The Science Barge and Groundwork Hudson Valley
Environmental Progress and Sustainability at the Gateway to the Hudson Valley
By Amy Simpson Swiss
Photographed by Amy Simpson Swiss
A cool breeze flows along the choppy waters of the Hudson River today, sending the wind turbines spinning into a frenzy. Five of them stand along the top of this freshly painted, brightly colored barge, while below them a greenhouse glistens in the sun—bustling with activity and bursting with plant life. Nearby, 24 solar panels track the sun’s rays.
Welcome to the Science Barge—a prototype sustainable urban farm, docked next to the pier in downtown Yonkers.
A farm, floating on a river, in one of the Hudson Valley’s densest cities? Not what you might expect. That unexpectedness is one of the many things that makes the Science Barge such an engaging place and such a powerful force for education and change.
The Science Barge is a self-powered, off-the-grid floating greenhouse, serving as an environmental education classroom. Open to the public on weekends and hosting school groups during the week, the hands-on educational programs provide children and adults the opportunity to learn about urban ecology, renewable energy and the unique ecosystem of the Hudson River.
“We want to inspire kids. That’s our goal,” says Jennifer Sloan, the director of education. “We want them to imagine cities as green spaces, and we help them see that a farm can exist anywhere—on a rooftop, in an empty lot, on a window ledge or even on a barge.”
Under the greenhouse glass, hydroponic and aquaponic growing systems demonstrate how agriculture is possible without the use of soil, and educators explain to visitors why that’s important in an urban setting. The greenhouse produces an amazingly wide array of fruits, vegetables and flowers—everything from greens and tomatoes to melons, eggplant and zinnias. All this is accomplished while using no pesticides and producing no carbon emissions.
“We give kids the opportunity to see these things in person rather than reading about them in a textbook. By visiting the Barge and seeing the solar panels, wind turbines and gardens up close, they begin to see these things as a normal part of life. We also open their minds to the idea that maybe someday they might be farmers, engineers or urban planners themselves.”
Captain Bob Walters, the director of the Science Barge, has a long history of working for environmental progress on the Hudson River. For decades, Walters has been involved in nonprofit organizations and projects focused on restoring the river to its natural state and educating the public about the river.
With a twinkle in his eye and his love of the Hudson River unmistakable, Walters talks about one of the many projects happening around the Science Barge: oyster reefs. The Hudson River estuary was once teeming with oysters, but they vanished almost completely during the early 1900s due to pollution and overharvesting. Now, sites like the Science Barge are helping to restore the oyster population in the river.
Walters beams: “We have the perfect temperature and salinity right here. Our oysters are thriving.” The oyster reefs around the Barge are helping to heal the river and benefit the entire Hudson Valley region by providing a natural filter for pollution and restoring the river’s ecosystem.
Groundwork Hudson Valley is the nonprofit organization operating the Science Barge, and the Barge is just one of the many ways this organization is benefiting its community along the Hudson River. In fact, the organization manages a wide range of projects with impacts on the land, the river and the people of the City of Yonkers.
Brigitte Griswold, the executive director of Groundwork Hudson Valley, speaks with a deep passion and a clear vision about her organization’s three main goals: the transformation of public spaces, sustainability education and youth leadership development.
“These areas are all intricately connected. It’s critical that we champion community leaders as we do our work, as well as educate local young people about why the work is important.” The three-pronged approach is the recipe for successful environmental projects and lasting change.
One of the most significant recent projects has had a transformative effect on downtown Yonkers: the daylighting of the Saw Mill River. Back in the 1920s, the river’s path through the city was seen as a liability rather than an asset. The river was covered with concrete and the area became a parking lot. The flowing water disappeared underground for the next 90 years, until Groundwork Hudson Valley intervened and began the process of bringing the river back to the surface and back to life.
The project required years of public outreach and coalition building before the restoration work could even begin, but persistence paid off: In 2011, water finally started flowing above ground. The river is once again a healthy waterway filled with aquatic life, including fish, the American eel, waterfowl and muskrats. Van der Donck Park is the newly created public park built around the river, with tree-lined paths, artwork and outdoor classrooms. The restored natural habitat and the beautiful space around it bring people to the area and has had a direct effect on the revitalization of downtown Yonkers.
There is a secret ingredient in each of the environmental projects undertaken by Groundwork Hudson Valley: the youth of Yonkers.
The Green Team and Urban Ranger programs hire Yonkers teens for after-school and summer environmental jobs. Just as a small pebble dropped in a lake sends ripples across the water, the benefits offered by these jobs swell out into the community. The teens are hired at fair wages for meaningful work in what is often their first working experience, providing them a sense of purpose, an income and important job skills. The work directly benefits their own neighborhoods as they plant gardens, clean rivers and clear trails. The projects create powerful and visible change the students can take pride in, and they demonstrate the power a community has to transform their own public spaces.
Ashley Perez was one of these youth. In high school, she applied for a job on the Green Team, and it changed the course of her life.
“At 15, I was very rough around the edges and struggling to find a support system. When they came into my school and said they were hiring, I decided to apply. I never thought I’d get the job, but they were willing to give me a chance. They believed in me.”
Ashley was immediately forced out of her comfort zone. “I thought I couldn’t do public speaking, so they pushed me to do public speaking. I thought I couldn’t do trail work, so they pushed me to do trail work. They showed me that the areas I thought were weaknesses were actually just areas where I needed a little extra support—and they gave me that help. This place became my support system.”
The Green Team spends some time each summer away from their home base, doing work on public lands. During Ashley’s first week on the job, she went to the mountains of New Hampshire with a group of other students.
“A lot of us had never seen a mountain before. We didn’t know places like that actually existed.”
The students were told they’d be climbing up the mountain—three miles to the top. At first, they didn’t believe it could be done. “But we did it—we supported each other along the way, and we made it to the top.” They started the trip as strangers who had never hiked a mountain before. They ended the trip as close friends with a new-found sense of possibility and accomplishment.
Following her experiences on the Green Team, Ashley was inspired to pursue a career in conservation. She earned a college degree in environmental studies and went on to work at the National Park Service, before ultimately making her way back to the Science Barge as an education programs associate. She credits the Green Team job with putting her on the path to success.
One of the latest projects under development is the Yonkers Greenway. Like many communities in the Hudson Valley, Yonkers has old rail lines that have gone unused for years. Planning is underway to reclaim a branch of the Old Putnam railway and create a two-mile trail that will be the first continuous path connecting New York City’s Van Cortlandt Park to downtown Yonkers.
With new playgrounds and community gardens along the way, the trail will provide much-needed greenspace in this underserved area, along with paths for biking, running and walking. The hope is that the trail will eventually connect Yonkers residents to the New York City subway line, creating more sustainable and environmentally friendly transportation routes for commuting.
Like all the work Groundwork does, this project has been a collaborative effort. Community residents provide input into the planning, and a partnership with city government will move the project forward. Private donors and state grants will all play a part in bringing the project to completion. Groundwork Hudson Valley is a model for public-private partnership, community engagement and positive environmental change.
They are, indeed, a rising tide lifting all boats in Yonkers at the gateway to the Hudson Valley.
To read more about this organization and the work they do, or to get information about visiting the Science Barge, visit their website at www.groundworkhv.org. █