What's nature got to do to get a little respect around here?

It's good for us, good for the planet, good for the city—so why don't more mayoral candidates care?

Apologies to my readers who don’t live in New York City, because this week’s issue is about city politics, but also about the relationship between cities and nature.

Yesterday I logged on with great interest to watch the NYC Mayoral Candidates Forum on Nature + Equity, which was co-hosted by a large number of local environmental groups, including Washington Square Park Eco Projects, PopUP Forest, NYC Audubon, Trees New York, Eastern Queens Alliance, Garden Train - Brooklyn District 15 School Gardens Consortium, NYC Pollinator Working Group, Inwood Hill Park Conservancy, Staten Island Coalition for Wetlands and Forests, East River Park Action, Bronx Council for Environmental Quality, the Delaware Nation Lenni Lenape. Given the number of organizations who signed on for this forum and contributed questions, it was disappointing to see such a poor showing among the top candidates.

Kathryn Garcia has the highest polling numbers (at 8 percent) of those who attended, followed by Art Chang (2 percent). They were joined by Aaron Foldenauer and Paperboy Prince. The two leading candidates, Eric Adams (18 percent) and Andrew Yang (16 percent), as well as the three more progressive candidates, Scott Stringer (15 percent), Dianne Morales (6 percent), and Maya Wiley (4 percent), skipped it.

And this was the candidates’ second opportunity to weigh in on a few related issues; on April 19, there was a forum on parks and open space. Only Art Chang, Kathryn Garcia, Shaun Donovan, and Ray McGuire attended.

Reiterating the importance of parks in this newsletter is definitely preaching to the choir, but just to recap: Wide open green spaces (and blue spaces like the beach) were an essential and safe gathering space for those of us who live in dense urban centers last year, to celebrate birthdays and other significant events, or just to visit with people from outside our households; we took to trails and running and biking paths for exercise, but also to escape from the monotony of our apartments’ four walls.

But we knew parks were good for mental health before the pandemic. Proximity to parks and green space is associated with lower rates of depression, anxiety, and stress, and even lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Parks are also essential for enduring climate change, and can help mediate its effects: by cooling cities and reducing the need for air conditioning; by helping absorb stormwater; and helping preserve biodiversity. They’re also good for the economy, if you need to hear that.

Which makes it absolutely maddening that parks and urban nature are getting absolutely no respect in this mayoral primary! Look, I know the city has big fish to fry—rampant economic inequality and police brutality and general misconduct, to start—but that doesn’t negate the importance of mitigating the effects of climate change or the health and well-being of city residents, especially poorer residents who are less likely to be able to leave the city to get their nature fix.

And New York City is already way behind in this department; as Elizabeth Kim reports for Gothamist, the city spends just $500 million on park maintenance, or less than .6 percent of the city’s total $88 billion budget, while other major cities like Los Angeles and Chicago allocate between 2-4 percent of their budgets to parks. Most candidates have committed to bumping the budget for parks up to 1 percent of the city budget, but that’s still paltry in comparison to other cities. (Progressive candidate Maya Wiley refused to commit to increasing the parks budget to 1 percent, while Dianne Morales didn’t respond to Gothamist’s questions at all.)

Ok, so with the big caveat that the leading (and progressive!?!) candidates’ voices were missing, these were the big takeaways from the NYC Nature Forum:

Kathryn Garcia came out strong for wetlands, and said she wants to work with, not against, nature. She had the most focused and specific answers of the crew, which is no surprise since climate change resiliency is one of her core campaign pillars. She also said she wants a green roof on every school, which is like a living science lab.

(An aside: Green roofs are a really interesting case. Based on previous research and interviews for a story that I never landed, my understanding is that the city and state have struggled to incentivize them without increasing economic inequality. Basically, green roofs are expensive so property owners don’t want to pay for them without incentives in the form of tax rebates or upfront grants, but green roofs also tend to increase property values, so its a questionable use of public money to finance them because it increases private wealth. But, the city and state really want to incentivize them because *deep breath* our really old city is built on these shared sewer pipes that combine wastewater from homes and businesses with rainwater from streets, and when those pipes are over capacity, the contents are dumped into our rivers, sewage and all, which isn’t great for the environment. Other solutions include rain gardens—hello, imagine if all the bike lanes in the city were separated from cars by beautiful rain gardens—and permeable paving stones. And, if you’re a homeowner, the city will give you a free rain barrel to store rainwater runoff from your roof, which you can use to water your garden or whatever.)

Green roofs on schools are a no-brainer because you get all the benefits of green roofs—rainwater absorption, electricity savings because it’s cheaper to heat and cool buildings with green roofs, and a learning resource for kids—without concerns about building private wealth with public dollars and exacerbating inequality.

Garcia also pledged to build 150 million square feet of new greenspace and to ensure that every New Yorker is a ten minute walk (or less) from a park or green space. She also mentioned potentially using marine docking fees as a novel revenue stream for parks. (Aside: In the course of reporting/researching another story that hasn’t panned out yet, I learned that illegal docking is a huge issue around Newtown Creek, so it was interesting to hear this and I want to know more.)

Art Chang actually chimed in to say not only does he love Garcia’s idea for green roofs, but that he has one on his own home: 8 inches of soil planted with a wildflower mix. He said another bonus of this set-up is that it reduces the sound from the constant helicopters buzzing overhead!

Chang was the first to bring up the East River Park, pointing out that the current plan goes against the principal of softening the island to make it more resilient to flood waters and sea level rise. (For those who aren’t in the know, the current plan is to bulldoze the existing park and cover it with eight feet of dirt and build a new park on top of it.) He also explicitly brought up the importance of getting more cars off the road and suggested one day turning the FDR into park space (?!).

Aaron Feldenhauer expressed outrage at the cancellation of the composting program, and that trash pickup in parks was put on hold at the start of the pandemic, leading to overflowing bins. He said he wants to shorten the time it takes to replace sidewalk trees (18 months, on average I think). Feldenhauer also mentioned multiple times that he lives in lower Manhattan and has had to evacuate because of storms twice. He said he wants to save Elizabeth Street Garden and that the East River Park plan needs to be revisited.

Paperboy Prince had the fewest specific, concrete suggestions, and spent a good chunk of their speaking time berating the moderator for moderating. They did say that we need to stop seeing ourselves as separate from nature, and a “greener New York” is part of their utopian political platform.

All in all, while I appreciated the event and the questions/issues raised, it really underscored how low a priority parks, green space, nature, and even climate change resiliency are for the leading mayoral candidates. Pretty depressing actually!

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If you’ve ever considered short- or long-term vanlife, you might be interested in knowing which national parks have the best and worst internet speeds over cell phone networks (Isla McKetta for Speedtest.net, h/t Ethan Davison). The 100-Mile Wilderness between Moosehead Lake and Baxter State Park in Maine has become the first International Dark Sky Park in New England (Susan Sharon for Bangor Daily News, h/t Jan Davison). Climbing in the Himalayas and the unbearable whiteness of mountaineering literature (Sophie Cousins for LitHub). The long, strange tale of the cross-country skiers who died in violent and mysterious circumstances after beginning a sixteen-day trip across the Ural Mountains, and the many and varied explanations (weapons testing! UFOs! a yeti!) for their deaths (Douglas Preston for The New Yorker).

Source request: I’m working on an article about adventure swimming or wild swimming or whatever you want to call swimming in the great outdoors. If you or someone you know goes around collecting swimming spots (especially lakes, ponds, etc.) the way hikers bag peaks, I want to hear about it! Hit reply or drop me a note in the comments.