, of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, indicates that preschool kids who live in greener areas are more active and that parks, especially large parks, are correlated with lower weight and greater physical activity.
More than one third of US adults are obese, so public health experts are interested in preventive measures that could help people maintain healthier weights — and they’re starting to view parks as an attractive option. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommend that there be a park within a quarter mile of every front door. Wolf says this increased interest has led to increased funding for research about green space and health. “Up until now, this whole idea of understanding nature’s benefit has been seen as New Age or pseudoscience or whatever, but now, because of the health concerns and the expense of those health concerns… it’s starting to be taken seriously as a potential intervention on an individual, household, and even entire city level,” she explains.
One of the benefits of projects like New York’s green infrastructure program is that sudden change provides a rare opportunity to look at the public health effects of green space in a rigorous way, says Lovasi. For example, researchers can look at the health of residents directly before and after street trees have been planted throughout a neighborhood to see whether the trees changed outcomes like body mass index, the prevalence of asthma, and the frequency of physical activity.
Because so many questions remain unanswered, it’s important not to assume that urban greening of any kind will have automatic health benefits, Lovasi adds. She avoids jumping to the conclusion that, “Oh, we can go plant a million trees and that’s going to inevitably lead to some health benefit. I think it’s going to depend how we do it: where the trees are planted, what species, and perhaps even by whom and how it’s understood by the population,” she explains.
Thus both Wolf and Lovasi remain concerned that the city’s top-down approach of dropping into a neighborhood, installing green infrastructure, and then moving on to another area may limit the program’s touted “co-benefits.” They suggest that the DEP include neighborhood residents in a collaborative effort to build a greener, healthier New York.
But, if the opinion of people like Shuffler is anything to go by, most Bronx resident’s attitude toward the green infrastructure is overall positive. “The direct benefit is that it captures storm water in a neighborhood that is a waterfront community and is plagued by CSO discharge,” he says. “And I think that’s a great effort and it’s a great start.”
Wolf would like cities to do even better. Environmental justice means not just “reducing risk and toxins in the environment, which has been the more traditional emphasis, but now providing green for benefit,” Wolf says. That said, she says it’s equally important “introduce green in communities in a way that’s compatible with the cultural and historic values of that place.”