News Archive

posted 12/22/04

by Kristen Loveland

Panel Series on NYC Public Waste, Public Health and Public Transport Finds Problems Intersect

During a New York City Initiative panel discussion, Nickolas Themelis, Director of the Earth Engineering Center at Columbia, and Kate Ascher, Executive Vice President of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, looked for ways to reduce the 26,000 tons of garbage that the city produces every day, and discussed how that removal affects neighborhoods such as Harlem, where asthma rates are five times higher than the national average.

During a panel discussion of the New York City Sustainable Development Initiative, part of the Earth Institute, experts discussed the city politics of waste disposal and how waste transportation and removal affect the city’s neighborhoods, especially Harlem, where asthma rates are five times higher than the national average.

The New York City Sustainable Development Initiative hosted a series of panels this past semester addressing this topic and a range of others prevalent in environmental policy debates centered in the city, including the losses and gains of biodiversity in New York City.

The first panel entitled “Waste Not. What to Do with Waste?” was moderated by Steven Cohen, Executive Director of the New York City Sustainable Development Initiative and Director of the Office of Educational Programs at the Earth Institute. Nickolas Themelis and Kate Ascher discussed the 26,000 tons of garbage that the city produces every day and methods for its disposal.

Themelis, Director of the Earth Engineering Center at Columbia, who has researched waste disposal for years, presented his findings on disposal possibilities in New York and other major cities throughout the world. Ascher, Executive Vice President of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, discussed the city politics of disposal and how waste transportation and removal affect the city’s neighborhoods.

The second panel, “Public Health, Public Transport, Public Access to Healthcare” was again moderated by Cohen and included experts from the Columbia University faculty, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and West Harlem Environmental Action (WeAct). The four panelists discussed the affect of transportation patterns and pollution on the Harlem asthma rates, which are five times higher than the national average.

Mary Northridge, Associate Professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, discussed her experience with Harlem families afflicted by asthma and its effect on education and daily life. Working with the Harlem Children’s Zone Asthma Initiative (HCZAI), Northridge has experienced first hand the effects of pollution and poor health care options on a community’s livelihood. Cecil Corbin-Mark, Program Director of WeAct, emphasized the need for interconnected approaches to this environmental and health problem, and criticized the lack of communication between research and policy.

Most recently, Don J. Melnick, Executive Director of the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, moderated the third and final panel of the series entitled “Gains and Losses for New York City Biodiversity.” At this panel, a range of experts from the Columbia University faculty, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Wildlife Trust and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation addressed the loss of 600 species from New York City in the last 100 years, as well as the recent arrival of a number of invasive species to the region.

The panel’s experts emphasized the need for community support to facilitate cohesion between environmental and societal interests when responding to biodiversity issues. Eric Sanderson, Adjunct Associate Research Scientist at Columbia’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, presented his digital reconstruction of Manhattan in the year 1609 as a reminder for current and future generations of the rich ecological history of the island. Scott Newman, Conservation Medicine Scientist at the Wildlife Trust, argued that problems such as wildlife disease can actually be avoided through careful conservation efforts.

The panelists also discussed past community-based efforts, such as the environmental justice movement in Harlem, watershed management for the NYC water supply, and the logging ban in the Philippines, which have successfully merged environmental conservation with community concerns. In regards to the current flood of invasive species into New York City, James Danoff-Burg, Adjunct Professor of Columbia’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology, advocated a better understanding of the effects of invasive species. While he acknowledged concerns over the ecologically destructive effect of these species, he emphasized that new species can also be beneficial to a community’s ecosystem.

All three panels, held in November and December, were well-attended by students and faculty from across the University and local community groups. In light of the panels’ success, the New York City Initiative plans to hold another panel series this spring. This series will be centered around the many sustainable development projects currently being researched in the New York City region. The NYC Initiative is currently working on over forty projects, including research on the safety of cable-suspension bridges, the recycling of hardened concrete, urban heat island mitigation strategies, mapping the Hudson River, and effects of the weather and air pollution on human mortality. These projects can be viewed at http://www.earthinstitute.columbia.edu/nyc/projects.html.

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world’s leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines—earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences—and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world’s poor.