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  • Writer's pictureFernando Ortiz


Polluting Infrastructure in the South Bronx and Greenifying the Works of Robert Moses

When I first took the role of Community Engagement Associate Planner for the Bronx Borough Office at the NYC Department of City Planning- one of the first topics in conversation was "what kind of planner do you admire more? Moses or Jacobs?"

For nearly four decades; Robert Moses held several titles throughout the Tri-State area in New York- at one point holding 12 titles simultaneously such as NYC Parks Commissioner, Chairman of the New York State Power Authority and the NYC City Planning Commissioner. This granted Moses immense power to build and plan NYC and the surrounding area however he pleased. Perhaps a man of his time- Moses planned for a city and region dominated by the automobile and its free circulation to and from the city core to the surrounding suburbs. Whereas, Moses is known as the man who used his power and titles to build highways and bridges- Jane Jacobs became a community activist and leader who fought Moses plan to build a highway through Greenwich Village/SoHo called the Lower Manhattan Expressway by organizing and mobilizing her community. (see Motherless Brooklyn for a great film depiction of this)

The South Bronx has for decades been the site of dumping in our city- a neighborhood torn apart and disadvantaged by the public infrastructure works of the "Master Builder" Robert Moses. The South Bronx is bordered to the west by the Major Deegan Expressway, to the north by the Cross Bronx Expressway, to the east by the Sheridan Expressway and the Bronx River Expressway and to the south by the Bruckner Expressway. These polluting infrastructures have marginalized and led to the destruction of communities since its construction. Not only did the building of these highways literally displace communities and tear down homes and businesses in the Bronx- it continues to this day to create public health issues for Bronxites, disconnect them from waterfront spaces, creates hostile, dark and unsafe connections and pollutes our neighborhoods with noise, exhaust, and trash.

These polluting infrastructure are host to hundreds and thousands of trucks every hour; the Bruckner Expressway counts about 400-500 trucks an hour alone- and with these vehicles comes terrible air quality. Asthma has been an epidemic in the South Bronx since the South Bronx became the South Bronx (when Moses constructed the Cross Bronx and literally separated it from the rest of the Bronx). One in four children in the South Bronx suffer from asthma, with the South Bronx having some of the highest asthma rates in the country because of its location within the infamous 'Asthma Alley'. The exhaust not only pollutes our air- it also increases the urban heat island effect- which is when land uses and lack of vegetation increase ambient temperatures and make places literally hotter. Urban heat island effect increases communities risk to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses like asthma, hypertension and heat-related illnesses like heat strokes (with 50% of heat-related deaths occurring in Black males in low-income communities across NYC). Poor air quality has also been linked to neurological and cognitive disorders like dementia and autism, as well as skin and eye irritation, pre-mature births and high mortality rates in infants. It is no surprise that the South Bronx ranks as one of the top three hottest neighborhoods in NYC.

Robert Moses polluting infrastructure in the South Bronx not only destroyed Bronx neighborhoods like Tremont but had a racial component- all his major highways were built in low-income communities of color and immigrant communities- and to this day continue to disadvantage our people. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has not only affected the South Bronx at disproportionate rates; with the highest case rates in our city- due to pre-existing health conditions, the large number of essential workers in our communities and the lack to adequate health care access- among other factors- but has demonstrated the South Bronx risk to not only public health issues but to other things such as gentrification, displacement, climate change and inequities related to food and education.

The Bruckner Expressway- one of Moses 'grand works' borders the Hunts Point community to the north. The underpass beneath the Bruckner is an unsafe, dirty and very busy corridor for both trucks and cars but people as well. It also spans across a large area- with 8 lanes on the ground-level. Having myself crossed this underpass numerous times during my time as a Climate and Resiliency Organizer in Hunts Point- I was inspired by the foot-traffic and the green-painted supporting beams beneath the expressway to envision a different experience beneath the Bruckner. After learning about the 'Leaf Island effect' which is the reverse of the urban heat island effect in which vegetation is used to cool ambient temperatures- I envisioned the Building Underpass Greenways (BUG) project.

The BUG is a greenway proposal for the Bruckner Expressway Underpass which would transform the corridor into a pedestrian-friendly green pathway that will not only help cool the ambient temperature due to vegetation but will also help capture air contaminants at the source, create safer crossings and pathways for pedestrians and cyclist, reduce noise pollution and increase stormwater capture from the Bruckner Overpass- but also create connections to other green spaces in the area and create a pleasant sense of place. The BUG would use green infrastructure like green walls and rain gardens beneath the Bruckner to incorporate vegetation to this otherwise polluting infrastructure.

In order to reduce the effects of polluting infrastructure like the Bruckner Expressway- we need to start attacking the problem at the source. This is not a new concept at all in the South Bronx- ideas to cap the Cross Bronx at below grade levels and build open spaces and boulevards is an old idea that has gained a lot of traction lately. Temporary floating wetlands have been piloted beneath the Major Deegan Expressway. The peaker plants in the South Bronx are being called to shut down and to adapt renewable energy sources in its place by the PEAK Campaign. Wetlands have been re-introduced to the industrial coast of the South Bronx at Oak Point at the McInnis Cement Plant to increase coastal resiliency. The Sheridan Expressway was decommissioned and transformed into a boulevard to allow for access and connections to the Bronx River spearheaded by community activist. Environmental justice leaders have been mobilizing for decades around these issues and visioning solutions to the disparities that they face. I just hope to add my grain of salt. This concept is not exclusive to the South Bronx either- the Via Verde project in Mexico City transformed an expressway underpass into a green corridor using green walls to wrap around the supporting columns of the highway (the designer of this project coincidently is named Fernando Ortiz- look it up!)

Moses and I share a few similarities- mostly that we are both Columbia Alumni, city planners and have worked at some point in our lives at both the NYC Department of City Planning and the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation (of course at different times but I guess we are still considered colleagues or at least fellow alumni). Both of us also share visions for the South Bronx- Moses saw it as an obstacle for cars circulating from job centers in Manhattan to Westchester and the Hudson Valley; whereas, I see it as home. Whereas Moses was known as the 'Master Builder' who built massive polluting infrastructure across low-income, communities of color in the South Bronx- I strive to work with these communities to design new green-spaces and combat health disparities and envision plaguing his life works with vines and ferns and BUGS.

( yea, you can call me Poison Ivy ! )

*Note: The Building Underpass Greenways- (BUG) is a design proposal by The Greenest Fern who is working with THE POINT CDC and New York University's Applied Global Public Health Initiative's Climate Change Task Force to build a community-driven and interactive engagement process to establish a vision for underpass greenways below the Bruckner Expressway and across the South Bronx. Other collaborations are underway with the Leaf Island team.

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