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.

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?

Direct Action in East River Park

“RIP East River Park 1939-2019,” say black banners that have been placed around trees along the East River Park promenade. No group has claimed responsibility for this action yet, but it seems rooted in the deep distrust citizens feel as the city cast away the community led plan in favor of a “Preferred Alternative Plan” that will close the park for years, destroy it, and rebuild it for flood protection.

But we say WAIT. It is not time for a funeral. There is a better way forward for flood protection, for our park, and for our community.

The East River Alliance is working with the community and the city to develop a plan that provides immediate flood protection this season, and maintains access to our greenspaces through the construction period.

“We will miss your breeze, your trees, your plants and flowers and your birds and bees.”
Alex Weidler captured these images. Thank you Alex for the photos and Charles Krezell for sending them in.

We can change the plan so that we

  • Gain long-term Flood Protection that is environmentally sound and will preserve parts of our park. In the meantime, in the coming year and through construction, we need emergency deployable barriers.
  • The city will work with us in a collaborative, transparent process to find alternatives to the current plan–which the city put together in a hurry without consulting our community or meeting the needs of our community. For instance, go back to an earlier proposal developed with our community: Build parkland over the FDR Drive, which would provide flood protection and new park space. It would also keep much of the current park intact. At the time, the idea was too expensive. Now, the budget has doubled to $1.4 billion. The plan is feasible.
  • Keep parts of the park open during the years of reconstruction (as the mayor promised just last week!)
  • Improve other parks in the East Side Coastal Resiliency area, and activate underutilized and unused spaces for the good of the communities they belong to.

(If you have been trying to email us and have been getting an error message, many apologies–we have fixed that.)