Taking a Train to the City: Finding a Sense of Place in the Lower Hudson Valley

A few weeks ago we used our best parallel parking skills to dock up with Groundwork Hudson Valley’s Science Barge in Yonkers, NY. The science barge is aptly named, it’s an old barge that’s been converted into hydroponic greenhouses and is used to teach kids about sustainable living. Groundwork Hudson also hosts a farmers market on the riverfront.

Just down the street the Center for Urban Renewal at Beczak, or CURB, continues the environmental education mission but with a waterfront theme. They restored the only speck of green on the waterfront in Yonkers that we could see, and they take kids out into the river each day to scoop up fish and plants and show them that that muddy river is actually teeming with life. They also have a little garden out front and, like the Science Barge, are committed to helping Yonkers residents connect to the Hudson River and to their local food system.

Facilitating this connection is no small task in a bedroom community like Yonkers where most of the wealthier residents get on the Metro-North train each day for work in New York City. Groundwork Hudson Valley recently daylighted the Saw Mill river, meaning they dug up the parking lot above the pipe that the rived had been diverted into and created an open flowing river in the middle of a city block. The open river is complimented by a beautiful waterfront area and helped fix the combined sewer and storm water problem common to this region. 

We chatted with leaders from both groups about what impacts and adaptations are on their minds. 

Impacts

Storms

Like every New Yorker we said the words “climate change” to, hurricanes Sandy and Irene were top of the list of impacts. One Vicky Garufi from CURB showed us how the Hudson River had advanced some 30 feet closer to the building than it normally lies during the storm surge that accompanied Sandy. Jennifer of the Science Barge was working as a farmer during Irene and watched many small farmers around her lose entire harvests when their fields flooded. 

Water Availability

Jennifer’s take was simple, under climate change “It’s either feast or famine with water”. She’s right, according to the most recent IPCC assessment of climate change both extreme rain events and extreme droughts are projected to increase in frequency. 

Adaptations

Local Food

The Science Barge teaches students about growing food hydroponically and sells their produce at a weekly farmer’s market. They believe that food justice, or each person having access to affordable and healthy produce, is a key element to social justice. Like the small farmers we heard about in Beacon, they're making Yonkers more resilient in the event of major storm by establishing a local food system. 

Education

Both of these groups are committed to helping residents build a connection to the Hudson River and the food they eat. Their missions converge on a fact I think about all the time when I’m making my environmentally themed art: a person won’t be motivated to care for a location unless they feel like they experience a sense of place there. If a city or a river doesn’t feel like your home, why take the time to keep it healthy? CURB and the Science Barge are creating environmental stewards by reminding people about the natural environment that surrounds them through environmental education lessons but also by bringing the river to the people through the day-lighting project.  

Water Quality

The river daylighting project separated the sewage pipes from the storm water pipes in that area, meaning that unlike many other towns on the Hudson, sewage doesn't flow into the Hudson River during a large storm. Solving this problem is incredibly expensive and complicated, and the daylighted river is such an elegant example of a solution. 

Collaboration

All along the Hudson Valley we saw environmental groups collaborating to work towards a common goal: an estuary and population more prepared for climate change impacts. The level of cooperation is truly impressive, and is one of the things I observed in the Valley that made me the most hopeful for their future. Both groups are part of a project that just recently received funding from NOAA called “Global, Local, Coastal: Preparing the Next Generation for a Changing Planet”. They’ll be adding climate change material to the science curriculum in Yonkers public schools and updating exhibits on the Science Barge to add climate change material. We’ll definitely check back in to hear how this is going in a year or two!