My Semester at Saint Rose’s and New York City Environmental History

Despite New York City’s current image as a man-made environment of pollution and desiccated lands, it has a past of being a bountiful, wild environment and a possible future of sustainability. Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx is a subset of New York City that also has a past of being a lush environment before it became a more urban campus. In my time as an Environmental studies major in Fordham University I have worked to be more environmentally friendly through programs at Fordham university and internships in New York City that support a future of sustainability in New York City. With my work in Saint Rose’s Garden for the past year and my future internship at the Bronx River Alliance, I think that I will make a difference in the future of sustainability because I personally feel changed after having worked for an organization with a strong environmental ethic.

Fordham University in the Bronx is a lush campus but is less natural and more sculpted, man-made nature than anything

Fordham University in the Bronx is a lush campus but is less natural and more sculpted, man-made nature than anything

New York City, defined by the island of Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs of the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island was not always a concrete jungle but actually verdant forest and marshlands, and even coastal plains. When Henry Hudson sailed up what is now known as the Hudson River he saw a land filled with diverse creatures, inhabited by Native Americans and also full of ripe resources to exploit. Unfortunately this land would soon become decimated by European settlement and the subsequent founding of one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. Environmental problems ran rampant in New York City and especially the Bronx area that surrounds Fordham until the late Twentieth century when people began looking at their neighborhoods in a new way, one that would ultimately change the idea of what sustainability in a major city can be.

The Manahatta project used satellite imagery to create an idea of what the island of Manhattan used to look like before Colonization

The Manahatta project used satellite imagery to create an idea of what the island of Manhattan used to look like before Colonization

For this fall semester, continuing from last semester, I spent my practicum in St. Rose’s Garden on the Rose Hill campus. St. Rose’s Garden works hard to bring a message of sustainability to the Last year I was elected to the E-board of the garden and thus have spent the time since helping the best I can to get speakers to the garden, posting for the garden on social media, and helping welcome students during meetings, among other tasks. St. Rose’s garden hearkens back to the time when the Rose Hill campus was run through by a babbling brook and had a pond to water cattle that grazed there. St. Rose’s garden today is a beacon of sustainability for the future of Fordham’s Rose Hill campus.

As the association University Leaders for a Sustainable Future declares there are universities across the country that are ready to teach students about sustainability, conduct outreach to communities and much more. Fordham University is not as close to that goal as it could be, they are not even on the list. The administration, although they cite their adherence to recycling, certain electric vehicles and some LEED buildings does not have the environmental ethic that one would associate with an institution looking to spread better practices to its students. I think that student associations such as Students for Environmental Awareness and Justice as well as St. Rose’s Garden are the true starting points for change in our university, which is why I am a part of them.

Saint Rose's Garden is a flagship of sustainability  on Fordham's Rose Hill campus

Saint Rose’s Garden is a flagship of sustainability on Fordham’s Rose Hill campus

My time spent in St. Rose’s garden has taught me much more than Fordham’s self-proclaimed sustainable policies have by far. I have learned about the potential for urban farms and community gardens, the processes of soil formation, the micro-cosm that is the garden’s ecosystem, and much more. Although I am critical of Fordham’s policies, which seem to me like an afterthought among the bulk of their Jesuit principles, there is potential in them to incorporate truly sustainable practices.

My practicum at St. Rose’s Garden as a Secretary of the garden and someone who helped maintain a compost pile as well as harvesting crops in an environmentally friendly way reflects this sentiment of looking to bring neighborhoods to a different level of sustainability unlike any that has been seen in New York for some time.

Believe it or not, Fordham’s Rose Hill campus used to be a working farm. Cattle grazed and crops were tilled for students and Jesuit priests alike. What is more remarkable is that this tradition lasted for quite a while until the college became too big to handle the commitment to sustainability and plowed fields were built over and roads paved. Today, St. Rose’s garden is looking to bring back that feeling of nature by providing students access to the experience they could have had seventy years ago: tending a garden on campus. In addition St. Rose’s partners with a CSA in order to have fresh vegetables delivered to students from local, upstate farms. This message of sustainability is vital in this day and age, especially if Fordham wants to become more environmentally friendly.

St. John's College, now known as Fordham University, five years after its founding

St. John’s College, now known as Fordham University, five years after its founding

Unfortunately Fordham is not quite as sustainable as it could be. According to the 2011 most recent College Sustainability Report Card Fordham as a C+ in overall sustainability with a grade of F in categories such as investment and disclosure. If Fordham wants to push the bar higher and make the grade, it needs to divest. One program that fellow environmental policy students are working on to fulfill that goal is a program called Fossil Free Fordham. They look to push the economic investment of Fordham towards companies that are environmentally and fiscally sustainable. If Fordham can prove that it is up to the challenge of becoming the green haven it once was then it can be placed in the ratings of such associations as The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education or University Leaders for a Sustainable Future. This is not only an environmentally responsible choice, but one that can give better press for the University as well.

An initiative taken up by Environmental Policy majors was the Fossil Free Fordham campaign to push Fordham away from a fiscal carbon footprint

An initiative taken up by Environmental Policy majors was the Fossil Free Fordham campaign to push Fordham away from a fiscal carbon footprint

If we examine the Land Ethic, one environmental ethic that I cite time and time again as being an all-around fulfilling ethic, then we can get an idea of what Fordham needs to do as an institution to step up its game as an environmentally ethical place. As discussed previously, Aldo Leopold’s Land ethic examines human relations with the environment and points out how humans are inextricably connected to Earth. Because of this, Leopold recommends that humans treat the Land as if it were a living organism and even an entity with certain rights. I think that there is honestly truth in the idea of the Land Ethic being applied to land like Fordham University’s. When Fordham was an area of rolling hills and pastoral fields there was more respect for the natural movement of streams, the interaction of predators and prey and the abundance of diverse species. This can happen again.

Central to Leopold’s philosophy is the assertion to “quit thinking about decent land use as solely an economic problem.”

Central to Leopold’s philosophy is the assertion to “quit thinking about decent land use as solely an economic problem.”

My practicum was, I felt, a learning experience associated with the Land Ethic and its implications in the real world. As I composted and planted seeds as well as taught others to do so, I gained a new respect for the land that I never had before, as someone who grew up in a very urban area. Hours spent weeding the garden in order to avoid pesticide use, or plucking fresh tomatoes from the vine gave me a new knowledge of the ideas of the Land Ethic and the effort required to feed ecosystems and people alike. Digging through the soil I found the organisms that make it up like worms and grubs, and the rich minerals and nutrients that course through the rich humus of the soil. I felt a deeper connection to the land that once sprawled across Fordham’s campus and in New York City as well.

The Bronx River Alliance is an organization devoted to cleaning up the portions of the Bronx River that have been polluted for decades, as well as educating adults and children alike of the unique ecosystem that riparian zones have surrounding them. Through their work they craft their own form of the Land Ethic to bring it to people of the Bronx. I mention this organization because in the coming semester I will be interning for the group and helping continue their work with communities as a non-profit organization. The Land ethic is found in their work bringing people not just to a beautiful view of scenery but also to a unique ecosystem that has been lost in the past centuries to industrialization and urban growth.

My work with St. Rose’s Garden has prepared me to look at the world in a new way. I personally feel kinship with the soil and the organisms that rely on it, since I ate from the vegetables that we grew ourselves. If more people had a connection to the natural world then perhaps one day we could be a more environmentally aware society and be more conscious of our actions. I hope to one day change people’s minds about what it is to be an ethical person and include the treatment of the environment and animals in this definition. This may take many years of work in order to accomplish but I think that there is hope for the coming decades, especially with the looming menace of global climate change at our doorstep. I have hope in the basic idea that people can change their minds about the environment and the importance to protect it, all they need is an informed opinion and they can begin to love the land they inhabit.

Works Cited

“ABOUT ULSF.” University Leaders For A Sustainable Future. Accessed December 16, 2014. http://www.ulsf.org/about.html.

“Fordham University College Sustainability Report Card 2011.” The College Sustainability Report Card. January 1, 2011. Accessed December 16, 2014. http://www.greenreportcard.org/report-card-2011/schools/fordham-university.html.

“Natural and Social History.” Bronx River Alliance. Accessed December 16, 2014. http://bronxriver.org/?pg=content&p=abouttheriver&m1=9.

“Environmental Studies Program.” Fordham University. Accessed December 16, 2014. http://www.fordham.edu/info/20920/environmental_studies.

“St. Rose’s Garden.” Facebook. Accessed December 16, 2014. https://www.facebook.com/StRosesGarden.

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