Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Activists Challenge Mayor over Amazon Wood in Parks

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's green policies are very much like Astroturf. They look real from a distance, but the closer one looks the more their synthetic character shows. Plastic rather than authentic, they tend to window dress a pro development privatization of New York's public commons. From community gardens, in which the mayor talks preservation in press releases while laying the groundwork for privatization in policies, to bike lanes, in which the mayor's own police department refuse to implement the city's own traffic laws prohibiting cars from parking in bike lanes, the mayor's policies often fail to live up their promise. Environmental activists have come to characterize this pattern as green washing. Here, a company or politician appropriates the message of green development for public relations purposes without establishing the policies to substantiate these claims. The mayor's approach to the use of rainforest wood in city parks offers a case in point. On Friday, Friday, April 22nd, the day before Earth Day, a group brought a response to this pattern to Washington Square Park.

Within children playing in the fountain and music from Puccini's Madama Butterfly drifting through the spring air, a group of nine activists appeared under the iconic arch at Washington Square Park, where Freedom Riders once departed and countless struggles over space and urban life have taken shape in New York. They were carrying three large helium-filled balloons, two blue and one green towering over a 300-square foot banner : "Mayor Bloomberg: Why Was the Amazon Logged for Wash. Square Park Benches?"

Right now, as part of a multi-million renovation to WSP, approximately 400 new benches comprised of ipê, a tropical hardwood logged from the Amazon rainforest, are being installed.

Ipê has been--and apparently remains--the wood of choice for the tens of thousands of park benches throughout New York City. An extensive network of roads must be built to access the ipê tree, which is scattered throughout the Amazon at an average of 1 to 2 trees per acre.

This ongoing use of ipê contradicts the pledge that Mayor Bloomberg made to United Nations General Assembly on February 11, 2008: "Our City's agencies will immediately reduce their use of tropical hardwoods by 20%. They will do that by specifying domestic wood, recycled plastic lumber, and other materials in the design of park benches and other construction projects." He was following the lead of the Parks Department, which had declared an end to the use of tropical hardwoods for bench construction in late 2007.

"Despite the passage of three years since the Mayor and Park's promises, benches made with Amazon wood continue to appear in newly renovated parks all around the city - look at Washington Square Park, the High Line, Union Square Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the five miles of Hudson River Park," said Tim Keating, Executive Director of Rainforest Relief. "Almost every board of wood that you see in these new designs has been logged from the Amazon rainforest."

These parks, as well as many others, don't just share their choice of wood in common. They are also part of a larger pattern taking shape throughout the city as duties and responsibilities concerning public space are largely being transferred from public agencies to private entities such as business improvement districts and public benefit corporations. These entities are assemblages of private investors and stakeholders who operate without public oversight. The private is overtaking the public.

The Village Alliance, a business improvement district, had substantial sway concerning both the redesign of Washington Square Park as well as its maintenance. The same quasi-public, quasi-private ownership and decision-making process concerning design and maintenance has led to the use tropical hardwood for benches not just Washington Square Park, but also all of the above-mentioned parks.

"The privatization of NYC's public space is allowing the city's destruction of the Amazon to continue unchallenged," stated Tim Doody, the New York City campaign coordinator for Rainforest Relief.

The question remains: how much of these procurement decisions are coming from Parks? Are these private entities making an end run around guidelines established by public agencies? Regardless of the answer, there appears to be a breakdown in the public statements coming from the Mayor's Office and the Parks Dept and what is happening on the ground in New York City.

Just this month, the Department of City Planning, a public agency, and the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, a private entity, initiated Vision 2020: the Comprehensive Waterfront Plan, an ambitious undertaking to upgrade our 520 miles of waterfront with 50 acres of new parks, and the expansion and enhancement of 10 existing parks, as well as developing extensive greenways and 14 esplanades with railings and benches, upgrading marine terminals, and constructing new piers and bulkheads for increased travel by commuter ferries and cargo ships. An official from the Department of City Planning, who asked to remain anonymous, indicated that tropical hardwood was being considered for the project.

"The 400 new ipê benches in WSP are inexcusable," said JK Canepa from New York Climate Action Group. "But we still have an opportunity to get it right with the Comprehensive Waterfront Plan. Instead of striking another blow at the world's remaining rainforests, we could showcase sustainable alternatives like Kebony, recycled plastic lumber, black locust and salvaged woods."

"An area of rainforest the size of a football field is destroyed every second," the UN Environment Programme states on their website. That's an area the size of Manhattan every three hours.

Mayor Bloomberg eloquently reinforced his pledge to the UN General Assembly. "New Yorkers don't live in the rain forest," he said. "But we do live in a world that we all share. And we're committed to doing everything we can to protect it for all of our children."

That was the same year that his Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability drafted the Tropical Hardwood Reduction Plan, which stated, "It is possible, as some have alleged that New York City is one of the leading consumers of tropical hardwoods in the nation."

The stakes couldn't be higher. "Imagine," Thomas Friedman wrote in The New York Times, "if you took all the cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships in the world and added up their exhaust every year. The amount of carbon dioxide is actually less than the carbon emissions every year that result from the chopping down and clearing of tropical forests in places like Brazil, Indonesia and the Congo."

A crowd of onlookers cheered as the 300 square-foot banner rose in the air. Two children looked up as they chalked the words. "Every day is earth day!" They smiled at the site of the balloons floating through the spring air. Yet, just as soon as the sign rose, park department security approached to have words with the activists. The security did not stop the banner hang. Instead, Tim Doody and Tim Keating, two of the activists coordinating the action, were given $250 fines for: "Failure to obey a lawful order." Their tickets stated: "Failure to comply with Directive of Officer...At T/P/O my partner Officer Carter and I did observe respondent fly in three large balloons and a large banner with a group of approximately 30 people. They did not have a permit and were instructed to leave." "Since when is it a crime to hold a balloon in a park?" I overheard one onlooker wonder. "When it comes from Bloomberg" another retorted.

Still, there is a thing understood as the First Amendment, even in Bloomberg's New York. If actions such as this highlight anything, it is that there is another story in this highly democratic city. Here, regular people continue to build a counter narrative of a sustainable, culturally friendly city, open to multiple perspectives. Many are determined to see this vision through, while calling out those in power, one zap at a time. While the mayor can green wash, the populace of the naked city will continue to remind him there is another way of living and building a city.


  1. Balloon-Rigged Banner Soars Up Wash. Square Arch, Exposes Park Benches Made of Amazon Wood

    2 Videos:


    Action Update:

    Ben: as always, thank you for your insights into the struggles over public space and the tactics utilized by grassroots groups.

    Tim Doody

  2. Thanks, Ben. Such a great piece.

    This story is not just about our public spaces and the rainforests, of course; it is also about the strange weather striking like bombs across the face of the earth, and about the polar ice caps sliding into the sea, and the amphibians dying and so many other species disappearing from sight, and how it all connects. It's about our children and how we will be remembered for what we are leaving them.