MIT 4.213J/11.308J Urban Nature and City Design








About the Bronx River Alliance
Beginnings * Bronx River Working Group * Present


In 1997, the Bronx River Coordinator helped the existing groups form the Bronx River Working Group, which provided a loose framework through which to build a coordinated voice for the river.

Its goals were (18):
•  To complete and restore the Bronx River Greenway to create continuous access
•  To create new parks and restore existing ones along the River
•  To create and implement an effective management plan for the Greenway
•  To restore the Bronx River to health
•  To increase community stewardship through volunteer and recreational programs

The formation of the Bronx River Alliance was the result of a process of organizing, coalition building, visioning and project implementation on the parts of many different organizations, groups and agencies. Its story is an important one for other urban communities with rivers running through them.

* Grant Distribution
* Team Structure
* Technical Assistance
* Implementation
* Events
* Acquisition
* Funding
* Formalized Leadership

Grant Distribution
I Top  

The Urban Resources Partnership regrants were used to help support the main goals of the group:
•  To support the activities of existing groups
•  To grow the number of organizations involved with the river
•  To increase the coordination and collaboration between the groups

A grants committee was formed, in part with representation from groups that would not have otherwise been engaged with the river. This was done to build the involvement in and support for the river. The first round of grants went to program support for organizations already involved in the river and the next two rounds went to existing groups that were branching out to include the river in their programming. In addition, due to the history of neglect the South Bronx had experienced, the grants were mindfully distributed to groups along the length of the river to help allay the fears of imbalance that many of the South Bronx groups had.

The requirement for those that received money was that each group had to attend a grant recipient meeting to report back to the Working Group about what they were doing and how the money was being used. The goal was for the groups to start meeting each other and learning about what else was going on along the river in the hopes of improving the coordination and collaboration among them. (10) This also led to the growth and strengthening of the Working Group. (*crucial strategy*)

Team Structure I Top  

By the end of 1998, the Working Group was comprised of over 35 organizations, including local groups, citywide and regional organizations, and city, state and federal agencies. From the beginning, and especially as the number of organizations involved grew, the members of the Working Group had different priorities and interests. As the coordinator stated, "they had one goal in common, which was to restore the river, which could mean different things to different people. To some, it meant restore access; to some it meant restore ecology; to some, it meant making it available to kids and educating them about the river." (17) The creation of a mechanism whereby all the members' needs could be recognized was crucial and as a result the Working Group established a team structure that reflected the four areas of interest of those involved in the Working Group – Ecology, Education, Outreach, and Greenway. (*crucial strategy*) Within each team, the groups' different priorities could be addressed without sacrificing the interests of the other partners. The new structure also allowed newly involved organizations to plug-in where it made most sense for them. Each year the teams identified priority projects and shared them with the group at large. (11)

Technical Assistance I Top

Also around this time, NPS hired a new Trails & Conservation Assistance Coordinator to work on the Bronx River project. He worked closely with the Partnerships for Parks Bronx River Coordinator on the organizational structure and evolution of the Working Group, but his main focus was to provide technical assistance and guidance to the Ecology Team. This additional staff time was a huge asset for the project. Each meeting was a building block, resulting in action items for participants and forward movement.

Implementation I Top  

From the beginning days of the Working Group, the member organizations embraced the idea of a greenway. Although the founding impulse for the creation of the Group was the river, and restoring the ecology of the river was the first priority, it was very clear to all involved that access to and along the waterway was key in developing it as a resource for the community. The Working Group, however, did not spend time working on a new “plan” that would run the risk of sitting on a shelf as the two before it did, but rather, they took an action oriented approach and focused on getting on-the-ground changes in targeted areas. The older plans were used as reference points. (12)

In order to facilitate this action-oriented approach, the Bronx River Coordinator realized that the groups that were already involved, and those that had the potential to get involved, did so due to a kind of enlightened self-interest. In the words of community activist Majora Carter, “The Point CDC got involved because they were interested in making a connection to the river to support their own programming. Their involvement was totally self serving.” (13)

For this reason, the $421,000 NOAA grant that came through Congressman Serrano in 2001 was strategically regranted, just as the URP money had been. However, in order to promote a collaborative environment, the grants were only available to those groups that partnered with others in on-the-ground projects. This way, local groups with no restoration experience could get involved and build the skills of those community members taking part by working with more technically oriented organizations. This strategy served to further build and strengthen the connections and relationships among the members of the Working Group. For example, the Natural Resources Group of DPR partnered with a local community based organizations such as Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice and submitted applications together. Their relationship has become an ongoing one. In addition, because the Coordinator was worried about NOAA approving the funding for only those projects that met their normal, scientifically based criteria, she had the Ecology Team rank the project applications in order of importance to them. Although many of the groups had to rank their own proposals, the process went surprisingly well and NOAA ended up funding the projects that were most important to the Team. (14) (*crucial strategy*)

Events I Top  

In addition to participating groups holding small, local events, the Working Group wanted to do something that demostrated the linkages between the very different communities along the river. Through NPS' Rivers & Trails Program, artists Mags Harries and Lajos Heder were commissioned to help create and arts based fesival down the Bronx River. The Bronx River Golden Ball event was created in 1999 and is a day of canoe trips down the river, paired with community events and festivals along the river banks. This yearly event, and subsequent others (The Amazing Bronx River Boat Flotilla and the Bronx River BioBlitz) have supported the goals of the Alliance and strengthened the bonds between the groups working on the River. (*crucial strategy*)

Acquisition I Top  

The majority of land along the River was already owned by DPR. This was a great benefit to the Working Group as they could spend the majority of their time coordinating with one agency (*crucial factor*).

For the work that was being done toward the creation of a greenway, most of the property that was acquired by the Working Group was already City owned land (Department of Citywide Administrative Services, Department of Business Services, etc) that was just transferred to DPR. This was much faster and easier than the process for acquiring private land so it was tackled first by the Group.

As for the privately owned land, key properties and conservation easements were acquired with the help of The Trust for Public Land (TPL). TPL was especially helpful in working with State Department of Environmental Conservation to acquire land for Soundview Park in the South Bronx. Building this one segment in Soundview Park between April 1999 and June 2000 was crucial in showing people what the greenway could be.

The State Department of Transportation (SDOT) was also very integral to the acquisition of key properties. SDOT has the power of eminent domain. While the community was very adamant about not pursuing that as an option, it remained a tool in the background of negotiations. It has not yet been needed though, as many of the private landowners have been amenable to working out some sort of solution for access. Actual acquisition of the land was not required.

Funding I Top

Collaboration with SDOT was crucial and as a result Governor Pataki came out to the river in October 2000 to announce the $11 million SDOT project in the northern part of the river that the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator had been working on with the Working Group. Immediately after that Congressman Serrano announced $11 million for the river, which was a result of the adding up of a number of smaller grants including the NOAA money and Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) funds. He believed in the river as a quality of life issue for his district and was confident in the Working Group due to its success in regranting the URP money. Coincidentally, shortly after this, Mayor Giuliani, in part due to the politics of the situation, announced an additional $11 million for the river from the City. (*crucial moment*)

Formalized Leadership I Top

As the Working Group became more coordinated and sophisticated, the amount of resources flowing to the river increased. It was this influx of large amounts of money that became the main mandate for the Working Group to become more formalized. The 65 groups now involved knew that they needed to create structure to really be able to see the full impact of the new resources. It had also become clear that the available resources had grown and so the creation of a new organization would not necessarily mean that there would be any fewer resources available to the existing member groups. In addition, the creation of a more established leadership system with by-laws and officers would make it easier to interact with funders and city officials.

The Working Group created the Organizational Structure Team that looked at various models of parks and greenway management organizations. They knew that they wanted the new organization to be a non-profit, so it would have kind of freedom it needed to take on innovative projects, but they also realized that because DPR was the main landowner, it would be in their best interest for the agency to be integrally involved in whatever organization was created.

In they end, the Working Group used the model of the Prospect Park Alliance as a guide, with an Executive Director who would also serve as the Bronx River Administrator and report jointly to the Alliance and DPR. The rest of the structure of the new Bronx River Alliance reflected that of the Working Group, with the retention of the teams, and the leader of each team also sitting on the board. Staff of the Alliance would directly support the teams and would include Education, Outreach and Greenway Coordinators, as well as a Conservation Specialist. The group also identified their priorities for the organization's mission, values, and board representation and among the values identified by the group were Inclusion, Collaboration, Environmental Justice, Respect, Integrity, and Public Access.

When designing the structure and makeup of the board, the group placed a high priority on a board that represented the ethnic, economic, and geographic diversity of the river's constituents. The prospective board members that the group sought out included local leaders from participating groups; educators, community organizers, and environmental activists; as well as elected leaders as ex-officio members.

The Partnerships for Parks Bronx River Coordinator became the acting Executive Director, but stepped away from this role five months after the launch of the Alliance in November 2001. This break with the project's origins was vital to the continued progress of the Alliance as an independent, sustainable organization. (*crucial strategy*) In June 2002, an Executive Director/Bronx River Administrator was hired. All funds managed by the Alliance were transferred from their fiscal sponsor, City Parks Foundation, to their own account, out of which they began paying some Alliance staff, while other staff continued to be paid by the Parks Department. (15)