Urban Renewal, Through an Environmental Lens

Why do certain neighborhoods of New York have disproportionate levels of asthma? What are the connections between ecological, economic and social degradation? Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx), an innovative non-profit group, is passionate about answering these questions and providing sustainable alternatives to years of flawed urban planning.

For Miquela Craytor, executive director of SSBx, a healthy community is an empowered one. “We aim to provide education to all members of our community,” she says, “and use our professional capacity to empower individuals to work within the systems that are set up, to participate and vocalize their needs.”

Connecting individuals to their city is an enriching exchange, says Craytor, which is why SSBx supports programs and policies informed by local needs, such as access to green space, safer air and waterfronts, green collar job training, education, legislation reform and environmental stewardship.

Before SSBx’s founding in 2001 by visionary South Bronx resident Majora Carter, the South Bronx held 40 percent of the entire city’s waste, 100 percent of the Bronx’s waste, a sewage treatment plant, and the lowest ratio of parks to people in New York. Fifty percent of the population is still at or below the poverty line.

With her inspired ideas, Carter helped bring the South Bronx its first open-waterfront park in 60 years, Hunts Point Riverside Park. Then she secured $1.25 million in federal funds for a greenway along the South Bronx waterfront, “bringing the neighborhood open space, pedestrian and bike paths, and space for mixed-use economic development,” according to the group.

The greenway and green roof installation rebates exemplify the SSBx vision of a day-to-day difference. Because change starts at home, the organization has installed a green and cool roof on top of its South Bronx office. It also works with BEST (The Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training), a successful green collar skills training and job placement system.

Launching this February will be two major SSBx initiatives. Like BEST, a new green collar training program will share skills needed to restore the Bronx, Craytor says: “It’s a model of hands-on training in the green collar economy.” Retrofits will be a special focus of this program, sharpening skills in the field for more efficient building renovations. Students will learn how to solve on-site environmental problems like leaky windows and inefficient lighting. “We are connecting the dots, not only providing training but linking up students to employers,” says Craytor. “It’s the next step of our larger job-training focus and emphasis on economic opportunities.”

Also beginning in February is the launch of a Sustainable Design track for local 9th- and 10th-grade high school students. Craytor explains that math and science students will approach design through sustainable digital design lens and clean manufacturing techniques.

While the new initiatives are exciting, they will roll out at a time when the recession is ravaging many non-profit budgets. “It’s a challenge,” Craytor admits, “but 2009 is presenting an important opportunity for a ‘new’ conversation. We need to take this moment to seek clarity on the environment and giving voice to all individuals. There is a desperate need to bring a quality of life to places that have been overlooked and now the desire and vision is being identified.”

(See SSBx Founder Majora Carter tell her story here.)

Posted by Margot Douaihy

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