As world leaders gather in New York this week for the United Nations General Assembly and Climate Week 2022, which will be held concurrently, I am grateful to see the recognized urgent need for large-scale climate action. But while international commitments and infrastructural solutions are essential, it is also crucial to remember that solving the climate crisis requires actions large and small, global and hyperlocal.
We need to tackle the climate crisis block by block and person by person, from the “grassroots level” to city government. For starters, we need look no further than our own collective backyard, protecting and expanding our green spaces in densely populated urban areas such as New York City, and of course our home town of the Bronx.
Urban green areas are areas within a city that are populated with grass, trees or nature, such as parks, sports fields, gardens or forests. Not only are these spaces often aesthetically beautiful, but they are also emotionally transformative for the people who experience them. As president and CEO of The New York Botanical Garden, I witness this impact on visitors every day.
Here in the Bronx, we see firsthand that when people engage with nature at home, at NYBG, or in community gardens, they become the environmental stewards the world so desperately needs. Research shows that children who have positive experiences with nature at a young age are more likely to care for the environment as adults. Another recent study found a positive correlation between time spent in nature and perceived value of nature. Simply put, green spaces foster our affinity with nature – and people are more committed to protecting our planet when they feel such a connection.
Helping people connect with their environment is a fundamental part of what we do at NYBG. Through programs such as our classroom tours, immersive educator experiences, and summer camps, we teach visitors of all ages to love and respect the world’s plant life. While we hope that programs like these will inspire a lifelong commitment to nature, we also know that expanding the green space on site is critical to making nature more accessible to our community, which alone serves nearly 1.5 million people. population counts.
According to the United Nations, cities are a major contributor to climate change, consuming 78% of the world’s energy and producing more than 60% of greenhouse gas emissions. These numbers are only set to rise as researchers estimate that by 2050, 68% of the world’s population will live in cities. That’s why it’s more important than ever to find efficient ways for cities to reduce their carbon footprint.
These efforts are also critical to the health of new and old generations. The link between air pollution and the increasing prevalence of asthma and respiratory problems is well known. Here in the Bronx, this impact was severe, with the highest overall rates by municipality of hospitalizations and deaths from asthma among both children and adults.
Urban green spaces help reduce pollution, reduce district heating, promote stormwater runoff and address other environmental problems caused by climate change. Green spaces also create crucial opportunities for ecological research and study. At NYBG, staff scientists use our grounds and lab resources to produce influential research on plants and conservation, which in turn leads to broader action on climate change and the timely understanding of its acceleration.
How can city dwellers stimulate the spread of greenery? Visit and support your public parks and show your need for them; groups like Friends of Mosholu Parkland and Van Cortlandt Park Alliance are great advocates for essential parks here in the Bronx. Consider creating your own rooftop gardens. Care for trees and plants in community gardens. At the city-wide level, we support the public call to allocate 1% of the city budget to the Parks Department, which is responsible for the care and maintenance of our city parks and our street trees.
Green is good for our city and municipality, for our environment and residents, and we must make them richer and more accessible. For this reason, NYBG offers free access to our gardens and collections to New York City residents all day Wednesday, and to Bronx residents all days the garden is open to visitors (Tuesday-Sunday and Federal Holiday Monday), through our Bronx Neighbors Program.
The climate crisis requires all hands on deck – from the UN Secretary General to every Bronxite. By protecting and nurturing our local green spaces, we can make the Bronx and New York City more sustainable for generations to come.
Jennifer Bernstein is CEO and the William C. Steere Sr. President of The New York Botanical Garden.