Nature in New York City

“Hello, my Class 4 friends!” greeted Science teacher Juliette Berg as students joined the Zoom session. “If you are in section E or M, you are in the right place!” (Other Class 4 sections would meet later that afternoon).

Before the students was a special visitor, Mr. Jeff Botula, an employee of the New York City Parks Department, who came to discuss the importance of water in NYC. Before joining the NYC Parks Department, he worked for AmeriCorps VISTA and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation. Mr. Botula majored in Geography and Civil Engineering in college which thoroughly prepared him for an environment-focused career. 

“The city has a huge role in managing water,” he began. “Providing drinking water and distributing water back into ponds and streams is essential. It’s a precious resource.” He noted that he loves working in a city as it provides opportunities for all different kinds of work and the NYC Parks Department is one of the biggest in the country – serving more than 30,000 acres of land, 600,000 street trees and 2,000,000 trees in parks.

Mr. Botula offered examples of the various jobs he has done – across each borough – such as monitoring wetlands, drainage studies, pond monitoring, restoration and design, and construction. “We can even send robots underground to explore pipes and drains that we can’t get to.”

After this brief overview, he commenced the main focus of the day’s presentation (which coincides with the Class 4 scientists’ recent study of water): Where does water go when it lands on park properties? Where does the water from homes (toilets, sinks, showers, etc.) end up?

Today, Mr. Botula explained, the water runs to a treatment plant to be cleansed before it is released back into a river, stream, etc. In prior years, however, that wasn’t always the case, which can be damaging to water quality.

“When it rains a lot, the sewage from homes can combine with rain water,” he explained. “My goal as an engineer is to make less water go into the drains at a slower rate.”

“A great engineering design challenge!” Ms. Berg said.

“Yes, we must make design decisions to create natural filtration.”

Mr. Botula shared his screen to show a cartoon scenario depicting rainwater rushing down pavement and overflowing the pipes. He asked the students to make an educated guess on additions that would slow water down.

Using the poll feature on Zoom, students selected whether grass or soil would help and why. After thirty seconds, answers were revealed. “Turns out, you’re all correct. You can make arguments for both of these options,” Mr. Botula said.

The next poll question had students rank the order of three elements (sand, dirt and gravel) by which would capture the most water from fastest to slowest.

“Hmm, does this remind anyone of the water filters we made?” prompted Ms. Berg, who received many nodding heads in response. Most students opted for gravel, sand, then dirt; which was the correct order.

Mr. Botula explained that when you put these ideas together (grass, soil, gravel), you have a rain garden – a real-life filtration example that can be found all over the city!

The curious scholars were actively engaged and asked many questions. One asked, “How are rain gardens used as a filter for pollutants?” to which Mr. Botula clarified that they typically add species that remove nitrogen and phosphorous, and these plants also prevent trash from going into drains.

Another asked, “Can this project cause species to be reintroduced that may have left New York City?”

“Yes, we’re expanding or reintroducing options for animals,” he said. “For example, by the Bronx Zoo, there’s a dam. Fish used to move upstream to lay their eggs but they couldn’t get past. We’ve created a passage for them to go through.”

As their time together came to an end, Mr. Botula said, “My hope is to restore and preserve natural land, to make the city and water healthier. It’s important to take advantage of what we have and make the most of it.”

After an unmuted round of applause for their guest, Ms. Berg said, “We’ve made so many connections to what we’ve learned in class! Thank you!”