October 12, 2016
“When you're in these parks, you don’t even need to measure the air to know it’s polluted,” Ana Traverso-Krejcarek says while walking through the three small parks straddling the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in South Williamsburg. “This neighborhood has one of the highest rates of asthma in the city. And these are some of the only open spaces that this community has. So even though people want to get outside, and engage in healthy activity, it comes at a cost.”
As the Project Manager for the Green Light District, Ana spends a lot of time in these spaces, working with the community members who use and depend on these parks. The Green Light District is a ten year initiative of El Puente, a thirty year old social justice organization with deep roots in the local community. The initiative seeks to sustain, grow, and green Williamsburg’s South Side, and addressing its lack of quality open space is one of its main areas of action.
Environmental justice has been a core issue for El Puente from the beginning. In the 1990s the “Toxic Avengers,” a group of young environmental activists from El Puente, were instrumental in uniting with the local Hasidic community to stop the city from building a massive garbage incinerator in Williamsburg. Most of the trees in the south side were planted by El Puente years ago. The environmental activism lives on today with the national Latino Climate Action Network, and the locally-focused Green Light District.
To address park inequity, and to empower young people to understand and advocate for their open spaces, NY4P is working with Ana to educate El Puente’s Summer Youth Employment Program participants to gather and analyze data on their park spaces. They’re observing park conditions, and developing an understanding of why such conditions exist.
“The NY4P methods help people understand their open space better. They see what makes it healthy, and unhealthy. They see it with a more critical eye, and they can appreciate it better,” Ana explains. “It’s easy to take things for granted, but the more informed you are the more you can contribute to fighting for positive changes.”
“One of the most eye-opening things participants learned about was the 311 app. It’s a great tool to use for creating active citizenship,” Ana says, referring to NYC’s mobile app and phone service that connects New Yorkers with city government. The participants notified the city about trash and other maintenance issues that needed to be addressed, many of them using 311 for the first time.
“We also reached out to the parks manager to let them know what we’re doing. Now they know that the community is paying attention, but also that we are willing to help. We’re trying to get government to work with citizens, and the other way around.”
The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway cuts directly through the neighborhood, and both it and the Williamsburg Bridge funnel heavy traffic through the neighborhood every day. Most of the few green spaces in the neighborhood are right next to the expressway, exposing users to highly-polluted air.
In addition to studying open space, the young people at El Puente are also collecting air quality data, and will combine them to make a data-based argument for improved green space. “When our students tested the air quality, they found the particulate matter was five times higher than the average for this area of Brooklyn,” Ana notes.
“We need better open spaces to clean the air. Without clean air, we’re condemning families to live with huge costs,” Ana explains. Particularly for low- and middle-income families, the effects of asthma can go far beyond decreased health: there’s financial strain caused by health bills and lost wages, educational setbacks due to missed school, and the psychological burden of living with a chronic, and preventable, illness. The local Latino population is also suffering from higher than average rates of obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. All of these issues make the need for quality parkland and open space especially pressing. “It’s a big matter of equity.”
As an urban planner with experience working with arts and culture organizations, working at El Puente with the Green Light District is a perfect fit for Ana. She believes in the work they do, and understands the power of data to affect change. “People deserve to have good parks, to have healthy places to take their children. And we need scientific data to support our case.”
One of the biggest changes El Puente is advocating for is the BQ Green, an ambitious project that would create new parkland by building over two blocks of the sunken Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The proposed project includes a baseball field, playgrounds, a lawn area for soccer and other activities, a pool, and a community center.
With an estimated cost of $100 million, the folks at El Puente and in the community know that making the BQ Green a reality won’t be easy. But they also know that quality open space isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity that all communities deserve. They’re working with Council Member Antonio Reynoso, the Open Space Alliance for North Brooklyn, the climate action group Mothers Out Front, and local community members to push for the park’s creation. In February 2017 they’re launching a campaign, and will step up the push to make the new open space a reality.