Eastie Panel Discusses Community Resiliency at New England Aquarium

November 7, 2018
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Last Thursday at the New England Aquarium, a panel of East Boston residents that run local nonprofits were invited to discuss how they are taking steps to engage diverse residents in activities that help foster community resilience in light of the climate change challenges.

Kannan Thiruvengadam of Eastie Farms, Magdalena Ayed, the founder of Harborkeepers and Alex DeFronzo, Piers Park Sailing Center’s Executive Director all took part in the free lecture at the Aquarium as part of the project called ‘Communities Advancing Science Literacy’.

The three panelists discussed why they do their work, how it is making a positive difference, and how more people can get involved to foster community resilience.

First up was Thiruvengadam. Thiruvengadam founded Eastie Farms which works to improve food access and community resilience by developing interactive urban agricultural spaces where residents of all ages and backgrounds learn to grow healthy, locally grown, culturally relevant foods.

Thiruvengadam discussed how through a grassroots community effort residents were able to transform a city-owned vacant lot on Sumner Street into a thriving urban oasis that uses organic growing methods as well as resiliency strategies to grow fresh produce in the neighborhood.

“The statement we are trying to make is that (this property) does not have to be a building but it can be greenspace, it can be open space,” said Thiruvengadam. “People need breathing room as well as a place to produce food and build community in that space. East Boston is lacking when it comes to open space and Eastie Farm is one such open space.”

Thiruvengadam discussed how the community worked to clean up the site that was contaminated with lead and other contaminants with new soil and began to look at ways to be resilient.

One such plan was helping the neighbors on either side of Eastie Farm on Sumner Street. Thiruvengadam explained how these neighbors were experiencing problems with storm water during heavy rains, a phenomenon that will increase as the climate warms. Thiruvengadam and Eastie Farms volunteers redirected both abutting properties’ downspouts onto the Eastie Farms’s property in order to gather rainwater. The rain water was collected in large barrels and then used to water the plants and veggies growing at Eastie Farms.

“The lot did not have city water so we had to improvise,” said Thiruvengadam. “The neighbors were suffering chronic water damage to their foundations from storm water and when there was too much rain they were having flooding because the water had no place to go. We turned that recaptured rainwater into something good and were able to grow vegetables. I like to call this ‘From Extreme Flood to Extreme Food’. We are going to have to deal with extreme precipitation in the future and one way to deal with that is to turn it into something good.”

Eastie Farms also incorporated composting on site, the repurposing of materials donated by businesses and neighbors and using organic growing methods all in an effort to be self sufficient as well as resilient.

Next, Ayed talked about her group the Harborkeepers, which helps build community resiliency and helps foster environmental stewardship through education, engagement, and advocacy.

Ayed said living in Eastie and surrounded by water she felt the need to not only address climate change through stewardship and education, but also getting community at large connected to the water through activities like kayaking and coastal cleanups.

“If you make community engagement accessible and fun you will have more community participation,” said Ayed. “One of the big ways we foster stewardship and reliancy is getting people out on the water and having people just spend time in or around the water learning about the coastal environment.”

Ayed argued that once people fall in love with their coastal environment, like she has, they will be more inclined to take ownership of Eastie’s shoreline and begin to get involved in resiliency and climate change efforts to protect the neighborhood from catastrophic flooding.

Lastly, DeFronzo, executive director of Piers Park Sailing Center, talked about his agency that offers 100 percent accessible recreational, educational, and personal growth opportunities for people of all ages and abilities in Boston Harbor.

DeFronzo said as an avid sailor since he’s been 11 years old, he has a different view of water not as a monster but something we are all going to have to learn to live with and respect as climate change becomes a reality.

“We think resiliency is really about the ability to adapt and change when you need to and to do that in a way that is climate conscience and you have to be comfortable in and around water,” said DeFronzo. “Since we have invested billions of dollars to clean up the Boston Harbor it is important to make sure people know how to exist safely with the Harbor and our oceans. There are going to be times when water comes into our neighborhoods, but we need to not only look at the water as something that divides us from other neighborhoods but something that connects us. That is a key component of the sailing center and what we teach. We try to teach our youth sailors and families that sea level rise and climate change is not necessarily a scary thing but something that we all are going to have to adapt to and feel comfortable around.”