Author Archives | Samantha_Stokes

Citizen scientists provide important services to Bronx conservation efforts

These volunteers  — many of whom aren’t trained scientists — shoulder the work of gathering scientific data and identifying environmental problems in Van Cortlandt Park


John Butler pulled pairs of chest waders from a cluttered metal shipping container parked in the Van Cortlandt Golf Course parking lot and passed them around a small group. On this mid-September morning, three of the seven volunteers wriggled waders up their legs and clasped them over the shoulders. The others tucked their long pants into their socks and wore boots.

“Are we going on the long walk today?” one volunteer asked.

No one had objections, so Butler, who is the ecological project manager for Friends of Van Cortlandt Park, spent three hours leading the group along Putnam Trail a mile and a half to the Westchester County border.

These volunteers meet weekly in the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park to test water connected to Tibbetts Brook — a body of water just north of the city that has been the source of pollutants in recent years. These pollutants, which include indicators of pathogens found in animal waste, can disturb the park’s natural ecosystem and make humans sick. The testing program is just one example of citizen science, a community movement in which public volunteers conduct scientific experiments, gather data and participate in the science and technology sector.

According to, a website that tracks federally reported citizen science projects, volunteers can participate in almost every step of the scientific process, from forming hypotheses to interpreting results — no STEM degree needed. There are more than 400 projects sponsored by federal partners that solicit volunteers to participate in the research process.

While volunteers shoulder the work not being done by government agencies, proponents of citizen science say it is a way to get more done.

Friends of Van Cortlandt Park tests five sites during their bi-weekly water testings. The first site is next to Saw Mill River Parkways, near Westchester County.

It rained the night before, so volunteers marched along the muddy trail and tried to avoid the deeper puddles. The temperature rose as the sun shone higher, and chatter lulled to near silence as the group trekked on for more than 40 minutes, slowing frequently for water. Their first and farthest destination was next to Saw Mill River Parkway, at the park’s northern border. After veering off the trail to the bank of a small stream, it was time to get started.

Volunteers have participated in citizen science at Van Cortlandt Park since 2015, when Butler received funding from Manhattan College to begin weekly water testings and cleanup in the park. Butler was worried that an upstream body of water, Tibbetts Brook in Yonkers, was polluted and contaminating city waters, he said.

In the group’s first year of testing, Butler’s suspicions were confirmed. They determined in August 2016 that a Yonkers pipe was leaking fecal matter into the Brook, and the pollutants were trickling downstream into Van Cortlandt Park.

When the group went to Yonkers to test water near the pipe, one volunteer touched the water to his mouth and became ill, Butler said.

After the volunteers’ efforts, government agencies started paying attention. They identified the offending business and required the Yonkers company to improve their waste management. Since then, Butler said the park’s waters have been free from this specific pollutant.

Nicholas Taussig’s background isn’t in science, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of Friends of Van Cortlandt Park’s most frequent volunteers. Taussig became involved in 2012, after Hurricane Sandy, because he wanted to help cleanup efforts. When the water testing program began three years later, he focused his efforts there.

Taussig lives near Van Cortlandt Park. Finding the source of pollutants in 2016 and seeing a solution has been a highlight of his community service, he said.

And this is why citizen science is so important, according to Butler: groups like Friends of Van Cortlandt Park must rely on grants and volunteers to do work like water testing and park cleanup. While scientists exist on college campuses and in labs, many don’t have the multiple hours a week it takes to collect samples out in the field. That’s where citizen scientists come in.

At the first of five testing sites, volunteers used scientific instruments to measure the water’s pH, conductivity, oxygen level and velocity. Another volunteer scooped water into a small plastic container. The samples, along with the day’s measurements, were sent to the lab for testing and database entry.

Over time, these numbers paint a picture of the park’s water, said Butler. After more than two and a half years of testing, he said volunteers can quickly determine if something isn’t right. And they’re the only ones keeping track.

Friends of Van Cortlandt Park partners with Manhattan College and other research entities for funding and support, but they fight for the attention of various city agencies, such as Department of Park and Recreation and the Department of Transportation, to accomplish even the smallest conservation tasks.

This is because no single agency is specifically in charge of water conservation and has the resources to see projects through, said Butler. A current pollution issue facing the park is a pipe leaking highway debris into Van Cortlandt Lake. The departments of Transportation, Parks and Recreation and Sanitation share responsibility, he said. But one agency told him they don’t have the necessary equipment to fix the problem, and another said that even though they do have the resources, it isn’t their problem or priority.


Nick Taussig and Debra Catz sit above a pipe at the edge of Van Cortlandt Lake. Nearby road construction is causing pollutants to leak into the lake through the pipe, but the Department of Transportation hasn’t yet addressed the issue.


Groups like Friends of Van Cortlandt Park can also face gridlock at the local level and hit red tape at community board and city department meetings. Large, systemic change sometimes feels impossible, said Butler, so the group tries where it can to accomplish smaller, more manageable tasks.

“We’re hit with a bureaucracy wall,” he said

As the morning wore on, some volunteers broke off from the group to clean up debris and litter. The volunteers test the water every other week, and on the opposite Wednesdays, they spend the morning cleaning.  But during a hard rainfall the previous night, branches fell onto the trail and litter was swept into the waterway, trapped against long inflatable booms meant to catch debris from traveling further downstream. The cleanup couldn’t wait another week.

One of the volunteers, Diana Catz, is a retired scientist and clinical researcher who has been water testing with Friends of Van Cortlandt for about two years. She said citizen science is important because volunteers can do some of the legwork for researchers, who can’t do it all.

And since she lives nearby, she said it is important to give back to the place she spends as much of her free time as possible.

“For me, this park is my playground,” she said.

The group visited testing sites between the Van Cortlandt Park and Mosholu Golf Courses and near the Parade Ground. When they reached the final sites, two spots in Van Cortlandt Lake, it was almost noon. As some gathered samples and measured the water, others sat in the shade to escape the warming temperatures.

Finally, after the last number was recorded and the last sample was collected, the group walked back to the parking lot and began peeling off their waders. One set had a hole at the knee, flooding the wearer’s socks and jeans with creek water. Butler said he is counting on a grant from outdoor retailer Patagonia to fund a few new sets this fall but hasn’t heard if his application has been accepted.

That day, the data gathered wasn’t too out of the ordinary, despite the prior day’s rainfall. Bad weather can stir up sediment and disrupt the water, Butler said, so an abnormal reading wouldn’t have been unusual.

Over the next few days, scientists at Manhattan College will add the numbers into a database, but the information won’t be immediately available to the public — not even to the volunteers that collected the data. For now, the Friends of Van Cortlandt Website, which is the home base for volunteers and community members to learn about the park, isn’t set up to handle data visualization.

Butler said this will change soon. He wants to redesign the website to include all of the water data collected by the group in interactive databases and maps. The group is focused on recruiting new water testing volunteers, and he said public data is important to attract and retain citizen scientists who are passionate about keeping the park’s waters safe and clean.

“We allow citizen science to happen,” he said. “We allow people to build connections with the park.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured0 Comments

Fordham’s Community Board Website Out of Sight for Residents

After a two-month hiatus, many Bronx community boards in September will resume legislative action without making important information easily available to community members.

Issues of transparency permeate the borough’s local governments. Only four of the 12 boards have posted recent meeting minutes to their website; other boards’ public records are outdated by multiple years. Some are worse than others: Community Board 5 last updated their general meeting minutes in 2013, and Community District 7 does not currently have a working website.

“Community boards don’t really communicate with the public in a way in which the public knows what they do,” said Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, which ensures accessibility to public information is accessible.

The lack of information isn’t just frustrating; it can be illegal. Freeman said not releasing minutes violates the state’s Open Meetings Law, which requires most minutes be released to the public within two weeks of a meeting. He said that providing timely, accurate information is important to build better relationships between government and the community.

“I think people should have a clue about what a community board is and what it’s doing,” Freeman said. “People don’t become involved in local government because their community board doesn’t engage them.”

Community boards are the lowest level of government that advocate for citizen’s rights at the district level. Boards in the Bronx represents the interest of about 50,000 to 150,000 geographic neighbors, as opposed to the borough’s population of nearly 1.5 million. According to the city’s Community Affairs Unit website, community boards are important because they help represent the needs of different neighborhoods to city government.

The city’s 59 community boards each submit a yearly Statement of Needs, a local assessment that helps city government allocate resources to top concerns, such as affordable housing, parks, quality-of-life issues or transportation. Also included is the district’s budget requests for the next fiscal year.

But lack of transparency means boards fail to provide public information to their communities. Of the 12 community boards in the Bronx, Community Board 7 is the only one without a working website. These pages, when updated, provide communities with important information such as leadership positions, contact information, meeting dates, agendas and minutes. The board’s website, which should provide information for residents of Bedford Park, Fordham, Kingsbridge Heights, Norwood and University Heights, has been under construction for nearly a month.

Ischia Bravo, the board’s district manager, said she hopes the new site will go live soon. In the meantime, she communicates online with her community via a Facebook page.

“I live on that,” said Bravo, who has been the district manager for eight months. “It’s always on my phone.”

Bravo said one of her district’s top priorities is outreach, and she said the board tables at local events to raise awareness and help people register to vote. The board also partners with local agencies to provide more specific services to residents: notably, Bravo said they’ve partnered with local housing corporations for the day-to-day needs of residents.

“We’re here to help,” she said. “It takes all of us to plan something.”

But the effect hasn’t been immediate. Bravo said she wants to see more community involvement and doesn’t know why more people aren’t engaged. For her, it’s personal. She was born in Community District 7 and lived in Baily Houses, a New York City Housing Authority development in the district. She was a board member before becoming district manager in January.

“The only way to fix things is to be involved and have a voice,” she said.

For some boards, leadership turnover and large projects can lead to a lag in public information becoming public. Kenneth Brown, district manager of Community Board 5, said the board leaders are volunteers who don’t always have time to keep everything up-to-date. The Jerome Avenue Neighborhood Plan is a large rezoning project and a top priority, Brown said.

His board’s website lists most leadership positions as “vacant” when they are filled, and the last meeting agenda posted was from November 2013, even though meetings occur monthly. Brown said the site is backlogged because minutes must be approved before they can be made public, a task for which board volunteers rarely have time.

The page listing officer positions on Community Board 5’s website shows vacancies in all but four positions. Kenneth Brown, the district manager, said the positions were not vacant. A page for meeting minutes links to five documents from 2013, two from 2009 and four from 2008. Credit: Samantha Stokes

But Freeman said it is not unlawful to release minutes for board approval; h actually encourages boards to release meeting minutes and public documents as soon as possible for the public to view, even prior to approval.

“Most community boards are sort of invisible,” said Freeman. “People don’t know what they’re missing. They don’t know what’s out there.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Community Resources0 Comments