Introduction – East Harlem and the Waterfront

East Harlem residents have some of the highest rates of health problems in New York City, many of them related to lack of physical activity and the quality of the environment.

Thirty-one percent (31%) of adults in the area are obese, compared to 15% in Manhattan and 20% in NYC overall. Heart disease is the leading contributor to years of potential life lost in East Harlem, and the death rate in East Harlem is 50% higher than Manhattan’s and NYC’s death rates. Among 41 NYC neighborhoods ranked by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, East Harlem ranked in the bottom 10 for eight out of ten indicators of health and healthcare access.

East Harlem is also one of NYC’s poorest neighborhoods, with a poverty rate twice as high as that of Manhattan and NYC as a whole and lower levels of education among adults.

East Harlem also has many assets, including an active community that is committed to protecting and improving residents’ quality of life. Some important service and advocacy organizations in the area include the Union Settlement Association, Harlem RBI, and Civitas.

Elected officials representing East Harlem include Congressman Charles B. Rangel (15th Congressional District [2010 boundaries], 13th District [2012 boundaries]), State Senator Jose M. Serrano (28th State Senatorial District), Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez (68th Assembly District), and City Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito (Council District 8), who is the Chair of the Council’s Parks and Recreation Committee. Residents are also represented by Manhattan Community Board 11.

Our client, Trees New York, has a long history of addressing the environmental needs of East Harlem, and one of Trees NY staff members serves on Community Board 11’s Parks Committee. Trees New York has asked us to develop a waterfront access plan for East Harlem, particularly for the area bordered by Lexington Avenue and the East and Harlem Rivers, and by 96th and 125th Streets. Supporting the community’s health through improving access to the waterfront is one of the main goals of their comprehensive vision. Community health will be improved by waterfront access through expanding sites for physical activity (both near and in the water) and by improving environmental quality.

Improving access to the waterfront involves not just better physical design but also ensuring that the quality of the water in the East and Harlem rivers is fit for recreation. An important component of improving river water quality is managing surface runoff, storm water and combined sewer overflows (CSOs). Green infrastructure, most basically planting trees but also covering a wide range of strategies, has become recognized as a key component of managing water quality.

An added benefit of green infrastructure is cleaner air, helping to reduce asthma rates, which are higher in East Harlem than in Manhattan and NYC overall. In this way, the vision for the plan integrates community health, physical activity, waterfront access, water and air quality and green infrastructure.

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