We stepped into a teetering rowboat on Central Park Lake on Saturday afternoon, the pistachio-hued water complementing the verdant landscape. As we navigated the curving waterway, a linen-clad couple declared their affection in the shade of a willow tree. An elderly gentleman skipped his oars across the water with expert precision, the rapid movement of his arms seeming to match the intensity of his thoughts. We bumped into a few rock walls and low-lying branches as we stopped to observe a family of sunbathing turtles, but let’s chalk that bit of awkwardness up to environmental curiosity.
Our weekend excursion reminded us of the value of water recreation—and of the need for clean water, which makes it possible. Local waterways provide a space for swimming, boating, fishing, and many other activities that can improve physical and mental health. Indeed, as we rowed past lakeside weddings, ripe berries, and adorned bridges, our minds relaxed even as our muscles tensed. We basked in the pastoral bliss while still admiring the proud New York skyline, and as dozens of tourists snapped photos from the Bow Bridge and the Bethesda Terrace, we felt like we were posing for a Seurat painting of middle-class leisure.
Still, something wasn’t quite right with this picture.
Alongside the Central Park Lake is the Bethesda Fountain, a beautiful sculpture that depicts the arrival of clean drinking water in New York City in the 1800s. But while the city now boasts some of the cleanest drinking water in the world, it certainly could not build a statue to celebrate the health of its waterways. Many of New York’s rivers and streams suffer from high concentrations of sewage, industrial waste, and trash.
Engaging with the water is particularly unsafe in low-income neighborhoods, where waterways are more likely to be surrounded by abandoned factories and other brownfield sites. Last year, for instance, we kayaked down the Bronx River, careful not to splash sludge on ourselves as we moved past the industrial plants and graffiti-covered buildings along the water. It was no wonder, we realized, that most New Yorkers have no interest in water recreation.
Even the Central Park Lake—which receives millions of guests each year and has a team of dedicated caretakers—has its problems. The color of the murky water might match the lakeside scenery, but it’s indicative of blue-green algae blooms, which can lead to oxygen depletion. The algae likely forms when excess fertilizer from the surrounding landscape enters the water, over-saturating it with nitrogen and other nutrients in a process known as eutrophication.
These algae blooms might not be as dangerous as pollution, but signs around the lake warn against swimming in or drinking the water due to the algae. The water might be clean enough to boat in, but it’s still not clean enough for swimming or fishing, and ecosystem health is a concern.
Imagine a world in which we could truly engage with our urban waterways, without having to worry about pollutants, or algae, or the impact on our wallets. (An hour of boating in Central Park costs $12.) A successful urban center should be one in which residents feel comfortable drinking not only from their taps, but also from their rivers.
When we achieve that, it will be a big step forward—not only for clean water and ecosystem health, but also for physical and mental wellness in our cities.