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Food for Cities





Urban agriculture as a CSO abatement strategy

On October 19, 2011, The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) reached a draft agreement on a new approach to reduce combined sewer overflows (CSO) that pollute the city’s waterways, according to the DEP

(In older cities like New York, the sewage pipes and stormwater drains are connected. Since sewage treatment plants are engineered to manage only the volume of waste produced during dry weather, any time it rains the additional mixture of rainwater and sewage, is allowed to overflow into nearby waterways to avoid inundating the treatment plants.)

Conventional approaches to avoiding CSOs involve building infrastructure to keep the stormwater and sewage from overflowing until it stops raining and the extra liquid can be pumped back into the treatment plants. Such an approach (called “gray infrastructure”) is very costly and difficult to gain permission to build, as no community wants to host CSO abatement infrastructure.

This new agreement between the State and City requires NY to invest $187 million in so-called green CSO infrastructure projects by 2015, part of a much larger investment in CSO abatement technology. Green infrastructure includes virtually any kind of landscaping that can hold back rainwater and prevent it from running off into the sewers when it rains. It includes porous pavement (which allows rain to percolate into the ground), blue roofs that hold rainwater and then let it slowly back into the sewers after the rain stops, green roofs that absorb rainfall, and all manner of ground level green landscapes, from planted median strips to parkland.

Unfortunately, the city’s proposal fails to identify urban agriculture as a form of green infrastructure that contributes to absorbing rainwater. As a result, urban agriculture projects are not explicitly included in the $187 million commitment to fund new green infrastructure.

While urban farms and gardens are not necessarily better at sequestering stormwater than other green landscapes, they do offer a major advantage over other permeable spaces that absorb rain: they produce food, and all of the health, social, and economic benefits that accrue from food production, along with stormwater abatement. And the potential for creating many more farms and gardens throughout the city is large. By one recent estimate from Columbia University’s Urban Design Lab, there are perhaps 5,000 acres of vacant land suitable for urban agriculture in the five boroughs.

A public comment period on the proposal begins today and runs through November 18. Urban agriculture advocates should download the city’s green infrastructure plan and send comments on the plan to DEC and DEP. A public hearing on the agreement is scheduled for November 1 for those interested in testifying in person.


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