The Fight for Greener Neighborhoods Is a Matter of Life or Death

When Mychal Johnson speaks at schools in the South Bronx, where he lives, there’s one question he always asks the students: Do you know where there’s water near here? Not water to drink, but water to see, to smell, to experience?

Johnson, a founding member of the local advocacy coalition South Bronx Unite, which focuses on the South Bronx neighborhoods of Mott Haven and Port Morris, says the children usually have no idea. But here’s the thing: The South Bronx is a peninsula with rivers on three sides. So, why don’t the kids know that? Because before getting anywhere near that water, they’d have to contend with a tangle of intersecting freeways first.

Not only would kids seeking the fresh river air need to cross the highways, they would also be forced to deal with the trucks traveling to and from them. The South Bronx waterfront is a major food distribution hub with thousands of diesel trucks going in and out of it every day. The trucks pollute the air to some of the highest levels in any city in the country, and the warehouses they frequent double as unsafe areas for pedestrians and cyclists seeking a little nature. But the Bronx River itself, which was once called an “open sewer” by a city commission, is now a National Parks Service-recognized water trail with kayaking and abundant wildlife. So what could be valuable public greenspace is, instead, an impermeable industrial barrier.

Partially because of all the industrial activity, the South Bronx has the highest amount of air pollution in the city, according to the New York City community health profile. It also has among the highest rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension in New York. Mott Haven, in particular, has been nicknamed “Asthma Alley” for having the highest rate of youth asthma in the country.

Johnson has long been trying to convince city officials that those conditions need to change. In 2012, South Bronx Unite, alongside other residents and community groups, sued the city in an attempt to block the grocery delivery company FreshDirect from receiving $127.8 million in taxpayer subsidies to open a hub in the South Bronx, which would add some thousand diesel trucks to the daily load the neighborhood already carried. As Johnson told the New York Times in 2013, he hoped that site could be used as waterfront green space instead. “It would be devastating,” he said at the time, if the FreshDirect deal went through. “We would have lost an opportunity to truly create something to increase the quality of life in our community.” But the lawsuit was unsuccessful.

Now, as coronavirus has swept the world, the Bronx is proving to be one of the hardest hit parts of New York City, itself one of the hardest hit cities in the world.

There is a growing body of research that suggests exposure to air pollution is linked to higher coronavirus death rates. Earlier this month, researchers from Harvard’s School of Public Health drew a direct line between air pollution and coronavirus fatalities. They found that only a small increase in a type of air pollution commonly found in tailpipe emissions is associated with a 15 percent increase in coronavirus death rates. Another study by a researcher from the Martin-Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany looked at satellite data to compare nitrogen dioxide levels (a pollutant primarily from vehicle exhaust) in Italy, Spain, France and Germany with their respective COVID-19 death rates. On the regional level, the study found a strong correlation between air pollution and higher death rates. “These results indicate that the long-term exposure to this pollutant may be one of the most important contributors to fatality caused by the COVID-19 virus in these regions,” the study concluded, “and maybe across the whole world.”

While COVID-19 fatality rates are not yet available by zip code in New York, of New York City’s five boroughs, the Bronx as a whole has the highest infection rate: 1,962 per 100,000 people, according to the New York City Department of Health as of April 18. And the zip code containing Mott Haven and Port Morris has a similar infection rate.

Johnson said the coronavirus crisis, and seeing what the virus has done to his neighborhood due to its heightened risk from pre-existing conditions, is reinforcing what he’s long been fighting for. “I think there’s a new sense of urgency,” he told me over the phone after making his son lunch. “Green space and access to recreational activities is vital to health.”

Researchers are still studying what makes some populations more susceptible to coronavirus than others, and no one is suggesting air pollution causes coronavirus infections or deaths. But we already know coronavirus has infected communities of color at higher rates—the South Bronx is 97 percent Black and Hispanic—and that the virus is twice as deadly for Black and Hispanic New Yorkers than white ones. These sobering statistics reflect existing health disparities between communities of color and white neighborhoods. They also reflect that Black and lower-income neighborhoods are more likely to be polluted.

Green space is an important part of that disparity. It’s hardly just the South Bronx, or merely neighborhoods in New York, that are realizing the consequences of not having more green space. In America’s 100 largest cities, about one-third of residents live further than a ten minute walk from a park, according to a 2017 study by The Trust for Public Land.

It’s my observation as a person that has spent my entire career working in parks and public spaces that parks have never been more used or more appreciated by people at any time in American history than right now,” said Adrian Benepe, the senior vice president for The Trust for Public Land and former New York City Parks commissioner. “It’s an extraordinary moment of affirmation for their importance.”

Even before coronavirus called attention to green space, a large body of research has found that access to nature is more than just nice to have. It’s foundational to physical and mental health. There are all kinds of studies that prove nature’s benefits, including improved cardiovascular health, lower obesity rates, reducing heat effects, fewer symptoms of depression, and lower self-reported and biologically measured levels of stress. Humans have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to need the outdoors to set our circadian rhythm, relax us, get exercise, and generally enjoy fresh air.

“Basically, nature is not an amenity,” Professor Marc Berman, who heads the Environmental Neuroscience Lab at the University of Chicago, told Motherboard. “It’s a necessity.”

But while we can all agree that parks are good, what’s tough is getting city governments to actually prioritize them and recognize their benefits enough to invest in them.

Running and maintaining parks accounts for a rounding error in most city budgets. New York City, for example, dedicates just half a percent of its annual budget to its parks. As a result, the parks that do exist face maintenance backlogs totalling almost $600 million, according to a 2018 report from the Center for an Urban Future. And that’s to say nothing of getting new parks built, a process that often takes years or even decades of grassroots advocacy.

One reason for this discrepancy is that parks are not considered “essential” city services, a technical term that triggers emergency funding mechanisms in times of crisis. This technical distinction is also a revealing one: Our city governments, quite literally, do not consider parks essential.

Still, some neighborhoods have tree-lined streets and a good number of small parks, while others, like the South Bronx, don’t. “The inequities that you see are largely a result of the failure to plan,” Benepe said. “And a failure to plan is endemic in most cities.” Cities and suburbs grow at the behest of developers and real estate interests with little regard for the public spaces necessary to maintain a high quality of life. Over time, the homes near quality green space generally become more valuable (studies that evaluate park benefits adjust for these socioeconomic factors), which pushes lower income households to park-sparse areas, who then have to advocate for years or even decades to get quality green space in neighborhoods that have already been developed.

“The virus is highlighting a lot of cracks in society,” said Berman. “This is a crack.”

The South Bronx has one park that’s actually green: St. Mary’s Park. It’s about 26 acres with a lawn and ample tree cover. But with some 90,000 residents in the South Bronx, it can get quite crowded, especially now that everyone is seeking its expanses for some fresh air and exercise during the shelter-in-place order.

Until recently, South Bronxites would have had to get on the bus or subway to find another open green space. That changed in the fall of 2015, when the city opened the Randall’s Island Connector, the first path between the South Bronx and the 600-plus acre island park in the East River that sits between Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens. It’s still at least a 25 minute walk from the more populous areas of the South Bronx through the very industrial areas diesel trucks frequent. But it makes Randall’s Island accessible enough for Johnson and his son.

“Randalls Island has been a real gem for getting him out,” Johnson said, “being able to kick a soccer ball, be away from people. There’s enough space.” They go about once a week when the weather is nice.

The Randall’s Island Connector didn’t get built by accident. It took years of advocacy work from Johnson and other local groups to convert the lower half of an Amtrak bridge for pedestrian and bicycle use. This fits with the history of how parks get built and amenities improved, not just in New York, but in the country as a whole.

Historically, large urban parks have been created where land was available, Benepe of the Trust for Public Land said. “And it all depends on: was there a civic leader who fought for the creation of parks?” In the Bronx, that person was journalist John Mullaly, who played a critical role in setting aside almost a quarter of the Bronx’s land for park space—including the area that eventually became St. Mary’s Park. But most of that space is in the northern half of the Bronx, which had not yet been developed. “That pattern,” Benepe said, “is really replicated in cities across the country.”

Today, cities looking to expand park access face a problem. There simply isn’t much land left undeveloped to turn into parks. Other than displacing people and businesses, which can be costly and politically unpopular, cities have to get creative, as New York did with the High Line in Chelsea by turning an abandoned elevated railroad track into a linear park, or repurposing abandoned waterfronts or warehouses.

“Cities weren’t designed for people’s well-being in mind,” Berman observed. “And this is something that we’re trying to get more on the radar.” Maybe, he said, it’s time to start asking if we really need that avenue or highway to run through a given neighborhood.

According to Benepe, there’s really only one way for that conversation to start today: local activism. And those activists will need to fight harder than ever, because, in many cases, they won’t just be fighting for empty land to be put towards a purpose everyone likes—they will be demanding it be taken away from someone else.

For his part, Johnson said the new sense of urgency around his activism isn’t necessarily welcome. “You don’t want your advocacy to get more light because of negative consequences,” he said, referring to the toll coronavirus has taken on his community. But it reminds him what he is fighting for. “We definitely don’t want them to have lost their lives without any situation changing in the future.”

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