People and Nature: Friends for Life

by Amy Berkov

Those of us who advocate for biodiversity in the East River Parks are not promoting nature over people. We believe from our hearts that people are part of biodiversity and that biodiversity provides many wonderful benefits for people. 

Trees extract carbon from the atmosphere and store it in wood; this is important because the carbon locked up in long-lasting wood no longer contributes to the greenhouse effect and global warming. Engineers are exploring methods to capture and store atmospheric carbon, but plants—and the soils in which they grow—still represent the most efficient technology! Trees also provide shade that lowers summer temperatures, and intercept pollutants. 

Sustained exposure to open space provides well-documented benefits to both mental and physical health—especially for children. As an educator, I believe that nature study improves observational skills, increases attention spans, and promotes critical thinking. These are all important to the future success of our urban students, who get much of their exposure to nature in NYC parks.

I do not know of any precedent for a city to completely destroy a large, bio-diverse park—used on a daily basis by diverse neighborhood residents. Before making dramatic changes in the landscape, the city undertakes a process called the ULURP (Universal Land Use Review Procedure) and prepares an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement). These reviews include at public hearings that give community residents a chance to weigh in on land use decisions.  For the benefit of both people and biodiversity, the city must take steps before approving the ULURP.  I believe that, before proceeding with this unparalleled destruction, the city must take the following actions: 

1) Bring in outside experts in coastal science to evaluate the city’s “preferred plan” to demolish the entire park.

2) Incorporate projections for sea level rise by 2100, not the 2050s (the city is currently planning for > 6 feet of sea level rise, by 2100, in the financial district, but for only 2.5 feet of sea level rise, by the 2050s, along the East River from Montgomery to 25th Street).

estimated sea level rise

3) Revisit the idea of decking over the FDR (which might actually provide flood protection through 2100).

4) Agree to phased construction (not just phased re-opening); keep sections of the park open as other parts are under construction. 

If the city is permitted to execute their “preferred alternative” without modifications, they will close, demolish, and bury all 57 acres of park for a minimum of three years. Children, seniors, those with fewer resources and the plants and animals in the East river Parks will all be the biggest losers. 

Amy Berkov, a member of the Biology Faculty at the City College of New York, uses NYC Parks as outdoors laboratories to teach NYC students about local plants, insects, and their interactions.

“I Love This Park. I Grew Up in This Park”

Harriet Hirshorn interviewed some 50 people in East River Park in recent weeks. Most of them do not know that the park is going to be closed, bulldozed and covered with eight feet of dirt for flood protection starting next March.

Daffodils bloom in East River Park
Photo by Harriet Hirshorn

The video Harriet made shows how people use the park in all weather. Their quotes toward the end shows how alarmed and heartbroken park-goers are when she tells them about the city’s current plan. While the community understands the need for flood protection, many question whether the total destruction of the East River Park is the best plan.

The city is claiming that the neighborhood supports the East Side Coastal Resiliency Plan. That is not true. Most of the neighborhood doesn’t know about it. And when they find out, they oppose the drastic, unsupportable measures the city is determined to take.

We need a better plan!

Thanks Mr. Mayor

On the Brian Lehrer radio call-in show on WNYC recently, Mayor Bill de Blasio supported phased closing of East River Park during the construction of the East Side Coastal Resiliency flood protection project. This is a change from the plan that would have closed the entire park for 3 1/2 years. This phased closing is one of the things we’ve been asking for!

Here’s from a transcript of the mayor’s encouraging remarks:

“… the idea is to have the park redone in segments so that [there] will be pieces of the park available to the community at all times and once one segment is done then another segment is addressed. So it’s – we’re very sensitive to the fact that people need their park space. “

The remark was in answer to a caller, Billie, who asked about what she called an “enormously risky, expensive plan…with a huge risk of failure, of incompletion…”

The mayor acknowledged there might be reason for cynicism, but said, “This has been a very carefully assessed project.” While he said, reassuringly, “It is being discussed with the community,” it’s clear we don’t have much time: “We have to get going. The resiliency issue is one of urgency, but I do want you to know none of this has been done lightly and I think when you see more the facts, you’ll be more comfortable that the East Side approach is going to work.”

If it is going to work for our community, we must continue to persuade the city that our alternatives will be better. We know from the mayor’s statement about phased closing, that he is listening. Now let’s keep pushing on protecting our community from toxic dust and other hazards, and insist on meaningful mitigation of the enormous adverse impacts of clear-cutting and bulldozing over 70 acres of public green space.

To hear to the show with Billie’s question and the mayor’s complete answer, follow the WNYC link.


Congestion Pricing and East River Park: Is This Why We Have to Close the Park Instead of Closing a Lane of the FDR?

From the earliest days of flood protection planning for the Lower East Side, decking over the FDR was a popular idea. It was a win-win-win: effective flood protection, less pollution, more and better recreation space. 

The city said it was too expensive.

Now that the ESCR budget has doubled to $1.45 billion, we have been asking, Why not reconsider decking over? 

One concern, we are told, is that it will take too long, and effective flood protection is an urgent issue. We contend that deployable walls, like the ones planned for Battery Park and the financial district, could ensure short-term safety and buy us time to slow down this frantic “preferred alternative plan.” But more on that in another post.


This week we learned that congestion pricing below 60th Street in Manhattan is coming soon. There’s just one catch: the FDR Drive will be exempt. 

“New technology can identify vehicles on any roadway and automatically charge them, so the task force was able to draw a narrower — and perhaps more politically palatable — cordon limited to the most crowded streets. In turn, that means drivers can enter Midtown and Lower Manhattan by two bridges without paying as long as they go directly to the F.D.R. Drive along the East River and then continue on it until they are out of the congestion zone,” wrote the New York Times on January 18, 2019.  


In other words, slowing traffic on the FDR for deck-over work — or closing a lane to allow flood protection to be focused at the back of East River Park — could threaten this “politically palatable” exemption from congestion pricing. If the FDR is not wide-open to traffic, it will be harder to placate drivers looking for a way around the additional charges.

It’s clear that the exemption will only increase traffic on the FDR — and increase air pollution just when the city proposes to strip over 65 acres of neighboring parkland of all trees and ground cover!  Here’s what we’d like to see instead: A comparative study of a decked-over FDR (supported by a concrete structure to provide the required flood protection). Safer homes. More parkland. Less pollution. What’s not to love?

The city came to listen. We filled their ears

East River Alliance logo

East River Alliance had a meeting March 13 at the Roberto Clemente School on E. 4th St. with city officials to hear about the revised plans for the East River in our community and to ask questions. We have a way to go before the city and the community are going to be besties on this project.

City officials at a meeting with East River Alliance. Photo by Pat Arnow © 2019
Jamie Springer, who is in charge of the city’s Department of Design and Construction project for East River and Stuyvesant Cove Park, presented the plan for coastal resiliency. In the Power Point presentation, he showed photos of community meetings where citizens had provided ideas. However, the plan remains essentially unchanged from when it was first presented in December.
City Council member Carlina Rivera speaks to East River Aliance. Photo by Pat Arnow © 2019
Our City Council member Carlina Rivera says we can make the resiliency plan work for our community.
Ayo Harrington. Photo by Pat Arnow © 2019
Ayo Harrington led the East River Alliance meeting. After one area resident complained passionately about the unrealistic timeline and left shouting, Ayo calmly said, “He’s right.” Let us be clear, she said, “We don’t like the plan. We don’t accept the plan.”
East River Alliance member Amy Berkow (right) asked if there was any precedent for destroying every living thing in a park. The parks official said, “I don’t know.”

Other questions:

What about adopting a previous idea–decking over the FDR —that would provide green space and playgrounds and also provide flood protection while preserving the park? Decking is a possibility in a future phase. It is not in this plan.

What about phased closing (so parts of the park would remain open during construction)? “We know it’s important to you. We’re working on it,” said Springer. Later he clarified that the whole park would still be closed but that some sections may be opened as they are completed.

Is there any way to save the beautiful art deco buildings in the park? No. “We have the opportunity to have brand new buildings. These (current structures) were built in the 1930s,” and are outdated. The new buildings will be better.

How will the system deal with flooding in the East Village, which has major drainage issues? This question has been asked at four public meetings and has not been answered. It was not answered again, but answers are promised.

How much money is allocated to mitigation (other park facilities)? An answer is promised.

“Can you put yourself in the shoes of the 110,000 people who live here and won’t have green space or open air for our children for years?” asked a woman at her first meeting of the group. Amy Berkow added to the question with information about a study that shows that children who have green space grow up with fewer mental health problems that children who do not have open space. The more exposure to green space, the better the mental health of the kids. The officials responded with promises of long-term good.

—Pat Arnow

Photos © Pat Arnow 2019