Week 24: The Fight for Green Space

“Save our park! We don’t go to the Hamptons for vacation, we come here!”

While conservationists battle the current administration to save the National Parks, many urban communities are fighting to save their own small pieces of nature. Access to nature is a human right, not a luxury, yet it seems that poor and vulnerable communities are forced to choose again and again between having green space nearby and maintaining long term security for their families. This tension is especially prevalent in cities, such as New York, where the wealth disparity is extreme. Read on to hear the stories of grassroots organizers and activists who are sorting through the urban green space dilemma. (Illustrations by Callan Burton-Shore)

Tearing Up the Roots of East River Park 

“Save our park! We don’t go to the Hamptons for vacation, we come here!” These words hang on a sign in NYC’s East River Park. Though not as green as Central Park or as tourist-filled as the Hudson River Greenway, East River Park is lined with public housing units whose inhabitants rely on the park for community, fresh air, and time in nature. On any given Saturday, women forage for yucca root, men pull fish out of the water, people sleep in makeshift beds under the pine trees, and families hold celebrations at public grilling sites. In 2018, a plan was made to transform the park into a barrier between rising seas and the vulnerable residents of the public housing units. The plan would both protect the people and maintain a part of the park for them to enjoy, but this plan has now been replaced by one that will not only make the park inaccessible for up to 10 years, but will tear up nearly 100 trees, many of them old growth. The NYCHA said, “We see the City’s push to demolish and bury the East River Park as an assault on our history, and on our continued presence in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.”

Community Gardens in Peril

An abundance of studies show that time spent outside can drastically improve mental and physical health, meaning lack of access to nature is a public health crisis. In New York, community gardens create a system of support and reciprocity with local, low-income communities. According to the Brooklyn Eagle the gardens, “help improve air and soil quality, improve water filtration, reduce neighborhood waste through composting, increase individuals’ consumption of fruits and vegetables...” However, community gardens are often temporary placeholders on abandoned lots and may be torn down for new housing at any moment. Though garden organizers and participants have become used to this reality, many of them still believe it is unjust. But the solution becomes a bit more complex when gardens are replaced by affordable housing: something that NYC is in dire need of. Currently over a dozen gardens are in danger and their volunteers, with the help of lawyers, are fighting the city and private developers to save them. One volunteer, told the New York Times that although garden communities can replant their crops and join a new garden, the damage of uprooting both plants and people is undoable. Another organizer, Aresh Javadi argues that the city should not be able to make these decisions because, “We, the people who are growing the gardens, are the city.”

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Thank you for reading! Go outside, stay 6 feet apart, relax.