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Planting Roof Gardens in the Bronx

By Michele Learner
October 2009

Plants sprout out of the roof of the St. Joan of Arc Church in the South Bronx. This shallow garden of assorted plants – called a rooftop wellness garden – helps reduce pollution and the energy needed to heat and cool the building.

Teenagers with Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (YMPJ), whose office is beside the church, installed the green roof.

“We are trying to connect the things we see every day in our neighborhoods with the things we hear at church on Sunday,” says Julien Terrell who mentors the teen activists who installed the roof. As YMPJ’s director of organizing he works with teens to resolve the environmental problems in the neighborhood.

This area of the South Bronx has one of the highest rates of asthma in the country. Fish from the Bronx River can also be toxic, since when it rains too hard, facilities overflow and untreated sewage flows directly to the river.

This is where growing plants on roofs – whether vegetables, flowers, or herbs – comes in. The plants help retain rain water which would otherwise flow straight to the Bronx River.

Terrell says that sometimes people assume that environmentalism is too complicated. Through tours of their green roof, the teens show how they are actually keeping pollution out of the Bronx River – even if they think they’re just growing flowers.

“It’s great when you see youth at work who feel encouraged and powerful and are actually at the forefront of change,” Terrell says.

He adds that at first residents are surprised when they see a 15-year-old leading the meetings. “Sometimes the high school activists’ ideas are phenomenal. They really have the passion and commitment, and we’ve found that older people are willing to give them a chance.”

The youth activists and the YMPJ have done much to help improve the South Bronx. The organization was established in 1994 by South Bronx native Alexie Torres-Fleming. As an active member of her Roman Catholic youth group, she saw the need to increase awareness about social justice and environmental issues among youth in the area.

The organization has since racked up a string of accomplishments. They established the area’s first youth center, where more than half of the 15,000 neighbourhood youth live below the poverty line. They have successfully campaigned for a new park and are cleaning up the Bronx River.

Beyond community education and mobilization, the YMPJ’s teen activists have become sophisticated in using such tools as public notification requirements to change their communities.

They use these tools to build relationships with local authorities, coalition partners, and even those who could be considered the “problem” – enterprises that produce pollution. “Some of these are right next to housing units,” Terrell says. “Solving problems by negotiation is critical when the other party lives across the street.”

Using the green church roof of St. Joan of Arc, they hope to eventually cover two neighborhood blocks, encompassing single homes and public housing.

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