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Take me to the River: Water Access and PlaNYC

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by Worldchanging NYC local blogger, Bonnie Hulkower:

Memorial Day weekend launched swimming season in New York City; not in the city’s pools, which don’t open until June 29, but swimming at ocean beaches and some of the rivers around New York. The Parks Department maintains 14 miles of beaches, all of which are open from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

This past Sunday, while many New Yorkers headed to Orchard Beach and Coney Island, some brave souls headed to Battery Park City for Lady Liberty’s 3rd annual swim from the South to North Coves. The Manhattan Island Foundation (MIF) organizes swimming events around Manhattan waters with the goal of raising public awareness about the waters that surround New York. There is even a Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (28.5 miles around!) with international participants. These events are the only time that the public is allowed to swim in the lower Hudson, where currents and boat traffic can be too much for even the strongest swimmers, with the Foundation getting clearance from the U.S. Coast Guard and N.Y.P.D.

The Lady Liberty race reminded me of Mayor Bloomberg’s plaNYC to open 90 percent of New York’s waterways to recreation by 2030. The plan didn’t specify what form of recreation, but I hope it includes boating, as well as fishing and swimming. I often feel that public access to the water is a human right that New Yorkers forget about. For many of us (myself included) the waterways are most often experienced as something to pass over or under as we travel from borough to borough.

In the March 18th Sunday New York Times, founders of the Waterkeeper Alliance wrote an op-ed arguing that making New York waterways safe for recreational boating was one of Bloomberg’s least ambitious goals, because it doesn’t require improving water quality. Striving for a fishable and swimmable harbor, they argue would be a far more meaningful goal. They also opine that the City has and will continue to focus on end of the pipe solutions (treating the water) instead of limiting the problem at the source before the water flows into the system. Capturing the water before it ends up in the sewer system would allow it to be reused for irrigating plantings or for commercial or residential use.

As Josh Weise mentioned here last month, combined sewer overflows (CSOs) are the main culprit for the city’s poor rivers and beach water quality. The city does include some source control measures in PlaNYC, like redesigning tree pits to cache runoff, expanding bluebelts that would filter greywater, and encouraging green roofs. In June, the City Department of Environmental Protection must submit to state regulators its long-term proposal for controlling discharges from CSOs. New Yorkers will then be able to determine if the City heeded the Riverkeeper, EPA and other organization’s advice to focus its plan more on source control measures and what the Mayor’s intent was when he said waterway recreation.

Years ago, many people wouldn't be caught dead in the Hudson River. But before World War II, swimming and rowing were major sports around New York. The dream of floating or movable river swimming pools around New York has long been discussed in New York. Ann Buttenwieser, a longtime parks advocate, and Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society, have proposed using sanitized garbage barges with pool-size holes in the middle for river swimming. Last fall one of these swimming-pool barges moved from a New Orleans to Pier 2 in Brooklyn Bridge Park for further construction, and should be ready for swimmers in 2008. The barges could be hauled to neighborhoods and anchored there during the summer. They are similar to river pools that the city had 75 years ago. Although pricey, they are still a lot less expensive than building a conventional swimming pool and can better connect children with the rivers and city’s maritime industries.

While swimming in New York waters may seem like an impossible dream, or an activity only for the bolder among us, many organizations are trying to help people gain access and familiarity with their local waterways through boating and canoeing.

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Great article!
While we are members of the SWIM colaition, I would also say that making NYC entirely accomodating to recreational, non-motorized boaters, is an ambitioous goal. It will necessitate greater accessibility and increase public interaction with the waterways that will seed a greater interest in improving water quality even further!

Posted by: Harry on 12 Jun 07


Great article. While dealing with the pollution that goes into the city's surrounding waters may be paramount, New Yorkers can hardly feel connected to or cultivate a sense of stewardship for their local waterways when their only access is blocked by bulkheaded walls and chain link fences.

Thankfully there are a few more people than just yourself and the mayor's sustainability task force that think so.

The comment above mine mentions the SWIM Coalition, which is definitely interested in water access and a swimmable city.

On the East River, a coalition of over 40 organizations collaborated to develop a community based waterfront initiative called the East River Agenda. To launch their agenda with a splash, they planned an entire day of river events for June 21st called, East River Day. You can check out some of the maps which point out water access opportunities to be developed here.

Some of the organizations participating in the SWIM Coalition and East River Day are already taking advantage of the valuable ecosystem service New York's waters provide - recreation. Though it doesn't represent an official group, I found this photo essay on New York City's surf scene, which calls the beaches of Far Rockaway Queens home.

And to finish it off, here's a link to a great 1948 pic by Arthur Leipzig of three young men diving into the East River with the Queensboro Bridge in the background. I look forward to the day that this is a common scene once again.

Posted by: Joshua Wiese on 12 Jun 07

I guess our posts aren't html enabled. Here are the links I tried to add in the last post:

The SWIM Coalition:

The East River Agenda:

East River Day - June 21st, 2007:

Water Access Opportunities in New York proposed by the East River Agenda:

The photo essay on the NYC surf scene:

And last, but not least, Aurther Liepzig's rad picture:

Posted by: Joshua Wiese on 12 Jun 07



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