Friday, April 25, 2008

What Matters

I intended to write a short post about Arbor Day and our tree work today, but I am here in the office and we are all talking about the verdict in the Sean Bell trial that was announced this morning. NYPD officers were on trial for killing Sean and injuring his two friends on the night of his bachelor party, and all were found not-guilty. This case drew wide attention due to the overwhelming force used by the officers on the unarmed men (50 bullets were fired, with stray bullets entering a train station a football-field-length away and a private residence), and the personal tragedy experienced by the Bell family on the eve of Sean's wedding, and that of his fiancee Nicole Paultre and their baby daughter.

Why plant a million trees, why advocate for new parks, why develop affordable housing, why engage in these struggles if there is no justice -- of the most basic variety, that your life will not be recklessly taken -- for young people of color in this city? We pose this question to ourselves and to you.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Welcome to the Yard!

Welcome to In Our Backyard, official blog of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice's Center for Community Development and Planning! This is where you will find descriptions of our past, present and future projects, as well as a peek into the adventures we encounter along the way. Our work is focused in the Bronx River neighborhood of the South Bronx, but many of the forces that shape this community operate on a city, regional and national level. We hope our local work can serve as an example to other communities facing environmental injustice, housing instability and high unemployment. This blog will hopefully be a place where we can learn what is going on where you live too.

Today, in YMPJ's backyard, our pear tree is blooming its butt off. With Arbor Day approaching this Friday, I thought it might be fitting to open our blog with a short tour of what's happening back there that makes our tree so darn happy.

Pretty nice view, right? One tree in a narrow backyard with a small garage on the side. You might not think this is anything more than your average backyard, but it just so happens that what you see there is rain-chugging, air-scrubbing wildlife magnet. In OUR back yard we have installed three examples of Low Impact Development - ways to use rainwater as a resource on our property, instead of dumping it into the city's rickety old sewer system. In our backyard we have a rain barrel, a french drain and a rain garden.

The Rain Barrel

The water from the roof of the main house at YMPJ runs into a gutter above the backyard and down through a drain that we have modified slightly to connect to our rain barrel (instead of the sewer system). This is a 50gal drum that we purchased for about $200. I have seen discarded pickle barrels and old whiskey barrels also used for this purpose. Our rain collects here until we use it for watering plants - you can see it has a little spigot at bottom left. Currently, we have a hose connected to that spigot that leads to our rain garden...but more about that in a moment. In the future, we hope to install a few more barrels (you can string them together) and be able to store plenty of water for that dry stretch we get in August most years.

The French Drain

To catch the rain off of the garage roof, we have a french drain, which is essentially a pipe with holes in it buried in gravel. The pipe you see to the right here collects the rain from the garage roof and sends it through a buried pipe that crosses the yard to the rain garden. Under the rain garden, there is a gravel bed where the pipe ends and the water can percolate out into the gravel. It is the same idea as a septic system but smaller scale and just for rain in this case. We used PVC pipe because it was readily available and inexpensive, but there are other kinds of materials you can find in hardware and plumbing supply stores. The materials for this little number cost about $20.

The Rain Garden

Along one side of the yard, we have a rain garden that is a basin-shaped area of well-draining soil planted with water-loving yet dry-tolerant plants. We have Ironweed, Goldenrod, a few different Asters, Blueflag Iris, Beebalm and Blackeyed Susans planted there, all plants you might find along the banks of the Bronx River back in the day. The water from the main roof (via the rain barrel) and the water from the garage roof (via the french drain) all meet up here to feed the soil and the native plants.

In summary, the water that would normally go into the sewer system during a rainstorm is returned to the ground, just like it would have before these houses were here and the highways came through. While its in the ground, it can support vegetation that cools the air on hot days, improves air quality for all breathing creatures, and creates a home for birds and butterflies to return to. What it does NOT do once it gets into the ground is contribute in any way to Combined Sewer Overflow, the release of untreated sewage into local waterways like the Bronx River during wet weather. Ew.

The way we did this can be pretty easily modified and repeated in most backyards, front yards, side yards, parks, community gardens, street tree pits, and along most highways, parking lots, train tracks and airports. Considering how well these techniques can travel, what could that mean for green collar jobs, asthma rates and water quality? These are all topics that will be explored in future posts, and that inspire other projects we are working on. Stay tuned.

But back to the tree for a second. Seeing those blooms makes me think maybe our little backyard experiment is already making a difference. Replenishing native plants can help restore soil ecology in the whole yard. I like to imagine that on a day like today all those different plant roots are mingling down there with the sow bugs and earthworms, pushing through the soil particles and circulating the microbes and nutrients. And by some mysterious chemical pathway, the pear tree over in its corner of the yard knows something's up. The ground has been less dusty lately and it might be a good summer coming. Why not go ahead and bloom?