Ideas to Grow On

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Sure, New York is the biggest, baddest city around. And though it may not look that way at rush hour on Canal Street, it’s in some ways the most environmentally friendly as well. After all, most of us don’t drive. And we tend to live in compact apartments, consuming less oil, gas and electricity than typical house-dwellers. But who says we know how to stay on top? When it comes to planning for a future, other U.S. cities have been taking the lead–and through a stubborn resistance to change, New York risks being crushed under its own huge weight. So listen up! These innovations and ideas that are working for other cities might even be good enough for New York.

Brownfields Brownout
By Rene Ebersole

Done right, the revitalization of former industrial land can transform entire neighborhoods. In Stamford, Connecticut, an ex-gas plant, ex-fuel depot and ex-manufacturing complex will make way for housing, offices, retail, a sports arena, a fire station and a ferry terminal. East Palo Alto, California, which has missed out on the Silicon Valley boom, has been restoring a 130-acre industrial area to supply space for the tech industry and employ nearly 4,000 workers. And among Chicago’s many ambitious efforts is the removal of illegally dumped garbage from a site known as Kildare Mountain. All of these were made possible through coordinated public and private investment.

New York has seen some cleanups under a voluntary state program. But planners, environmentalists, developers and political leaders agree that most of New York City’s estimated 6,000 brownfields, many of them in poor neighborhoods, will never be cleaned up without a state law that gives strong incentives for builders to choose those sites and clean them up. Without established cleanup standards or a law protecting property buyers from lawsuits, “developers and lending institutions are scared off by liability and cost,” says Val Washington, head of the Albany lobbying group Environmental Advocates. And she points out that New York pays a high price by waiting: “A developer who doesn’t want to take the risk takes his shovel out to the farmland.”

What environmentalists don’t agree on is how to do it. Big greens like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council have sided with Assembly environmental committee chair Richard Brodsky, who insists on identical cleanup standards for every project. But a bill sponsored by the Brownfields Coalition, an assemblage of nearly a hundred environmental justice and community development groups and their funders, insists that such exacting standards will ultimately prevent brownfields redevelopment on a large scale, because the costs will be too high.

Instead, they are urging cleanup standards tailored to the ultimate use of each project. “The one-size-fits-all characterization is a misnomer,” insists Mathy Stanislaus, an environmental consultant and coalition member. “Both the federal government and states have cleanup standards that based on what the ultimate use is of the property.”

Every other state in the Northeast now has a brownfields law, says Stanislaus. And with New York’s Superfund cleanup law expiring this year, Albany legislators know they’ll have to do something by next spring to clean up the state’s act. “There’s a sense of urgency now,” says Stanislaus. “I think the chances of passage are very strong.”

Tearing Down the Road
By Michael Haggerty

Some cities are discovering that highways are a go-nowhere business. Take Milwaukee. The Park East Freeway cuts through the northern part of downtown–until next summer, that is, when it is scheduled to be demolished. Tearing down the Park East will open up about 18 acres in land-starved downtown Milwaukee and allow construction of a thousand new apartments, as well as a new riverfront park.

The half-mile-long strip of freeway is a piece of a planned but never-completed system of highways encircling Milwaukee. The spur sees heavy traffic, but planners saw no reason why the eight-block stretch couldn’t be replaced with a wide, tree-lined boulevard.

Milwaukee isn’t the only city replacing concrete with greener pastures. After the Embarcadero Freeway collapsed during the 1994 San Francisco earthquake, the city opted not to rebuild it. As far back as 1974, Portland was tearing down highways to create waterfront parks. And Toronto, Providence and Akron are now pursuing similar plans.

But neighborhoods whose real estate isn’t so valuable still live in the shadow of obsolete highways. In the South Bronx, community groups have been urging the state Department of Transporation to tear down the Sheridan Expressway. Running along the Bronx River for a little over a mile, and connecting the Cross Bronx and Bruckner expressways, the Sheridan was part of Robert Moses’ unrealized dream for a highway linking New York to Connecticut. About 32,000 vehicles travel it each day, most of them trucks headed to and from the Hunts Point markets, but planners argue that the city could get by without it.

When the state proposed $420 million in renovations for two of the Sheridan’s exit ramps, the Point Community Development Corporation, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice and other groups proposed an “un-build option.” In an area where there is only one acre of parks per 1,000 residents–state and federal standards call for between four and six acres–the groups have urged DOT to tear out the expressway, replace it with a boulevard and parkland, and expand public access to the Bronx River. The Bronx groups and their allies in the City Council have succeeded in getting the DOT to consider demolition as an option as the state conducts an environmental impact study for the reconstruction project.

Fishing for Answers
By Kathleen McGowan

Give a man a fish tank, and he will become an environmentalist–that, at least, is the new strategy at Chicago’s Interreligious Sustainability Project. This year, the organization will be setting up tiny tilapia farms in a handful of urban churches across the city, as part of a larger effort to get church members involved in local ecological efforts.

The fish farm set-up is simple. Three 55-gallon drums are arranged so that one houses the growing fish and the other two filter and clean the water with gravel, bacteria and aquatic plants. If the system is properly balanced and maintained, the water will be kept clean through natural biological processes, and the tanks will produce up to 50 pounds of healthy adult tilapia every six months. The total cost: about $150.

The technology was adapted for urban use by the Heifer Project International, a Chicago-based nonprofit that donates animals to poor families around the world to provide them with ongoing resources. “There is a trial-and-error period,” admits the Heifer Project’s Rodger Cooley, who has worked setting up these systems since 1997 with groups in Chicago and Milwaukee. “The point is that the cost is very low, and you don’t need scientific training.”

“It’s a good contribution to a family or to a church’s Friday fish dinner,” says Interreligious Sustainability Project director Clare Butterfield, who runs the project.

The idea of raising these hardy fish in the inner city isn’t new. New York City’s own Harry DeRienzo, a longtime community developer, set up a for-profit tilapia farm in the Bronx two years ago that has already brought 10,000 fish to harvesting size. It’s no backyard effort, DeRienzo cautions. “A lot of aquaculture experiments sound sexy, but they’re not easy,” he says. “You’re constantly cleaning, building, repairing, backwashing–it’s a full-time job.”

But for Butterfield, one goal is simply to get churchgoers and local teens involved in environmental activism, and to make links between green thinking and spirituality. The seven groups she organizes are launching a range of like-minded projects: one has African-American organic farmers selling their produce and meat in an urban farmer’s market, and another is an indoor composting system that uses worms to generate high-quality compost to be used for other urban gardening projects.

So far, Butterfield’s fish farms are still in the planning process, but the project’s vision has generated a lot of enthusiasm. “People were moved by that–symbolically, there’s this link between the mission of Christianity and replicating the fish. It has a miraculous quality to it. Especially if the whole thing works.”

The Zen of Traffic
By Michael Haggerty

From Portland, Oregon, to Charlotte, North Carolina, speed bumps and extra-wide sidewalks have become as common on some neighborhood streets as SUVs. In Berkeley, California, certain intersections have been replaced with traffic circles, which cut down on accidents caused by left-hand turns. And in Austin, Texas, drivers thread their way around “chicanes,” crescent-shaped traffic islands and curb extensions that turn straight roadways into winding lanes, making speeding impossible. All these cities have one thing New York lacks: a comprehensive “traffic calming” program to ease the stress caused by cars on the streets and increase pedestrian and bicyclist safety.

Traffic calming measures can be as simple as repainting stripes to add a bicycle lane. Others demand a tolerance for jargon. “Gateway treatments” narrow two lanes into one where residential streets intersect with larger thoroughfares, deterring trucks looking for a short-cut. “Neck-downs” extend sidewalks at intersections, shortening the distance pedestrians have to walk. And because the curbs are wider, drivers have to pay more attention when making turns.

The New York City Department of Transportation is a notorious friend to all things motorized, but it has finally relented to New Yorkers’ demands for traffic calming. Last year, DOT teamed up community organizations and an engineering firm to develop a traffic calming plan for Brooklyn. The goal is to test out a variety of traffic calming measures on as many different kinds of streets as possible, in order to find models for wider use. So Downtown Brooklyn will be getting it all: gateway treatments (to be installed in neighborhoods hemmed in by major thoroughfares); neckdowns at busy intersections; and widened medians and altered traffic light timing on speedy De Kalb Avenue. Another part of the project will look at how traffic patterns are affected when certain streets are closed altogether–the ultimate in traffic calming.

The Light Rail Touch
By Noel Hartman

Except for the AirTrain that will soon whisk travelers to JFK, one boom New York is missing out on is the light rail craze. According to the Surface Transportation Policy Project, federal spending on public transportation doubled in the 1990s, and much of that spending is going to new rail systems. Cities that are building or expanding light rail systems include Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Philadelphia, Portland, San Diego and Seattle. Even Los Angeles is developing a 300-mile network. And just across the Hudson River, New Jersey recently opened a system running from Bayonne to Bergen County.

So why has the light rail revolution skipped its stop in New York? First of all, light rail is indeed light. With its limited carrying capacity and slow speed compared with subways, it’s not ideal for moving people to or around Manhattan, say planners. The Giuliani administration agrees, and it has effectively abandoned a 1980s plan to lay tracks along 42nd Street.

Light rail does have potential in the boroughs. Planners point to downtown Brooklyn, especially Fulton Street, as one place where light rail could thrive as part of a commuter hub. The Regional Plan Association also notes light rail as an option for improving transportation access along the Brooklyn waterfront. And environmental justice activists in the South Bronx see tracks over existing bridges as an ideal way to connect the Bronx and Queens.

Where it has no pull at all is with elected officials. New York City has fared badly under Governor George Pataki, who slashed MTA funding as soon as he took office. Now the state’s stinginess is hurting the city’s future. While New York still gets far more federal funding for public transportation than any other state, most of it goes to keep the existing system going. When it comes to funding new lines, New York isn’t even in the running.

Competition for limited federal dollars to build new systems has grown fierce as states and cities respond to pressure to cut traffic, clean up air, and curb suburban sprawl. To prove to the feds that they’re committed to new rail lines and deserve money to build them, some states are putting up far more than their required share of the budgets, sponsoring bond initiatives and even tax increases to raise the money. They’re also calling in favors from influential Republicans in Congress.

New York is losing that game fast. Last year, the state legislature agreed to sponsor a Transportation Infrastructure Bond Act this November to help pay for the state’s share of the Second Avenue subway and other transit projects. But as of late September, political support for the Bond Act was tepid, and transportation experts were predicting that it would bomb at the polls. Meanwhile, New York’s most powerful transit champion, Senator Al D’Amato, can now only watch from the sidelines.

Pushing an Agenda
By Rene Ebersole

At the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, it was all too clear that unchecked development was devastating human and planetary health. Greenhouse gases from vehicles and factories spur global warming. Cities sprawl into open land. Irresponsible development degrades water and air quality.

In an effort to reverse such trends, the conference adopted Agenda 21, which recommended that nations engage in comprehensive planning of long-term development that considers environmental, economic, and social factors, with the goal of achieving long-term sustainability. Agenda 21 also recognized the need for local authorities to be involved, since cities have the power to decide how to zone their land, deploy public transportation and promote development that pays off in the long run.

Many European countries have taken Agenda 21 seriously, and some now require local governments to come up with plans for sustainability. But the U.S. has never adopted it. Not surprisingly, local involvement is also unusual. But since the Rio conference, at least 22 U.S. cities have become involved with local Agenda 21 programs or similar initiatives, which have evolved into guidelines for smart, sane urban development.

Chattanooga has blocked chip mills on the Tennessee River from further degrading forest habitat and water quality, and it teamed up with a local manufacturer to create a fleet of electric buses. Santa Monica constructed educational gardens at public schools and is currently investigating ways to filter, collect and contain pollutants in catch basins to improve the water quality of its dirty bay. Olympia, Washington, has created neighborhood parks that demonstrate how native plants can reduce storm water runoff, recharge groundwater and re-create habitat. And Portland, Oregon, offers tax credits to businesses investing in alternative-fuel vehicles.

But one place Agenda 21 has never been on the agenda is in New York City. Neither City Hall nor the City Council has ever discussed adopting it. Something to think about as global temperatures keep rising–the waters surrounding the city are likely to follow the same trend.

Pulling Our Freight
By Noel Hartman

Most other American cities get about 40 percent of their goods the same way they did a hundred years ago–by train. New York gets just 2 percent that way. Most of the rest arrives in a never-ending stream of trucks that clog and pummel the city’s streets and highways and poison its air.

For years, Congressman Jerrold Nadler has pushed for a rail tunnel that would link Southern Brooklyn with the national network of railways that now terminates in Staten Island and Jersey City. If a recent report is any indication, he may finally see his dream come true. This May, the city’s Economic Development Corporation released the findings of a two-year study of freight tunnel options. It found that a tunnel would be a big project–costing over $2 billion dollars and taking up to 10 years to construct–but it would make a world of difference. As a cheaper alternative to a tunnel, the report proposes using barges that would float shipping containers across New York Harbor. In either case, the plan would also revive a dormant rail line, allowing freight to be unloaded at several locations around the boroughs.

By the EDC’s measure, the tunnel would pay for itself in three years, alleviate transportation costs for local businesses by $350 million, and reduce the cost of highway maintenance by $70 million.

Nadler has claimed a tunnel would help to stimulate a revival in the city’s declining manufacturing sector. Some urban planners disagree, saying that a tunnel would cost much and have a negligible effect on manufacturing. In a 1998 analysis of the proposed tunnel, Mitchell Moss and Hugh O’Neill of New York University’s Taub Center for Urban Research claimed that the creation of a new port complex at Bay Ridge would actually generate several thousand new truck trips a day on Brooklyn’s already congested traffic arteries.