By Anhthu Hoang
Last summer, at the behest of a co-worker, I started biking to work. To my delight, I discovered no matter what day or time I used the west side greenway in Manhattan, it was packed with people, engaging in all sorts of fun activities, from biking to skating to walking on their hands. Folks were using the greenway even in the rain.
Emboldened, I decided to venture to uncharted territory … the east side greenway … and rode north to Harlem and the Bronx. This trip, though, told a very different story. The greenway, which traces the Harlem and Bronx Rivers, was much less used and the reason was obvious – 1) access was a problem because only two pedestrian bridges traversed FDR Drive, 2) maintenance was markedly different between the Esplanade on the Upper East Side and Harlem and the Bronx, and 3) there was poor connectivity between different parts of the greenway. Sadly, the result is that the benefits of living next to a beautiful body of water are denied many neighbors of the Bronx and Harlem Rivers. In addition to the badly needed exercise and recreation (Harlem and the Bronx also have some of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the region), there was no economic activity on the path – and certainly nothing reaching the scale on the west side. Meanwhile, the neighboring communities are some of the poorest communities and home to some of people the hardest hit by the current recession.
What can be done? Can government reverse years of neglect? The answer is a resounding yes. Earlier this year, EPA Administrator Jackson announced the launch of the Urban Waters Partnership (“Urban Waters”), a collaboration of over 11 federal agencies committed to revitalizing urban communities through targeted environmental action and economic invigoration along their waterfronts. Urban Waters will start with 10 sites located nationwide; the Bronx-Harlem Rivers Watershed will be one. The National Parks Service is the lead agency and EPA will provide primary support. Although Urban Waters is a new initiative, the Administrator aims to keep EPA involved in these communities for the long haul. Already, the project leads have formed relationships with state and local governments and community organizations critical to the long-term success of the program. Within a few years’ time, the east side waterfront will replicate the success of the west side’s.
The plan is to add a new group of urban waters every year until we reach the Clean Water Act’s goal of making every water body in America fishable and swimmable again. I, for one, am looking forward to sharing the east side greenway with happy bikers, hikers, walkers, skaters, skateboarders, and whoever happens to want to enjoy some exercise along two of the most historic rivers in America.
Anhthu Hoang is an Environmental Protection Specialist in the Environmental Justice Program at EPA Region 2. Prior to joining EPA, Anhthu was an environmental justice advocate with WE ACT in New York City and Communities for a Better Environment and the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment in the San Francisco Bay Area and the San Joaquin (Central) Valley in California. She holds a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology and a J.D., specializing in environmental law and policy.