A Backyard Lesson In Environmental Justice - The Years Project

A Backyard Lesson In Environmental Justice

By FXB Climate Advocates

By Harry Justice, Senior, Berkeley Carroll School

I think growing up in a city has given me an even greater appreciation for the green spaces that I do have among the concrete urban jungle. When I think of green spaces in my home of Jersey City, the two that come to mind first are Liberty State Park and my backyard. When I think of my backyard in the back of our apartment building, I think about the stones my dad laid down, the lawn we sowed, the flowers planted, and even some of the potted tomatoes surrounded by metal mesh to protect against hungry opossums.

 I’m the second child in my family. I only know that backyard in terms of when I was around, and as far back as I can remember. The backyard I don’t know is the one practically qualifying as a landfill, full of trash and weeds. My dad had to get rid of as much trash as he could, cut down and pull up all the weeds, and basically put down all-new soil. And the tomatoes I mentioned? They’re potted for a reason. My mom didn’t want us to eat anything that came from that ground because of all the trash and contaminants, so any vegetables had to be potted or in raised beds. We maintained it in that way and managed to have a really wonderful green space, right out back, that I was lucky to grow up with. We let it go for a while for a few different reasons, but this year I went back out there to do some gardening of my own. I was planting one shrub, maybe only 6 or 7 inches into the ground, and after all these years and the work my dad had done to remove any litter, I immediately found multiple pieces of trash. I even found a full metal spoon just sitting in the soil back there. I suggested to my mom the idea of planting vegetables, and she reminded me why we always had them in pots in the past, which sparked the memory of where this green space of ours came from.

Liberty State Park is a part of Jersey City, and New Jersey as a whole, that many residents are able to enjoy as a green space. It has big playgrounds, open fields and lawns, is right on the water, offers a great view of the Manhattan skyline, and a nature center. I really love Liberty State Park, and it’s a place where I and other residents in Jersey can enjoy a natural area and relax in a public green space. Liberty State is a big park, but it always feels smaller than the number of acres encompassing the whole park. When walking around, I always notice a lot of fencing and undeveloped areas that visitors aren’t allowed in, because some parts of the park are contaminated environmental brown zones.

There has been some action to clean up these zones to increase access to natural green spaces for the residents of Jersey City. For example, Caven Point which is home to a migratory bird sanctuary, acts not only as a wildlife refuge, but also as an urban environmental educational site and recreational area for residents to enjoy. There is currently some controversy over Liberty State Park, due to efforts by some to privatize parts of the park and sell it to the highest bidder – most notably the nearby Liberty National Golf Course, which hopes to turn the Caven Point wildlife sanctuary into another golf course. This has sparked outrage from the Jersey City community, who value Liberty State Park and would not like to see it auctioned off for privatized use.  The residents feel they have a right to this public green space, and it is critical to the local community. Some cite this as environmental inequity and racism, due to Jersey City’s diverse demographics.  Bruce Alston stated in a recent controversial meeting discussing the state park’s privatization, “There should not be any legislation proposed until legislators come to Jersey City. This is the systematic marginalization of black and brown people.”

I have been vaguely aware of litter and pollution throughout my life, and how it is a hindrance to the natural environments I enjoy. But recently, as I immerse myself more and more in environmental studies and sciences, I am drawing bigger connections between my research and learning and my local community and life. Agronomy, agriculture, and soil science are all focuses of my independent science research project at school. While researching possible topics for my project in 10th grade, I became interested in the implications of climate change for agriculture, specifically the effects of climate change coupled with unsustainable agriculture on soil health and arability. I wanted to pursue this topic, because I thought it was a less mainstream concern in regards to the climate crisis. I began exploring the effects of toxic waste and contaminants on soil and plant health, as well as the global topsoil microbiome and its critical role in nurturing plant life to sustain the global food web. The more I researched the legacy of toxic waste on soil health and heavy metal contamination from synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, it made me think about my own scaled down version of that at home. I’m not sure, although I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if there are any actual heavy metal contaminants in the soil in my backyard, but it felt contaminated with all the litter. All these big issues that I researched, which I thought were affecting farmers and agricultural systems that I felt disconnected to living in a city, felt a little closer to home.

Additionally, environmental justice, capital and private interest, and toxic waste and hazards have been topics of research that I have also explored this past year and will continue to learn about this coming school year as well. I have a lot of privilege being male and white in this country, and therefore might not feel the effects of environmental racism and inequity like BIPOC communities here. Usually I research areas that I am not personally connected to when it comes to environmental justice issues, but I’ve been trying to connect back with my local community and its intersections with my passions about the environment. The more I dig in, the more I also find these issues exist close to home, reflected by the diverse demographics of my city. For example the more research I do into the privatization of Liberty State Park, the more I realize that the local community is being ignored and possibly exploited, which is an example of inequity. I’m finding that Jersey City actually has “dirty air,” something I didn’t even realize besides the occasional “unhealthy air quality” notification from my weather app. And I’m learning that Jersey City is actually the second most contaminated city in New Jersey after Newark. I’m also finding those advocates, like Alston, who point to the city’s demographics to show that these facts are not a mere coincidence.

Seeing my large-scale research about systemic challenges facing the pathway to sustainable development reflected in my local community only makes me feel more passionate about these issues. It brings them closer to my home, where I’m from, and where I grew up. It makes me more motivated to not only help find global and national solutions to promote sustainable development, but also solutions that will hopefully one day be reflected in the community I grew up in.