Environmental Activists Launch Balloon-rigged Banner at Washington Square Arch 

A Challenge to NYC Government’s Use of Amazon Wood for 400 New Park Benches

2 Videos:


The Villager * The Epoch Times * Washington Square Park Blog

Climate and rainforest activists floated a 300-square foot banner up the Washington Square Park arch for an unpermitted action to commemorate Earth Day on April 22nd, 2011. Tethered by three helium-filled weather balloons, the banner read: “Mayor Bloomberg: Why Was the Amazon Logged for Wash. Square Park Benches?”

Right now, as part of a multi-million renovation to WSP, approximately 400 new benches comprised of ipê, a tropical hardwood logged from the Amazon rainforest, are being installed.

Ipê has been—and apparently remains—the wood of choice for the tens of thousands of park benches throughout New York City. An extensive network of roads must be built to access the ipê tree, which is scattered throughout the Amazon at an average of 1 to 2 trees per acre.

This ongoing use of ipê contradicts the pledge that Mayor Bloomberg made to United Nations General Assembly on February 11, 2008: “Our City’s agencies will immediately reduce their use of tropical hardwoods by 20%. They will do that by specifying domestic wood, recycled plastic lumber, and other materials in the design of park benches and other construction projects.” He was following the lead of the Parks Department, which had declared an end to the use of tropical hardwoods for bench construction in late 2007.

“Despite the passage of three years since the Mayor and Park’s promises, benches made with Amazon wood continue to appear in newly renovated parks all around the city – look at Washington Square Park, the High Line, Union Square Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the five miles of Hudson River Park,” said Tim Keating, Executive Director of Rainforest Relief. “Almost every board of wood that you see in these new designs has been logged from the Amazon rainforest.”

These parks, as well as many others, don’t just share their choice of wood in common. They are also part of a larger trend occurring throughout the city: duties and responsibilities concerning public space are largely being transferred from public agencies to private entities such as business improvement districts and public benefit corporations. These entities are assemblages of private investors and stakeholders who operate without public oversight.

The Village Alliance, a business improvement district, had substantial sway concerning both the redesign of Washington Square Park as well as its maintenance. The same quasi-public, quasi-private ownership and decision-making process concerning design and maintenance has led to the use tropical hardwood for benches not just Washington Square Park, but also all of the above-mentioned parks.

“The privatization of NYC’s public space is allowing the city’s destruction of the Amazon to continue unchallenged,” stated Tim Doody, the New York City campaign coordinator for Rainforest Relief.

The question remains: how often is the Parks Department still making decisions regarding park design and the procurement of materials? And are private entities throughout the city now making an end run around guidelines established by a public agency? Whatever the answers are, there appears to be a breakdown in the statements coming from the offices of the Mayor and the Parks Department and what is happening on the ground in New York City.

Just this month, the Department of City Planning, a public agency, and the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, a private entity, initiated “Vision 2020: the Comprehensive Waterfront Plan,” an ambitious undertaking to upgrade 520 miles of city waterfront with 50 acres of new parks, expand and enhance 10 existing parks, develop extensive greenways and 14 esplanades, upgrade marine terminals, and construct new piers and bulkheads for increased travel by commuter ferries and cargo ships.

An official from the Department of City Planning, who asked to remain anonymous, indicated that tropical hardwood was being considered for the project. If the Department of City Planning and the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance choose to use ipê or another tropical hardwood, this would very likely be the largest order of rainforest wood for public infrastructure in the history of New York City.

“An area of rainforest the size of a football field is destroyed every second,” the UN Environment Programme states on its website. That’s an area the size of Manhattan every three hours.

Before the United Nations General Assembly, Mayor Bloomberg eloquently reinforced his pledge to curtail the city’s use of tropical hardwoods.

“New Yorkers don’t live in the rain forest,“ he said. “But we do live in a world that we all share. And we’re committed to doing everything we can to protect it for all of our children.”

“It is possible as some have alleged,” the Mayor’s Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability stated during the same year, 2008, “that New York City is one of the leading consumers of tropical hardwoods in the nation.”

Today, as the world’s remaining rainforests continue to dwindle and the impacts of climate change increasingly manifest around the world, there is an immediate need for the Bloomberg administration to establish and enforce guidelines that will truly shut down the city’s use of tropical hardwoods for public infrastructure.

“Imagine if you took all the cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships in the world and added up their exhaust every year,” Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times. “ The amount of carbon dioxide is actually less than the carbon emissions every year that result from the chopping down and clearing of tropical forests in places like Brazil, Indonesia and the Congo.”

Two activists involved in floating the banner in Washington Square Park, Tim Keating and Tim Doody of Rainforest Relief, were charged with violations for “Failure to obey a lawful order” and charged $250 dollars a piece.

On Doody’s citation, Parks police wrote the following: “My partner and I did observe respondent flying three large balloons and a large banner with a group of approximately 30 people. They did not have a permit and were instructed to leave.”

After the banner was stuffed into a sack and the balloons packed away, JK Canepa, the founder of New York Climate Action Group, said, “The 400 new ipê benches in WSP are inexcusable. But we still have an opportunity to get it right with the Comprehensive Waterfront Plan. Instead of striking another blow at the world’s remaining rainforests, we could showcase sustainable alternatives like Kebony, recycled plastic lumber, black locust and salvaged woods.”