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FALL 2011
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Around the Quad

CALS in the City

Uptown, downtown, and in between, CALS is helping to develop a different kind of apple—The Big Apple

By Molly Cronin ’11

Gansevoort Street Project

A Gansevoort Street Project rendering by Nick Parilli (Cornell), Wang Qi (SJTU), Xie Yuxi Sissi (SJTU), and Yang Hanzi (Cornell)

SJTU student group

The Cornell and SJTU student group

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences knows a thing or two about developing apples—66 varieties at last count—so it should be no surprise that CALS is on the ground in New York City helping the Big Red make a big mark in the big city.

From the Bronx to Battery Park and beyond, CALS specialists are improving the lives of millions of New York City dwellers by improving livability and sustainability. Here, we take a look at just some of their varied contributions.

High Aspirations Along the High Line

Suspended above the West Side, snaking its way along disused freight railway tracks through the Meatpacking District to Hell’s Kitchen, the High Line Park has helped transform a once gritty area of New York City into a quirky urban oasis.

Thanks to a unique cross-cultural collaboration, Cornell landscape architecture students and their Chinese counterparts from Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) may be able to make their mark as part of the park’s Gansevoort Street Project.

Students from the two institutions convened this summer, charged with the challenge of designing an aesthetically and environmentally innovative crossing to connect the High Line to an area where pedestrian safety is a very real concern, as drivers try to navigate the abrupt change from a straightforward grid street pattern to diagonals and the Henry Hudson Parkway.

The nine participating graduate and undergraduate Cornell students met nine SJTU third- and fourth-year undergraduates in the city, assessed the site, then headed back to Ithaca to draw up plans.

They came up with some conceptual ideas as well as more detailed concepts for continuing the past industrial aesthetic from the High

Line down to street level and creating raised seating areas in the plaza at Gansevoort Street and 14th Street to separate pedestrians from traffic. And they decided to go green with all of them, says Kathryn Gleason ’79, associate professor of landscape architecture.

“All of the schemes considered storm water run-off, permeable paving, and other green infrastructure,” she says.

The complete plans, which may serve as inspiration for the landscape architecture company eventually hired to complete the project, have been submitted to the New York City Department of Transportation for review as the City considers next steps for implementations in the Meatpacking District.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A tree grows in Brooklyn…and the Bronx... and Manhattan...and about a million places around the city, thanks in part to Cornell horticulturists.

Professor Nina Bassuk ’74 and many of her colleagues in the departments of Horticulture and Natural Resources have been working closely with New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation for years, to plant trees in several areas.

Bassuk first got involved in 1997, when the city contacted her about using the innovative CU-Structural Soil™ she had developed along with her former graduate student Jason Grabosky MS ’96, PhD ’99 crop and soil science professor Harold Van Es, and Lynne Irwin, of the Local Roads Program in Biological and Environmental Engineering. The special blend can be packed very densely to support the pavement laid above it, yet still allow tree roots to spread beyond the small section of soil in which they are planted.

Bassuk’s bond with the urban environment goes back much further.

“Growing up in Brooklyn, propagating plants was my hobby. I had a real appreciation of the trees on my block,” says Bassuk. “When I did my undergraduate work at Cornell, I loved my woody plant identification courses, and trees became my special interest.”

She is now involved in MillionTreesNYC, a 10-year initiative to plant a million trees across New York’s five boroughs. Extension specialist Keith Tidball is helping to lead the research effort, which involves nearly 100 researchers and practitioners, in partnership with the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

Bassuk will bring her passion for urban trees to the public in December in a lecture at the 92nd Street Y, as part of a “Changing Earth” series co-sponsored by Cornell Plantations, which will also feature a talk by Plantations Director Don Rakow MPS ’77, PhD ’87, about the importance of gardens in community parks.

Shorna Broussard Allred, associate professor of natural resources, and extension associate Gretchen Ferenz also educate residents in Jamaica, Queens, and Canarsie, Brooklyn, about the importance of trees as part of the Urban Forestry Community Engagement project.

“After gaining input from residents, we are now educating them so they are able to be stewards of their urban trees and the broader environment, with the expectation they will take this knowledge and make tangible changes in their communities over the long term,” Ferenz says. “This is a model of research and extension working together to address a real-world need.”

New York City landmarks including Yankee Stadium and Lincoln Center also have Cornell to thank for their latest lush green looks—turf specialist Frank Rossi PhD ’92 helped design sustainable grass installations at both venues.

An Appetite for Change

Residents of low-income communities in urban areas often lack easy access to healthy foods. For Miguel Gomez, assistant professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, that challenge has led to his involvement in a project to improve access to fresh foods in 10 urban and rural Northeast communities. Funded by the USDA, researchers at 10 institutions will study not only access, but also supply, with a focus on regional production and distribution. First steps include developing relationships with store owners and community leaders to identify the key barriers to a healthy food supply, and setting up interviews to understand supply chains and consumer behaviors.

“The goal in the five-year project is to increase consumption and availability of healthy foods and therefore increase the health of children, adults, and elderly in these communities,” Gomez says.

Some of that production may very well come from the boroughs, if attendance at Rob Ralyea’s MS ’98 workshops are any indication. The senior extension associate in the Department of Food Science travels around the state offering advice to those who want to start small dairy processing plants, such as ice cream shops. A workshop held in Brooklyn last spring generated a lot of interest, he says.

“Being armed with information helps those who start a business do it right the first time and helps bolster the dairy industry in New York,” Ralyea adds.

From local production to global outreach, CALS is working with the United Nations to solve global food issues. Cornell has housed the United Nations University Food and Nutrition Programme for Human and Social Development (UNU-FNP) since 1986. Patrick Stover, director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences, serves as director of the UNU-FNP.

Also, Cornell recently partnered with UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund. Currently underway is a project that uses existing distance education infrastructure from Cornell NutritionWorks to provide training for UNICEF nutrition field staff on infant and young child feeding procedures. The course, “Programming for Infant and Young Child Feeding” will include concepts on optimal breastfeeding, complementary feeding and infant and young child nutrition in emergencies and in the context of HIV/AIDS, explains Stover.

Getting Their Hands Dirty

When it comes to producing healthy food, an increasing amount of New Yorkers prefer to do it themselves. An estimated 1,000 community gardens have cropped up across the city, and many Brooklynites are participating in the Farmer Field School program spearheaded by horticulture graduate student Megan Gregory.

A concept she picked up while a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador in its Agroforestry and Environmental Education program, the Farmer Field School methodology encourages residents to try environmentally friendly gardening practices together.

This season’s experiment involved using cover crops to enrich the soil and discourage weed growth. Participants at 10 community gardens, three backyard gardens, and youth farms in Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York planted crimson clover, wheat, and hairy vetch, a soil-improving legume. They experimented with different combinations and recorded the results, which will be shared in both English and Spanish on a bilingual website.

“When they are well-facilitated and supported, Farmer Field Schools can build farmers’ and gardeners’ understanding of ecological processes in agriculture, and their capacity for problem-solving and innovation,” Gregory says. “This is especially important in cities, where farmers and gardeners must adapt traditional agricultural practices to overcome the challenges of growing food in an urban setting.”

But before they dig too deeply, they should be sure the soil is safe. Urban soils often contain contaminants such as lead and other heavy metals that can harm human health, and gardening can increase exposure through incidental soil ingestion, inhalation, and crop consumption.

Since the founding of Cornell’s Healthy Soils, Healthy Communities project in 2009, extension specialists, faculty, and students from the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Cornell Cooperative Extension, the New York State Department of Health, and community partner GreenThumb have tested the soil of 75 community gardens in all five boroughs for contaminants and other properties, according to extension specialist Hannah Shayler MS ’08. Drawing on their soil remediation research, the group then educates the public and helps develop strategies to manage any contamination and reduce risks.

“Urban community gardens certainly present interesting challenges because gardens are all so unique and different,” Shayler says. “It’s very important to us to continue to involve New York City gardeners in our research and development of educational programs to promote best practices for healthy gardening.”

Ingrid Biedro
Credit: Nicole Nihnovets, NYSDEC

Whale researcher Ingrid Biedron in New York harbor with Marine Autonomous Recording Units affectionately called “Pop-ups.”

Thar She Blows!

When acoustical traps were laid in New York City waters in 2008, researchers with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bioacoustics Research Program, initially funded by New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, were surprised to hear not only the 20-minute serenades of six species of whales, but a cacophony of other fish.

“Black drum fish lit up the night with their choruses. Males were out there singing their hearts out: ‘Hey Baby! Hey Baby! Hey Baby!’” says Chris Clark, director of the Bioacoustics Research Program. “There’s a cornucopia of life 10 miles off the Verrazano Bridge. It’s mind-boggling!”

Senior extension educator Chris Pickerell ’93 also spends many of his days in the waters of Long Island Sound—wearing a wetsuit and SCUBA gear. Pickerell leads the Eelgrass Restoration Program.

A critical habitat for many fish and shellfish in Long Island Sound, including bay scallops, striped bass, seahorses, and pipefish, eelgrass meadows also help prevent shoreline erosion and keep near-shore waters clear of fine sediments, he says.

Once home to extensive eelgrass meadows, the growth in Long Island Sound was wiped out in the early 1930s by a slime mold epidemic called the “wasting disease,” and recovery has been slowed by shoreline development and dredging.

Pickerell hopes to reverse this trend, by enlisting community volunteers who weave eelgrass shoots into burlap disks, a transplanting method that he developed over the last five years. The success of the program has gained national and international attention, with Pickerell now consulting for others who wish to replicate his efforts along both U.S. coasts as well as in Europe.

Matt Hare, associate professor of natural resources, also works in Long Island Sound, to study its surf clam population, which has turned out to be different than anyone expected.

Not only does the major harvesting area contain a well-known northern variety (S.s. solidissima), but also a relative from the south (S.s. similis). The discovery, made last year, may impact the clamming industry in the Long Island Sound, particularly in estimating sustainable yields. Hare is now trying to figure out how and when the warm-weather clam arrived, whether the two subspecies are hybridizing in the temperate waters that they share, and if there are other hidden populations of S.s. similis in southern New England.

When Bed Bugs (& Other Pests) Bite

The time is rapidly approaching when every New York City resident will have had at least one encounter with a bed bug. Luckily, Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann PhD ’99 is on the case.

Cornell’s urban entomologist has been busy fielding calls from concerned citizens, business owners, and officials about the pesky critters that have invaded the city. She was one of 20 experts who helped develop guidelines for New York City, which include a bed bug task force and a broad education campaign. Together with her colleagues at the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program—which also runs a project targeting multi-occupancy apartment complexes—Gangloff-Kaufmann is waging an all-out information assault in an attempt to battle the bug.

“Awareness is prevention, prevention is the cure,” she says.

Meanwhile, wildlife expert Paul Curtis has his own campaign to reduce conflicts between city dwellers and the critters that have been moving into their urban jungle in growing numbers recently: coyotes, deer, raccoons, and geese.

He is in the midst of a five-year study of coyote ecology and behavior to look at changes in both coyote and human behavior.

“These animals can flourish in urban parks and green spaces, including areas such as Central Park,” Curtis says. “People will need to find ways to coexist with urban wildlife to minimize potential conflicts and concerns.”

Other city creatures have proven to be excellent educational tools for first-graders at P.S. 228 in Queens. By participating in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Celebrate Urban Birds project, the pint-sized citizen scientists discovered they have a lot in common with birds, needing the same things to survive: air, water, food, and shelter.

Students put feeders in trees to bring sparrows and pigeons in closer. They watched and counted the birds for several weeks and reported what they saw online to the Cornell Lab, providing data for studies about how birds survive in cities.

In a landscape of brick and pavement, teachers at the magnet school for the arts used the project to spark student curiosity about nature.

“We believe that when children watch birds, then draw or paint them, they are engaging and observing on a deep level, gaining appreciation for city wildlife they may not have noticed before,” says project leader Karen Purcell ’87.

“In addition to our playground observations, students also watched birds at home and even their parents became citizen scientists,” says first-grade teacher Belkis Parache. “They were fascinated with the new birds they found and so excited to learn the names of the birds they were seeing!”

 Rooftop Farm
Photo credit: Alex Kudryavtsev.

Carol Kennedy, a high school teacher at Arturo A. Schomburg Satellite Academy High School in the Bronx, NY, brought her students this summer to the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn, New York, as part of an exploration of the urban environment.

Students of Sustainability

For students at the Food and Finance High School in Manhattan’s Midtown West neighborhood, growing hydroponic lettuce and herbs and raising tilapia are both part of the curriculum and a means by which they are making their own community sustainable. The school, which focuses on culinary arts and hospitality-oriented finance, opened in the fall of 2004, and Cornell Cooperative Extension–New York City (CCE–NYC) was involved early on because of Cornell’s hydroponics and aquaponics expertise. Not only is produce grown in the labs an integral part of the school’s science curriculum, it also supplies school lunches, according to Don Tobias, executive director of CCE-NYC.

CUCE Rooftop Labs

A New York City Department of Education (NYDOE) official and an NYCDOE Intern observe a hydroponic plant’s root system with Philson A.A. Warner at the Cornell University Cooperative Extension (CUCE) Nutrient Drip Flow Technique Hydroponics SECA Cell at the CUCE Rooftop Labs.

This summer, CCE-NYC also began planning for a greenhouse on the school’s roof, with the intent to open a small retail operation where students will sell the crops to members of the local community, he says.

And CCE is taking part in a $1 million USDA initiative to strengthen school garden networks in 57 sites across the country. Programming to educate youth gardeners—including the creation of on-site gardens—will begin this spring at 21 schools across New York, with four in New York City. The project hopes to promote sustainability and increase access to and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables by elementary school children. It will also measure their physical activity, time spent outdoors, and ecological literacy. Through the Civic Ecology Lab, natural resources Ph.D. student Alex Kudryavstev works with several community-based non-governmental organizations in the Bronx – including The Bronx River Alliance, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, and Rocking the Boat – to engage teens in environmental stewardship projects, including the restoration of urban forests, parks, riparian (where land meets a river or stream) habitats, and oyster reefs along the lower eight-mile section of the Bronx River. He also captures stories from the students and other educators and shares them on a blog and website (

And low-income minority high school juniors from Manhattan’s Lower East Side got an opportunity to pursue original environmental research this past year, thanks to a collaboration between the Henry Street Settlement and CCE–NYC’s Family and Youth Development program. College Achievement through Urban Science Exploration (CAUSE) brought students to Ithaca for a three-week summer college program, in which they worked with Cornell students on research projects and visited local areas of environmental interest.

From soil to surf, from treetops to rooftops, CALS’ commitment to creating an ecologically healthy and livable New York City will forever remain elemental to the university’s land grant mission of serving the people of New York and supporting economic and community vitality throughout the state.