Tag Archives: awesome projects

AWESOME PROJECT: Friends of Van Cortlandt Park Are Giving Their Garden a Makeover

Hey New Yorkers, did you know that there are over 20 miles of hiking trails in Van Cortlandt Park, up in the Bronx? That its 1,146 acres contain a golf course, a stable, and a house that George Washington slept in? That you can still go there and find green spaces that are actually wild?


New Yorkers pride themselves on knowing their city like the back of their hands, but few of us know that the third largest park in the big apple is the sprawling Van Cortlandt Park. A New York Times article shed light last year on why most New Yorkers don’t know parks like Van Cortlandt as well as they should, and why parks in the outer boroughs have historically gotten so much less attention – and money – than Central Park has. In a nutshell: wealthy donors tend to live near, and therefore feel most invested in, the parks that are already doing quite well, which has left the others pretty much out in the cold.

That hasn’t stopped the tireless Friends of Van Cortlandt Park (FVCP), a nonprofit founded in 1992 in response to exactly that problem, from giving Van Cortlandt the TLC, the respect, and the use that it deserves. They do incredible work in sustainability, forest restoration, and urban gardening in their beloved green space, and have evolved over the years to become the park’s primary free educational organization. Each year, they teach more than 5,000 students – and not just children, but adults as well.

Of the many programs they offer, one in particular is skyrocketing right now. “Our garden program has quickly become our most popular program,” says FVCP executive director Christina Taylor. “We get more volunteers on our garden days than we do on our forest restoration days. Everyone loves it.” FVCP’s garden is an ideal place for parents to bring their kids and show them how tomatoes come from soil and sun, not from the grocery store; it’s a controlled and contained, and yet wild, natural classroom. The perfect balance. “Something as simple as counting the cucumbers that are growing – they love it. With the compost bins, they get to see worms and hold worms,” says Taylor, of the sheer delight that the garden has brought to its littlest stakeholders.

Older kids are getting in on the fun, too. FVCP, through a partnership with Grow NYC, helps to run green markets for youths in the neighborhood, scraps from which come back to the garden to be composted. There are other signs that the neighbors want to get more involved with FVCP’s garden: they’re showing up with their own kitchen scraps at Taylor’s office door. Literally. “People will show up at the door with food scraps,” she says, “and be like ‘hey, is there room in your freezer?’” In the summer, if she happens to have been offsite for a few days, unexpected compost drop-offs can result in pungent mishaps. But Taylor laughs when she talks about it; carting spoiled compost to the trash may stink, but it shows that people are hooked. Garden-mania in the neighborhood, in other words, is at a fever pitch.

The problem is that the current garden needs a face-lift. Its first 400 sq. ft. raised growing bed was built on the cheap, of low-quality wood, in 2008, and is badly rotted. Well-loved shovels, rakes, and other tools are breaking down left and right, literally losing their handles. From our perspective, this is all a good sign: FVCP’s garden has run through its first round of equipment and is going stronger than ever. We can imagine the hundreds of stories of positive community change told by each dent, each missing handle, each rusted piece of equipment.

But new shovels don’t grow on trees, so FVCP is raising money through ioby for round two. Hand pruners, rakes, wheelbarrows, you name it. “We’d also like to get a new storage container to put these tools in that we’re buying,” says Taylor. “Right now our storage for the tools ends up being that we lay them on the ground and put the wheelbarrow on top of them, and that’s how we protect them from rain.” Not a rust-proof system. For the raised bed that needs rebuilding, the money will go to fresh lumber (of a much hardier quality, this time), brackets, and soil to mix with the compost.

“We’ve been thrilled with the response,” says Taylor, of the campaign. “We’re about two thirds of the way right now, we just have to meet another $700. We’ll definitely be able to replace the garden bed, and at this point it’s just determining how many tools we can buy.”

So pitch in a shovel or a rake for the holidays, all ye New Yorkers who talk about there being no green space in our city. This is one of those wonderful cases in which you can see very concretely how far your donation will go: $10 or so for a new shovel, which will see the fingerprints of hundreds of happy Bronx gardeners over the years to come. And check out the hugely exciting 20-year master plan recently put together by NYC Parks for Van Cortlandt; it includes plans for a community garden at least five or six times the size of the current site. Onward!


Awesome Project: Memphis Civic Solar

In 2013, the Brookings Institution, a leading liberal think tank, published The Metropolitan Revolution, which argues that, in light of the Great Recession and ensuing federal cutbacks, cities and metropolitan areas are leading the nation in creating economic prosperity through innovation and collaboration. No one understands this better than Memphis Bioworks, founded in 2001 to foster workforce development in Memphis’s bioscience sector. Together with the City of Memphis, the organization has been working to incorporate job creation and environmental improvement in one of the largest municipal solar panel installations in the nation, paving the way for a sustainable future for Memphis one rooftop at a time.


The Memphis Civic Solar Project will install 50 kilowatts of solar energy on top of thirty municipal buildings in Memphis, the equivalent of about 200 solar panels per building. Memphis Civic Solar is part of larger mission to reduce energy costs, provide new revenues to the city, and reduce its impact on the environment. Specifically, this project will bring new revenues to the city without any capital outlay and offset over 2,000,000 lbs carbon dioxide emissions each year.

While Memphis isn’t the first city to take advantage of solar energy, the project is unique for several reasons. Because of their financial feasibility, many cities across the country use brownfields as locations for solar energy panels, sites defined by the EPA as previously developed urban areas whose reuse may be complicated by pollutants or contaminants. Under the leadership of Memphis Bioworks, Memphis is able to aggregate its thirty different project sites into one financial transaction, creating the size and scope necessary to entice private investment to get involved. This private third party will own and operate the systems, while the City collects rent by leasing its rooftops for twenty years.

“We’re trying to prove that projects can develop the economy while retaining and leveraging environmental benefits,” Kirk Williamson, sustainability projects manager at Memphis Bioworks explained. Kirk was hired by the organization in 2011 to manage their first largescale solar installation on top of the office’s parking garage. “By us doing this project, we can show to the private sector that this is something we can take on as Memphians in private businesses and in our residential homes that can be a source of progress for our city.”

But there is more to progress than what is currently happening on the ground.

The incredible thing about the impact of Memphis Civic Solar is that it goes beyond its tangible and quantitative benefits. Bryan Marinez, project manager LightWave Solar, the company contracted to perform the solar panel installations, described the importance of education in the project’s design. About half of the project sites are community centers and libraries located in neighborhoods all over Memphis. In many cases, installing solar panels will expose individuals using those spaces to technologies they have never seen before. “Everyone is interested,” Bryan said. His initial site assessments out in the field have only been greeted with curious people who are eager to learn about the benefits solar energy can bring to their communities.

Kirk further emphasized that this educational piece is where the project workers can connect with the local community to change everyone’s thinking on what’s possible. “Who knows? It might be what that one kid who sees that installation in that neighborhood needs to say ‘I want to be an engineer and I want to go work in an industry that is treating the environment better, and I want to make that my life’s work. At the end of the day, we as a country need to change our perspective and our understanding of what our impact is on the environment and this project really offers that piece.” By offering jobs to Memphians in the sustainability sector, and by exposing younger generations to better energy alternatives, the Memphis Civic Solar Project is creating a strong foundation for a sustainable future. They can continue their important work with your support.

The Memphis Civic Solar Project has reached a number of important milestones throughout its ioby campaign. Because of this success, the campaign has been extended to June 3rd, when the project is set to reach its final milestone, City Council approval for the project. Donations and support will be important over the next two months to reach the team’s final goal for project approval.