Reducing Run-off for Cleaner Waterways

Reducing Run-off for Cleaner Waterways

Green infrastructure can help coastal New York withstand severe weather events.
Courtesy NYC Parks

In putting together AN’s annual issue dedicated to landscape architecture, it is clear that water is nearly as central to the profession as land: creating new recreational landscapes on rivers and coastal areas; managing stormwater in cities to prevent sewage overflows; boosting urban resiliency in the face of rising oceans; and reestablishing habitat to foster dynamic ecologies within urban areas. Landscape architects have been at the forefront of demonstrating the role of design in improving urban environmental conditions and in understanding the effect of these conditions within the larger world.

As effective as the landscape architect’s tool kit can be in addressing these issues, they are often limited by government agencies that are cautious or committed to entrenched ways of building. Thankfully this has begun to change. In New York City, the Parks, Transportation, Planning, and Environmental Protection departments have all adopted new standards and are channeling significant resources into green infrastructure. These efforts should be applauded and expanded further.

One department could do more, however, and that is Sanitation. New York city, for all its wealth and refurbishment in recent decades, remains a stubbornly dirty city. Walk down any major cross street or avenue and you will see garbage and litter everywhere. Street wastebaskets overflow with the detritus of New York’s busy, disposable culture: plastic bags, coffee cups, food containers, cigarette packs, etc., which invariably get blown into the street and into the drains during storms, fouling the waterways that so many are working to protect.

Lacking alleys, we New Yorkers are used to seeing our garbage front and center in the streetscape. Perhaps this has made us too immune to the overflowing trashcans and litter all around. It shouldn’t. Quite simply, New York needs more and better-designed street waste receptacles, and they need to be emptied with greater frequency, particularly in high foot-traffic areas. Local business improvement districts (BIDS) have helped clean some marquee areas, but in parts of the city not covered by BIDS, overflowing street cans and litter remain persistent problems. A design competition for such receptacles could help galvanize the design community around this issue and raise public awareness.

The city also needs to attack its culture of disposables head-on. Former Mayor Bloomberg reportedly favored a ban on plastic bags, but ultimately didn’t pursue it. Mayor de Blasio is said to be considering some kind of a tax on plastic bags, which could be a good start. There’s much more to be done though. A public education campaign centered on reusable containers and reducing disposables, along with proper waste disposal, could vastly reduce the amount of litter in our streets (and ultimately in our waterways). Each borough could boast a branded reusable bag or coffee cup and street waste reduction contests could be established between the boroughs.

That’s not to say that the Department of Sanitation lacks innovation. It has begun an outer borough composting program, which will also be used to create cleaner local energy from methane gas.

But New York needs to address its streetscape litter problems with much greater intensity. Reducing waste, and litter in particular, goes hand in hand with building green infrastructure. Residents will resist bioswales clogged with garbage. As the city continues to embrace its waterfront identity, it should also make the connection between reducing waste and cleaner waters.