by Erik Baard
Improving our city’s quality of life, education, infrastructure, and physical and mental health all hinge on our ability to break through the concrete and restore wildlife habitat. Mayor Bloomberg’s much-touted PlaNYC aims to do that, but he knows the limits of government. Volunteerism is the only way to meet that challenge within budget and across the vicissitudes of succeeding administrations.
The Mayor’s Volunteer Center together with United Way of New York City maintains a user-created database of opportunities to pitch in with nonprofits in outdoor recreation and environmentalism at http://www.volunteernyc.org/
“Our main environmental initiative is Million Trees NYC. We absolutely love promoting it,” said Amanda Rey, Deputy Director of the Mayor’s Volunteer Center, which is part of the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit. “It’s an amazing thing to do for the city and the world as a whole.”
The Million Trees NYC push to reforest the city is core to PlaNYC. Trees famously clean the air, but other services are increasingly critical: they absorb noise pollution, cool patches of asphalt, and reduce rainfall runoffs that can result in combined sewer overflows.
About 60% of the trees will be planted in parks, streets, and other public spaces. The balance will be planted on private land, both homes and corporate lots.
The Mayor’s Volunteer Center is reaching for green (and blue) in other directions as well. Rocking the Boat teaches young people to build classic Whitehall rowboats, and provides community rowing for free. “They get kids outdoors while teaching teamwork. We love Rocking the Boat,” Rey enthused.
Is it too sweet a deal to earn good karma while biking, paddling, doing bioblitzes, cleaning the shoreline, gardening, and planting trees? As one volunteer with a paddling group recently told me, “Too many people don’t think environmentalism is putting kids from the projects on the water. They think it’s signing a petition.”
If you want to exceed a hobbyist level of volunteerism, some groups provide outstanding resources for diversifying your green skills. The Lower East Side Ecology Center, Rey pointed out, “is always offering cutting-edge workshops.” Partnerships for Parks and Citizens Committee for NYC both counsel new and neighborhood-based nonprofits through their growing pains, and provide technical assistance and targeted grants.
As important as a diversity of activities and resources is to a green movement, Rey knows that it’s also critical to accommodate all levels of commitment. If you can volunteer only sporadically, or for one-shot day events, don’t get intimated by follow-through obligations, Rey advises. That tree you planted won’t wither a few weeks later without you, if you link with strong and stable groups. “There are these eco-friendly pockets like New York Restoration Project and Central Park Conservancy. They’re the ones you want to check in with,” she said.
Smaller groups need to focus on giving volunteers clear directions and a sense of immediate accomplishment, she said. “Always be prepared and have a goal for the day and the end goal of your group in mind. Stick by that and you’ll be golden.”
And we’ll all be green.