Beginning the Baykeeper


New York City and its periph­ery host a $1.5 tril­lion econ­o­my, cen­tral to a world econ­o­my of about $100 tril­lion. Four hun­dred years ago, New York Har­bor, and the Bay beyond it, was in a state of equi­lib­ri­um with its human pop­u­la­tion; oys­ters filled the har­bor bot­tom, and the sur­round­ing hills and wet­lands teemed with wildlife. 

The eight mil­lion inhab­i­tants of New York help define suc­cess­ful mod­ern life around the globe, and at the same time, the coastal geog­ra­phy of the city puts New York on the front line of cli­mate change and our civilization’s sus­tain­abil­i­ty chal­lenge. Research in the past few years shows that for New York, ‘sus­tain­abil­i­ty’ has become a lit­er­al ques­tion.

This week, the New York Times report­ed on a new paper pro­ject­ing sea lev­el rise from poten­tial ice loss in Antarc­ti­ca: “The long-term effect would like­ly be to drown the world’s coast­li­nes, includ­ing many of its great cities.” If so, New York would not have anoth­er 400 years.

The answer comes in how we change, or choose not to change.

Andrew Will­ner has been a lead­er of efforts to pro­tect the water­ways and land in New York and New Jer­sey for over twen­ty five years. Will­ner found­ed New York/New Jer­sey Bay­keep­er in 1989, run­ning the orga­ni­za­tion till 2008. In recent years, sci­ence and pol­i­cy have been catch­ing up with his vision for a sus­tain­able har­bor. Ana Deustua inter­viewed him for City Atlas.

Why did you cre­ate the New York/New Jer­sey Bay­keep­er?

With a friend from South Street Sea­port, I start­ed a small boat build­ing and repair yard on Staten Island. My daugh­ter, who was 10 years old, came to the yard and it made me angry that she prob­a­bly shouldn’t go swim­ming in the waters of Staten Island because of pol­lu­tion. It infu­ri­at­ed me. I became angry at the idea that a beau­ti­ful body of water could be detri­men­tal to my daughter’s health if she went swim­ming. I swam in it, but I didn’t want my child to swim in it.

I found out that there was a River­keep­er on the Hud­son River, a Sound­keep­er in Long Island, and Bay­keep­ers in Delaware and San Fran­cis­co. I began com­mu­ni­cat­ing with them and they helped me get the Bay­keep­er pro­gram start­ed in the sum­mer of 1989. I worked with Bay­keep­er for twen­ty years, until April 2008. It was a great oppor­tu­ni­ty for me, I real­ly trea­sured it and it was the biggest chal­lenge I have ever had.

What was your biggest accom­plish­ment while run­ning Bay­keep­er?

The biggest change since I was appoint­ed bay­keep­er is that peo­ple didn’t see the New York Har­bor as a nat­u­ral resource. If I did any­thing in the 20 years that I was the bay­keep­er, it’s that we con­vert­ed hun­dreds of thou­sands to think of the low­er Hud­son, the East River, New York Bay, Jamaica Bay, and Rar­i­tan Bay as their watery homes: places where they can go for recre­ation, fish­ing, and where they would iden­ti­fy with the water­front with­in their com­mu­ni­ty.

The water­front has become one of the most appeal­ing places to live. How is this trend chang­ing the New York/New Jer­sey har­bor estu­ary?

This race to the coast has sev­er­al neg­a­tive impli­ca­tions. More peo­ple and prop­er­ty are in harm’s way in storm surge and flood prone areas, the “cen­ters” of old­er water­front com­mu­ni­ties are being erod­ed in favor of the water’s edge, and the loss of “work­ing water­front” is a detri­ment to the region as a whole. Some peo­ple with means, and the devel­op­ers on water’s edge build­ings, will get an exclu­sive view and make a short term prof­it, while ulti­mate­ly the exter­nal­i­ties of sea lev­el rise, storm rav­ages, and lack of plan­ning and fore­sight are costs which will be borne by the rest of us. The oth­er major prob­lem is that pri­va­ti­za­tion of the water­front excludes the pub­lic from their com­mon­ly owned, pub­lic trust resources, to the advan­tage of the priv­i­leged few.

Would you let your daugh­ter now swim in the Bay?

My daugh­ter is now a mom, and a physi­cian. I can advise her but she is prob­a­bly more equipped to deter­mine whether or not, or where she and her chil­dren should swim. How­ev­er, I con­tin­ue to enjoy swim­ming in a vari­ety of loca­tions.

Are we pre­pared to keep New York Bay clean, as a ris­ing sea lev­el reach­es inland?

I don’t think so. For exam­ple, most sewage treat­ment plants are in the flood­way and may become inop­er­a­ble. Tox­ic waste sites and garbage land­fills will be under­wa­ter, petro­le­um and oil facil­i­ties are locat­ed on the water­front and will be adverse­ly affect­ed by sea lev­el rise, and aban­doned busi­ness­es and res­i­dences will pol­lute the estu­ary for a very long time unless time­ly actions – includ­ing retreat from the shore – are insti­tut­ed imme­di­ate­ly. I am how­ev­er fair­ly con­fi­dent that none of this will be done in a time­ly way.

Why should New York lead the talk on sea lev­el rise?

New York City, being an island metrop­o­lis, is also pro­ject­ed to be one of the five U.S. cities hard­est hit by cli­mate change and most vul­ner­a­ble to ris­ing sea lev­els. Like­wise, our metrop­o­lis pro­duces lit­tle of its own food and lit­tle else for its people’s basic needs. This puts our city and its sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties in seri­ous jeop­ardy.

New York is a coastal city and region. The very rea­sons it became an impor­tant port are now the things that will adverse­ly affect the region’s infra­struc­ture and peo­ple. On the pos­i­tive side – “ If it can hap­pen here it can hap­pen any­where.”

Keansburg Marsh, New Jersey (Photo: Andrew Willner)

Keans­burg Marsh, New Jer­sey (Pho­to: Andrew Will­ner)

How did your work as bay­keep­er lead you to your cur­rent work?

Dur­ing my work with New York/New Jer­sey Bay­keep­er from 1989–2008 I met and engaged with thou­sands of peo­ple from all walks of life and from all parts of the har­bor. When I retired from Bay­keep­er I start­ed a sus­tain­abil­i­ty con­sult­ing firm to con­tin­ue the work I was doing with envi­ron­men­tal­ly con­scious busi­ness­es, munic­i­pal­i­ties, and non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions.

Tell us your three steps to make the New York biore­gion more resilient to cli­mate change.

1. Become a lead­er in sus­tain­abil­i­ty and resilience.

2. The peo­ple have to make their elect­ed offi­cials take action.

3. Be aware that real pain is asso­ci­at­ed with the changes need­ed to mit­i­gate and avoid the effects of sea lev­el rise and cli­mate change.

Resilient com­mu­ni­ties are at the core of a “Too Small to Fail” future. If we don’t plan for more robust com­mu­ni­ties, and imple­ment solu­tions for unde­ni­able prob­lems, a cat­a­stroph­ic crash seems inevitable. How­ev­er cri­sis can equal oppor­tu­ni­ty, as we saw dur­ing the Great Depres­sion and dur­ing World War II. But unless sen­si­ble plans to man­age dis­as­ter are for­mu­lat­ed and put for­ward now, the oppor­tu­ni­ty afford­ed by cri­sis could be hijacked by a more orga­nized well-financed minor­i­ty with an author­i­tar­i­an agen­da.

You’re an advo­cate for the Tran­si­tion Town con­cept of a resilient, local­ly-based econ­o­my. Is New York City, with a pop­u­la­tion of 8 mil­lion, real­ly a can­di­date for the Tran­si­tion idea?

In short the answer is prob­a­bly not. How­ev­er, neigh­bor­hoods and coher­ent sec­tions of the city, where urban agri­cul­ture, core com­mu­ni­ty groups, and like-mind­ed peo­ple are already intact, may be.

Here is what the “New Econ­o­my” for our biore­gion might look like: it will pros­per through an eclec­tic amal­gam of busi­ness, non-prof­it and gov­ern­ment inno­va­tion, includ­ing rooftop solar ware­hous­es, wind farms, and tidal ener­gy pro­duc­ers; urban and rural farm­ers, and rooftop api­aries; com­mer­cial fish­er­men, fish mon­gers, and fish farm­ers; local farm­ers mar­kets, shore­line farm­ers, and seafood mar­kets; a local water-based trans­porta­tion sys­tem to bring goods to mar­ket; sub­ur­bia con­vert­ed to inter­con­nect­ed “front yard” farms; a local cur­ren­cy used to pay for local com­modi­ties; buy­ing and hir­ing local­ly; restored and cre­at­ed wet­lands serv­ing as nurs­eries for fish and wildlife and where blue­ber­ries and oth­er pro­duce can be sus­tain­ably har­vest­ed; sus­tain­able forests that are logged selec­tive­ly with an eye on future pro­duc­tion; pub­lic works projects such as sea walls and sea gates as required to pro­tect com­mu­ni­ties and valu­able infra­struc­ture again­st sea lev­el rise; an econ­o­my of local busi­ness­es and micro-indus­tries, includ­ing every­thing from brew­ers and butch­ers to cheese mak­ers and tool­mak­ers; from ship builders to bicy­cle builders; local wind tur­bine, solar col­lec­tor, and tidal gen­er­a­tor man­u­fac­tur­ers and installers; shoe­mak­ers and fix it shops; com­posters and oil recy­clers.

If we become a local­ly-focused region, what hap­pens with the foods and prod­ucts that can’t be grown or pro­duced here?

The New York City biore­gion is [already] con­nect­ed ten­u­ous­ly to the rest of the world by lit­er­al­ly thou­sands of life­li­nes, includ­ing an aging and increas­ing­ly fail­ure-prone pow­er grid; an aging and leaky water sys­tem; and a vast net­work of roads, rails, ship­ping and air routes that rely exclu­sive­ly on increas­ing­ly cost­ly fos­sil fuels. Like a patient on intra­venous life sup­port, any major inter­rup­tion in the flow of nat­u­ral resources, ener­gy, water or food to the met­ro­pol­i­tan area could ham­string or per­ma­nent­ly harm its econ­o­my and peo­ple. With glob­al oil, gas and coal pro­duc­tion pre­dict­ed to irre­versibly decline in the next 10 to 20 years, this col­lapse becomes not a ques­tion of if, but when.

Most of the prod­ucts we con­sume in New York City come from Asia or Europe, or by truck from Cal­i­for­nia and the mid-west. New York is tied to the­se life­li­nes that extend around the world for fuel, but, when petro­le­um becomes too expen­sive to trans­fer, it’s going to be a cri­sis if we don’t get alter­na­tive sources. So food, ener­gy and water are crit­i­cal in the New York City region.

What would hap­pen if the Tran­si­tion Town approach worked in New York City?

It will demon­strate that it can work any­where else.

What are the advan­tages of the ‘Main Street econ­o­my’ ver­sus a ‘Wall Street econ­o­my’?

My grand­fa­ther start­ed a lum­ber com­pa­ny with a friend who owned a push­cart. They scav­enged con­struc­tion sites, pulled nails out of and squared up any lum­ber they could find, and sold it for what it was – a recy­cled pro­duct. Lat­er they built their com­pa­ny into a large wholesale/retail lum­ber­yard, and even­tu­al­ly became a self-serve region­al hard­ware and lum­ber com­pa­ny. But what my grand­fa­ther and my uncles, who even­tu­al­ly took over the busi­ness, nev­er for­got was that they had an oblig­a­tion to their employ­ees, many of whom worked at the com­pa­ny for their entire careers. They sold a good pro­duct, treat­ed their cus­tomers with respect, sup­port­ed their com­mu­ni­ty, and made a liv­ing for their fam­i­lies. After my uncles retired, their part­ner sold the com­pa­ny to a For­tune 500 com­pa­ny and with­in a few years it no longer exist­ed.

I tell this sto­ry because this Main Street busi­ness was local­ly owned, local­ly root­ed, and pri­vate­ly held. It was inno­v­a­tive, suc­cess­ful, and sold tools, mate­ri­als, and ser­vices to peo­ple who became repeat cus­tomers because of the qual­i­ty and cus­tomer ser­vice they received. As soon as their com­pa­ny became the prop­er­ty of Wall Street, all those val­ues were lost and destroyed. Until then it had been too small to fail.

Grow­ing evi­dence sug­gests that every dol­lar spent at a ‘too small to fail’ local­ly owned busi­ness gen­er­ates two to four times more eco­nom­ic ben­e­fit – mea­sured in income, wealth, jobs, and tax rev­enue – than a dol­lar spent at a glob­al­ly owned busi­ness. That is because local­ly owned busi­ness­es spend much more of their mon­ey local­ly and there­by pump up the eco­nom­ic mul­ti­pli­er.

Under our present sys­tem, no local busi­ness­es receive any of our pen­sion sav­ings, or invest­ments in mutu­al funds, or invest­ment from ven­ture cap­i­tal firms, or hedge funds. The result is that we who invest do so in For­tune 500 com­pa­nies we dis­trust, and under-invest in the local busi­ness­es we know are essen­tial for local vital­i­ty. We need new mech­a­nisms to enable invest­ment in local, place-based, ‘too small to fail’ Main Street busi­ness­es.

Main Street invest­ing is how the local econ­o­my once func­tioned. It was in the inter­est of well-off farm­ers, mer­chants, and small town banks to loan mon­ey to, and invest in, busi­ness­es that would hire local peo­ple, and make some­thing that had val­ue and cre­at­ed real wealth. Per­haps, along with a ‘buy local/hire local’ cam­paigns, ‘locavest­ing,’ – a resur­gence of local cur­ren­cies, and new pub­lic and com­mu­ni­ty banks, and cred­it unions will rein­vig­o­rate our region’s Main Street econ­o­my.

How do social jus­tice and envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty inter­sect?

Any plan for a resilient biore­gion­al econ­o­my must insure that every­one has fun­da­men­tal needs met for nutri­tious food, shel­ter, health­care, edu­ca­tion, and ecosys­tem ser­vices as a non-nego­tiable con­di­tion. This means such things as con­vert­ing urban brown­fields to green­fields, ensur­ing afford­able hous­ing, improv­ing work oppor­tu­ni­ties for dis­ad­van­taged groups, and allow­ing seniors and chil­dren to play use­ful civic roles.

You post­ed a let­ter and pro­pos­al in 2013 called “A Call to Action.” In it you describe the risks of cli­mate change in New York City and the ben­e­fits of the Tran­si­tion move­ment. In three years since, what has changed?

Every­thing I wrote about in 2013 is com­ing true more quick­ly than I could have imag­ined, except for the respon­se to the dire prob­lems fac­ing the region.

Willner is founder of New York/New Jersey Baykeeper (courtesy Andrew Willner)

Will­ner is founder of New York/New Jer­sey Bay­keep­er (cour­tesy Andrew Will­ner)