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A ‘Broken Windows’ Theory for Environmentalism


Photo by James D'Addio
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Call it the broken windows theory applied to environmentalism.

This Spring, Riverkeeper helped mobilize a crew of 80 to clean up trash at Inwood’s North Cove, a reclaimed wetlands area on the Harlem River where wildlife now flourishes amid steel and cement.

The biggest cleanup of 72 on our 2nd annual day of service for the estuary, the Riverkeeper Sweep, we removed about 6 tons of tires, twisted metal, polystyrene coffee cups and rotten fruit. The trash was so deep it had to be dug out with shovels in some places, and we had a lingering concern that the work of our volunteers—including dozens of kids from the nearby KIPP School—would be undone if the same people who had trashed the cove initially started dumping again.

Photo by James D'Addio

So we happily greeted news this week from the cove’s fierce local advocate James Cataldi, executive director of the Manhattan Wetlands & Wildlife Association, that the cove has not suffered from new dumping. And the political ties forged through work on the Sweep even helped Jim stop the dumping of snow and the pollution scraped off roads along with it.

Fix the broken window, and people take more pride in their neighborhood, forcing the nefarious elements out. That’s the idea. Polluters tend to pollute where there’s already pollution. The formula for stopping pollution is to clean up the mess—and then keep close watch. Jim’s doing just that at Inwood’s North Cove just as Riverkeeper does with our boat patrols throughout the estuary.

When Riverkeeper started almost 50 years ago, the Hudson River was full of broken windows. The General Motors plant in Sleepy Hollow turned the river a different color as each line of cars that came off the factory floor were painted. PCBs leaked from the Anaconda Wire and Cable Co. factory in Hastings. Coal tar oozed from the manufactured gas plant at Nyack.

That kind of blight and disregard for the state of our river was what energized the founders of Riverkeeper in 1966. They dusted off unused laws that barred dumping in our waterways, and started prosecuting polluters, one by one.

At that time, pollution made it hard for many to see the river for what it is – a thing of beauty, and an ecological powerhouse, producing awe-inspiring Atlantic sturgeon, athletic striped bass and herring by the millions—more than 200 species of fish in all, as well as the birds and mammals that feed on them.

Today, the Hudson is the backbone of neighborhoods from lower Manhattan to Waterford, 150 miles upriver. The river is the driver of the region’s $4.5 billion tourism economy.

Or put another way, if you clean it, they will come.

Humans are drawn to water. It takes a powerful repellent to keep us away. Just ask the Gowanus Dredgers, whose love of Brooklyn’s blighted canal isn’t undone by stinking, green-gray stagnant water, or the rainbow blooms of coal tar that bubble up from the toxic mud below.

Capt. John Lipscomb patrols the Gowanus Canal. Photo by Leah Rae

Cleanup plans are now on the books for each of these blights, in Brooklyn, Hastings, Sleepy Hollow and Nyack—and many other like them. The work of cleaning up our waterways isn’t fast, and it isn’t done until our water is safe for swimming, and our fish safe for eating—two challenges that remain on the Hudson.

And Riverkeeper is being called on to enforce our environmental laws as never before. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has lost 30% of its staff since 1990.

Take cops off the beat, and you’ll get more broken windows, which is why we have to fight to restore essential staff to our environmental agencies, and support those stalwarts who are working hard to enforce the laws that protect our environment.

In the meantime, Riverkeeper remains your cop on this most important beat. We’re fixing the broken windows. The neighborhood is rallying. We have a lot to look forward to in 2014 and beyond.

Kingston Kayak Festival 2013. Photo:Dan Shapley

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