Faculty and Staff

Sustainability, and Sustaining Community

Lance Pauker
August 24, 2021
Coney Island Creek Students

New York City is an ongoing work-in-progress. No matter where you turn, you’ll likely see scaffolding, construction, and the endless churn of redevelopment.

This is increasingly true on the many waterfronts in New York City, where redevelopment is often touted as, (a. a necessity, in order to protect city residents from rising sea levels and the unforgiving whims of climate change, and (b. an undeniable environmental boon, as many urban waterfronts are considerably polluted.

Often lost in the conversation surrounding waterfront redevelopment, however, is the current recreational and community usages of each waterfront, and the ways redevelopment will inexorably alter existing social ecosystems.

“For a very long time the water bodies in New York were too polluted to be under any sort of consideration as a public resource or a lucrative area of development, but that’s really shifted, especially with the passage of the Clean Water Act,” said Dyson Assistant Professor Monica Palta, PhD. “Although New York City waterways now receive much less pollution than 50 years ago, there are still legacy effects from old industries along the waterfront, and ongoing pollution problems caused by the city’s outdated sewage system. So the water bodies around New York City are still polluted, but in general, there’s a lot of long-term planning that would involve development along the waterfront.”

After receiving funding from the Wilson Center for Social Entrepreneurship, fellow environmental studies and science assistant professor Anne Toomey, PhD—who has long studied the relationship between citizen science and public engagement surrounding pertinent environmental issues—teamed up with Palta to examine the current social and ecological environment of Coney Island Creek, a heavily polluted waterbody in New York City, slated to be substantially redeveloped in the coming years. Their research, which ranged from water sampling, to citizen interviews, to urban planning analysis, documents current uses of the area in hopes of providing a context as to how to create a more sustainable future for Coney Island Creek and the New York waterfront in general—in ways that reduce existing environmental hazards while also preserving existing place attachments and meanings to the population it serves.

Both Toomey and Palta view urban waterfronts such as Coney Island Creek as a complex puzzle. As one of the most heavily polluted bodies of water in New York City, Coney Island Creek may be declared the next SuperFund site. Yet at the same time, it has been an important community hub for decades, and a vital recreational space for children and adults alike.

“On any given day in the summer there will be hundreds of people interacting with the water in Coney Island Creek; bathing, boating, etc. It obviously serves an important community recreational and cultural value, but it’s also very polluted,” said Toomey.

“We wanted to better understand how these dynamics work—local residents are trying to clean up the creek and also seek to have a say in how it’s being developed,” said Toomey. “Not just Coney Island, but as New York City is developing different waterfront plans, city planners are making decisions on a regular basis about how these waterfronts are developed, and we want to be a part of the discussion.”

One way these various competing realties are playing out in Coney Island Creek is through the construction of a proposed ferry terminal, which would dramatically alter the scope in which the creek is used and interacted with. As Toomey notes, many Coney Islanders support the construction of a ferry in Coney Island, as a ferry would substantially improve transportation options and access.

However, the plan to place the ferry terminal in Coney Island Creek—not the most convenient location for the many tourists who would likely be using the ferry in the first place—would likely expeditiously gentrify a lower-income area of Coney Island, and could possibly provide increased benefits to tourists at the expense of residents with personal investment and connection to the existing community. All of these potentially inalterable changes in the social fabric, naturally, do not even take into account the negative environmental effects that may arise from dredging the creek, the constant flow of ferries, and other realities of the redevelopment.

“It’s hard to make an argument to protect an area that is very polluted—it’s an uphill battle to say ‘yes, leave these submerged wrecked ships’ (which is actually good for mussels)—and ‘don’t replace this concrete where people fish with a park, because people who fish there aren’t going to have access to that space,’” said Palta. “This is why it’s really important to look at the net benefit vs. net harm. And that can be very nuanced.”

All in all, Toomey and Palta view their work as important contribution to the redevelopment conversation. While redevelopment often must and will inevitably happen, broadening the conversation to consider what truly constitutes waterfront improvement—and how to tailor necessary and essential improvements to the communities that already have strong ties to the waterfront—can force city officials, developers, and communities to better understand the complex dynamics of urban waterfronts, and work together to create plans that are truly sustainable.

“It’s not to say that it’s fine that people are swimming in polluted water, but we need to think about current uses and how to support those current uses—not just for a subset of people who could afford to live on gentrifying waterfront developments that are more resistant to rising sea levels,” said Toomey.

“I think the work that we’re doing is really important in terms of documenting what’s there,” said Palta. “All we can do is push that narrative forward and shed more light on how these systems are currently being used, and what the actual hazards or benefits are that are associated with them.”

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