Redefining Urban Coastal Zones for Integration into Upland Ecosystems

by Lorna Salzman

So much of the shoreline of New York City is derelict and degraded that it is hard to recognize the magnificent estuarine environment that surrounds the five boroughs unless one visits the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens - once a thriving oyster fishery - or the western shores of Staten Island. Estuarine and marsh environments were long regarded as stinking muddy malarial habitats breeding little but mosquitoes. This contempt for wetlands led to the abandonment of shorelines to polluting undesirable industry, junkyards and related nefarious activities, or, later, to the construction of luxury housing whose tenants were willing to pay for water views.

But even when waterfront became desirable real estate, the aquatic environment still seemed threatening; floods, hurricanes, shoreline erosion and unsightly reeds and weeds impaired, in the minds of many, the aesthetic and recreational potential of the waterfront. Of course, as with so-called beach erosion on the south shore of Long Island, few blamed human intervention or activities for the problem. Folly followed on folly as zoning and planning boards and government agencies persisted in expending public money and power to defend ill-advised development in floodplains and provide taxpayer-subsidized insurance for storm damage.

These short-sighted policies were imitated by NYC's own planning department and by the city's own policies on disposition of unwanted city properties and persist today. The Arverne urban renewal project on the barrier beach flood plain of Far Rockaway, Queens, and the regular auctioning of surplus city land in southern Staten Island adjacent to wetlands and stream beds, both of which serve to soak up stormwaters and prevent local flooding, and the countenancing by city and state of additional hardening of waterfront lands with bulkheads, revetments, gabions, and other structures, reveal the continued defiance of and contempt for both the forces and positive values of nature on the part of agencies that should know better. This narrow focus on only those lands bordering coastal waters, and the misguided attempt to defend human and structural intrusion into the floodplain by shore hardening resulted in an illogical, uneconomic and anti-ecological base for coastal zone planning, zoning and policy-making.

By focusing only on coastal wetlands, other parts of the coastal ecosystem such as maritime dunes, swales, shrubland and grassland, as well as coastal plain ponds and streams, and swamp forest are left to the mercy of dumpers and developers. Some examples of such ignored threatened components of coastal ecosystems are the privately owned Graniteville Swamp, a closed-canopy swamp forest on Staten Island threatened by a golf range and commercial development, the Vandalia dunes area on Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, one of the three remaining grasslands in NYC and imminently threatened by a shopping mall, the Far Rockaway barrier beach flood plain threatened by a NYC urban renewal project, the Staten Island Industrial Park swamp forest with its threatened swamp magnolias, as well as small city-owned parcels adjoining upland stream bodies near Conference House Park in southern Staten Island, which the city continues to auction off, thus encouraging residential construction in floodprone areas.

In recent years, there were efforts by the NYC Parks Dept. and natural resource staff in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection (of which I was formerly a member) to acquire and protect upland components of coastal zone ecosystems, and discussions were initiated with the NYC division of real property. Unfortunately, present policies of NYC and agencies such as my former employer, NYC DEP, and in particular the NYC Economic Development Corporation, a repeated violator of Federal wetlands laws, are developed with no regard for organic and ecological parameters of coastal zone habitat. Thus, waterfront parks and preserves may be assiduously guarded while the upland freshwater streams and ponds that feed into these are for the most part ignored. Only the DEP's Staten Island Bluebelt Project, initiated by the former DEP commissioner Al Appleton and overseen by Bluebelt director Dana Gumb, took this wider view, but its political success depended upon economic arguments rather than ecological ones, in that freshwater stream body protection provides stormwater storage and eliminates the need to build costly storm sewers.

Those parts of the NYC waterfront that are not now actively used or preserved as public parks have been left to the mercy of local dumpers, polluters, chop shops, widespread illegal encroachment by nearby property owners, inadequate enforcement and inappropriate uses. Fires, illegal structures, boat ramps, paving and jerry-built anti-erosion structures using boulders, scrap iron and other unsightly materials impair both shoreline aesthetics and the ability of ailing shallow aquatic habitats to support important wetland and submerged vegetation and aquatic life. Shore-hardening structures like bullkheads and gabions sever the ecological and hydrological continuum between upland freshwater bodies and the coastal brackish environment. These structural impairments thus preclude the restoration of ecological conditions, species and communities whose presence is a pre-requisite for improving estuarine water quality. NYC DEP's heavily advertised comprehensive watershed plan for improving Jamaica Bay waters and wetlands still remains a paper plan useful for the DEP Commissioner's speeches but with virtually no impact outside of its CSO (combined sewer overflow) program ---a program initiated only because of a legal mandate.

These practices and policies seriously diminish the opportunity for restoring water quality and estuarine habitats in the lower Hudson estuary to any semblance of their former selves. The result of this will be either the status quo, or actual deterioration of water quality, and the impairment of the many values - recreational, aesthetic, educational, economic -that NYC's remarkable coastal zone embodies. While the city spends megadollars to build CSOs to meet Federal water quality standards with one hand, with the other hand it allows shoreline construction and destruction that degrade water quality.

This is both a scientific problem and a political one. We have in NYC a planning commission and mayor who have made their main objective the armoring of what remains of NYC's undeveloped shoreline with structures and facilities that could easily go elsewhere but which stand to enrich the powerful and politically connected. Proposals to rezone waterfront areas to facilitate high-rise luxury housing and recreation, to encourage suburban-type car-dependent megastores on the city's periphery (that is, waterfront), and not least, to destroy the last site in NYC available for an intermodal freight center in the south Bronx, combined with the resuscitated Arverne project in Rockaway, bode ill for NYC residents and the estuarine environment.

The only hope lies in informed communities and organizations agitating for an enlightened waterfront land use policy that is based both on socially responsible planning as well as on an ecologically enlightened understanding of the need to reunite fragmented coastal habitats, thus enabling NYC to contribute towards the urgent task of restoring and maintaining biological diversity in its coastal zone. Local communities, planning boards and the city planning department need to redefine and redesign attitudes and policies within city agencies to reflect ecological concerns and exigencies, not those of real estate developers and bureaucrats. First and foremost should be a policy prohibiting additional hardening of shorelines with bulkheads or other anti-erosion measures, substituting instead wetlands replanting and restoration to buffer against flooding and tides. Accompanying this should be a long-term plan for removing existing bulkheading and shore-hardening structures and restoring wetlands in these areas.

Next, city agencies that own or manage undeveloped lands in the more broadly defined coastal zone, particularly those adjacent to existing natural areas or parks, should conduct an inventory and survey of these lands so they can ultimately be turned over to the Parks Dept. or to a combined public-private partnership for restoration and management as passive recreation areas or as small-scale community wildllife refuges, such as the combined city, state and National Audubon Society preserves off Point Breeze Place in Far Rockaway.

Of particular concern is the Port Authority's JFK Airport, which has extensive fringing salt marsh as well as one of the three rare and endangered grasslands habitats in NYC; also under threat from mega-mall development is another grasslands area, the Vandalia dunes on Jamaica Bay. Like the NYC Economic Development Corporation, the Port Authority traditionally has shown scant regard for either environmental values or laws and should be brought into the 20th century by pressure from city and state regulatory agencies. Citizen efforts to save backyard woods, streams and wetlands are both praiseworthy and necessary, but it is now time to integrate these local battles into a citywide struggle for ecosystem restoration that shows proper respect for that part of the lower Hudson estuarine bioregion which NYC occupies.

Presented at Society for Ecological Restoration 1996 International Conference, Rutgers University, New Jersey, June 17-22, 1996.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.