Transformation of Rikers Island—Could it be a model?

A friend recently sent me an article by Drew Costly that describes a movement to transition Rikers Island, a prison and psychiatric center on a 400-acre island on NYC’s East River, into a green infrastructure demonstration site, a place where individuals from local communities of color can experience alternative environmental action. Such opportunities are rare, and to be prized. A trio of city council members, Costa Constantinides, Helen Rosenthal and Ben Kallos, introduced legislation that became the “Renewable Rikers Act.” The City Council has committed to the plan, and the current prison that is Rikers Island is scheduled to come off line by 2026.

It’s one of the few places in NYC with enough space to allow for green infrastructure innovation to merge with environmental justice, and the vision is for this island to become a green oasis of sorts to generate solar energy and clean up water, while providing an educational opportunity for locals.

When I saw this I thought, “why not go further?” Why not transition the island into a living example of sustainable practice? For example, take local wastewater and its valuable nutrient load and treat it, on the island, using biomimicry.

Use nature’s wetland effect to clean up and polish the water. In the process clarify the water, harvest from the water, and educate people in nature’s methods. This process is what we are doing in Shepherd, Montana, with the very same nutrients, except ours come from agriculture. Whether it’s shit from cattle, or from a city, it is still shit. And nature deals with crap. Always has. Hopefully, always will.

…one of the few places in NYC with enough space to allow for green infrastructure innovation to merge with environmental justice

Bruce Kania

Our country has attempted to live in denial. The ignominious Trump administration was essentially a plea to return to an artificial and contrived view that humans can manipulate nature. Bottom line…this view was, and is, not just doomed to failure, but actually harmful. Far more people die in this setting, and leave an impaired environment in their wake. But hopefully, this four year hiatus into denial is just a blip. As much as many of us desire “simplicity,” the reality is that sustainable life models for our race will require complex and innovative action. Life is not destined to get simpler. Instead, we are destined to become more thoughtful, collaborative, innovative, and “green.” It sure won’t be simple!

Where will sustainable leadership spring forth? Will it be from islands within major urban centers, or from massive islands like north island and south island in New Zealand? Or from rural villages, like Shepherd, Montana?

Life is not destined to get simpler. Instead, we are destined to become more thoughtful, collaborative, innovative, and “green.”

Bruce Kania

Perhaps all of the above?

Imagine a Rikers island where the carbon cycle makes a full loop. Where humans, as relative apex predators, design for actual collaboration with nature. With natural systems. This isn’t just about concrete and steel wastewater structures, or terrestrial solar farms, or temporary classroom tours extolling an almost trite view of the work that needs doing. This is about a deep dive into potential.

Rikers Island is a nidus point of opportunity. It can be a wonderful example of transition. It could do what is being done in New Zealand, and in Shepherd, Montana.