State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

MPA Students Explore Urban Parks

MPA ESP students explored New York City parks through field trips with their Urban Ecology course.

During the second half of the summer semester for Columbia University’s MPA class in Environmental Science and Policy program, the students extended their classroom learning on urban ecology to outdoor field trips in Brooklyn and the Bronx to focus on how restorations of wetlands, forests, and rivers are changing the city.

Their first Urban Ecology field trip led them to the Fountain Avenue Landfill, a closed landfill in Brooklyn.  Once a major dumping site for New York City garbage, the site is now a 400 acre nature preserve covered by small trees and bushes. As the students were given a presentation and a tour around the hill by the staff, they focused on the history and rehabilitation of this landfill, which opened in 1960s and closed in the mid-1980s due to pressure by City officials. The environmental and health impacts of the site were significant on the neighboring communities due to contamination of heavy metals, pesticides, PCBs and other toxic chemicals residential trash and construction debris. With support from the New York Department of Environmental Protection, the restoration team transformed the dump site into a diversified ecological system with trees and shrubs that can sustain themselves.

“These field trips give the students the chance to see urban ecological research in action.  We visit a range of different ecosystems, each of which poses specific management challenges.  The students get to experience these firsthand, while also meeting with environmental professionals from the public and non-profit sectors,” said Professor Matthew Palmer, who teaches the Ecology sequence in the program.

The students also explored urban forests and wetlands in Pelham Bay Park and Randall’s Island. Visiting these diverse park lands allowed students to gain insight into the benefits provided by city parks in real-world context. In Pelham Bay Park, students learned about the difficulties urban reforestation faced by MillionTreesNYC, an initiative that plants and cares for trees in the city. While at Randall’s Island, students got the chance to learn the importance of marshlands to purify runoff from land to sea, offer habitats to wildlife and to increase the resilience and resistance to storms like super storm Sandy, which devastated parts of New York City in October 2012. They also focused on the difficulties in transforming once heavily industrialized areas into natural environments.

Professor Matthew Palmer lectures to students while they board boats on the Bronx River with non-profit organization, Rock the Boat.

“One of the key things we emphasize in the MPA ESP program is really showing students the practical applications of their classroom learning,” said Sarah Tweedie, Associate Director of the program. “It is great for them to see how concepts they discuss in a lecture come to life. We are fortunate to have so many real-life examples so close to campus.”

The last stop of the field trips was the Bronx River Park where students learned about restoring local urban waterways. They also engaged with members of a non-profit organization, Rocking the Boat. The organization works with youth from historically underprivileged neighborhoods to repair and build boats while introducing them to the natural environment. Volunteers offer training on environmental conservation in order to prepare local youth for productive futures. Students capped off the day by joining the Rocking the Boat staff for rowing down the river.

Students in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program enroll in a year-long, 54-credit program offered at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, in partnership with the Earth Institute.

Since it began in 2002, the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program has given students the hands-on experience, and the analytical and decision-making tools to implement effective environmental and sustainable management policies. The program’s 682 graduates have advanced to jobs in domestic and international environmental policy, working in government, private and non-profit sectors. Their work involves issues of sustainability, resource use and global change, in fields focused on air, water, climate, energy efficiency, food, agriculture, transportation and waste management. They work as consultants, advisers, project managers, program directors, policy analysts, teachers, researchers, and environmental scientists and engineers.

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