15 IRL Ways to Combat Climate Change in NYC

Volunteer opportunities and climate-focused cultural events across all five boroughs for Earth Day and beyond.

When Earth Day first debuted on April 22, 1970, New York City’s then-mayor had already established the first civic-based Environmental Protection Administration in 1968. Since then, NYC has launched a series of ambitious climate change policies (especially in the last two decades)—including a goal of sending zero-waste to landfills by 2030; setting targets like carbon-free electricity by 2040 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050; and passing legislation that requires all new developments to incorporate solar panels and green spaces.

While there have been definite setbacks (including COVID-19 of course), NYC retains an abundance of fiercely dedicated community organizations wholly focused on mitigating the effects of the climate crisis.

This year, to take advantage of the spring weather (especially for a good cause) and the newly-vaccinated freedom for some, we offer 15 opportunities for hands-on volunteering and IRL ways to support the 51st anniversary of Earth Day. From events, programming, and pop-ups hosted by organizations across all five boroughs, here are some ways to help make a difference.

New York City Department of Parks & Recreation
New York City Department of Parks & Recreation

Help cultivate 30,000+ acres of city parks all month long 

NYC’s Department of Parks & Recreation oversees over 30,000 acres of the city, including millions of trees (literally), almost 1,000 playgrounds, 800 athletic fields, thousands of athletic courts, plus beaches, pools, nature centers, and more. 

In recognition of the 2021 theme, Restore our Earth, NYC Parks has a whole slew of activities throughout April (and beyond) to celebrate Earth Day: including a historic walking tour at Conference House Park (Staten Island) on April 17; a plant learning session at Ecology Park (Brooklyn) with Urban Park Rangers on April 18; green infrastructure maintenance and litter collection at Burke Bridge (Bronx) on April 21; tree-planting at Idlewood Park (Queens) and litter clean-up at Baywater Park (Queens) on April 22; and an Arbor Day tree planting event and garden tour on Randall’s Island (Manhattan) on April 30.

Visit a pop-up series inspiring climate action through art

EcoArt Project, a nonprofit that utilizes powerful artistic expression to address the climate crisis, has reimagined dormant storefronts around NYC as pop-up art spaces. They’ve also published books, held numerous salons and exhibitions, and showcased the collective works of over 1,300 artists across 30 countries since launching in Italy in 2009.

To celebrate Earth Day this year, EcoArt Project relaunched its Rebound NYC pop-up series—in partnership with fellow nonprofit Chashama which supports artist advocacy—commissioning five artists to create original pieces which speak to the delicate state of the planet and the hope of a sustainable future. The art will be showcased as a series of curated installations between April 15-27 at 7 East 14th Street.

Local activist, Grace Young

Beautify Chinatown while supporting the Asian-American community

Chinatown in Downtown Manhattan has been home to a robust Chinese community since the 1800s, and while the recent spate of anti-Asian attacks continues to rise, NYC citizens are now joining forces to protect their beloved community while local activists like Grace Young continue to champion the area as an essential cultural and economic pillar of the city.

On April 17, Taiwanese American Professionals New York is partnering with the Chinatown Business Improvement District for an event to spruce up Chinatown—from planting flowers and cleaning up its sidewalks to painting over graffiti. Afterwards, help support the historic neighborhood by eating at one of its restaurants or shopping at its many small businesses. 

Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden
Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden

Immerse yourself in a Staten Island botanical haven

Back in the 1970s, artists and activists came together to convince the City of New York to purchase the property that, today, has become the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden. Today, it’s a thriving cultural resource for the public—featuring 14 botanical gardens (including a Chinese Scholar’s Garden and a Tuscan Garden, inspired by a 18th century garden in Florence); one of the city’s oldest concert halls; and buildings showcasing classic architecture (which host art and history exhibitions).

On April 17, Snug Harbor hosts its annual Earth Day cleanup event—learn what goes into maintaining this incredible natural enclave and arts center, assist the team with clean up efforts to keep its grounds pristine, and get insights into green career opportunities.

Try your hand at a garlic mustard pull

At nearly 1,150 acres, Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx is the third largest NYC park. Over half of its acreage (forests, wetlands, and meadows) is protected in the help of The Forever Wild Program, an initiative that launched in partnership with NYC Parks to protect the city’s most ecologically prized land. 

On April 17, the Van Cortlandt Park Alliance is hosting a community event—Spring Planting and Garlic Mustard Pull—to plant shrubs and trees in the park’s forestland, as well as removing the herbaceous garlic mustard species (which have proven harmful as to the park’s native plants).

Lower East Side Ecology Center
Lower East Side Ecology Center

Learn how NYC will reach zero-waste

With daily compost drop-off sites set up all over the city (Union Square to East Broadway and beyond), the East River Compost Yard is a one-acre compost center housed in the East River Park system, which has spearheaded urban sustainability programs since the late 1980s. Annually, the compost center takes in over one million pounds of organic waste each year–sourced from chipped park waste, drop-off sites, and woodshops. 

On April 22, they’ll open up their compost yard doors for members of the public to learn all about how food waste transforms into nutrient-rich compost and how it’s essential to ensuring that NYC reaches its 2030 goal of having zero-waste sent to landfills.

The Queens County Farm Museum
The Queens County Farm Museum

Partake in Bee-A-Pollinator Service Day

Dating back more than three centuries, the 47-acre Queens County Farm (currently on the National Register of Historic Places) resides on NYC’s largest plot of self-contained farmland. Based in Floral Park, it comprises a greenhouse complex, planting fields, an orchard and herb garden, and historic farm buildings.

On April 22, visit the farm for Bee-A-Pollinator Earth Day Service Day, to clean up the property, take an apiary walk with an NYC beekeeper, experience a self-guided nature scavenger hunt, and learn about composting.

Amp up your gardening skills 

What began as a garden society exhibit over five acres is now a thriving botanical center in Flushing. The Queens Botanical Garden, home to an urban forest of 800 trees (from crabapple to gingko biloba), refreshed its master plan in 2020 to support a holistic urban vision of connecting the water, culture, and environment through garden expression.

On April 22, the Queens Botanical Garden hosts its Horticulture Volunteer Day, inviting the community to learn the basics of gardening and take part in a variety of seasonal projects, including getting hands-on skills working with plants, weeding, pruning, mulching, and planting.

Help restore salt marshes and woodlands 

Almost three decades after its formation, the Randall’s Island Park Alliance has helped transform the island—nestled between the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens— into a sports and recreation hub (60 athletic fields, state-of-the-art track and field center, and 20 tennis courts) and a natural wildlife destination, by restoring wetlands to improve water quality, protecting wildlife inhabitants, and growing produce through RIPA’s Urban Farm.

On April 22, take part in its woodland restoration project by mulching the woodland path to protect its local wildlife (currently home to 130+ species of birds and 15 species of fish); take a garden tour with the horticulture team; and restore native plants to the salt marshes, which are crucial natural barriers that offer protection against climate change.

The Horticultural Society of New York
The Horticultural Society of New York

Head uptown for an all-day Harlem Earth Day fest

On April 24, Harlem’s all day Earth Day fest will feature a series of events as part of a community initiative to support local businesses in the area. 

The day kicks off with a one-hour tour of the greenhouse and garden of The Horticulture Society of New York (affectionately known as The Hort); then have an elevated gastro lunch at the pop-up Hamilton Hall; take part in the clothing swap at Children’s Art Carnival, launched in 1969 by a Harlem artist in conjunction with MOMA; and finally a Harlem plant swap at the Dorothy McGowan Garden, which offers community programming on cultural food histories, sustainable gardening and composting, and healthy living practices.

Watch a pop-up performance from an eco-conscious dance company

Launched over a quarter century ago, Artichoke Dance Company (named as a metaphor for the multi-layered textures of their work) has become recognized for their spirited performances centred around environmental activision, community building, and civic engagement. 

On April 24, watch their series of pop-up performances for Earth Day at Albee Square as part of a collaboration with Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. Earlier that week, they’ll also host a live performance at Battery Park in Manhattan on April 20.

Take part in a Bronx community plant swap

Bronx-based cafe, restaurant, and catering spot, Mottley Kitchen, serves up healthy breakfasts and lunches, with a variety of vegan and vegetarian dishes as well. As an active part of the community, they also regularly host events like rooftop film nights, yoga sessions, and pop-up book readings for kids in the neighborhood.

On April 24, Mottley celebrates Earth Day with a community plant swap atop their recently renovated rooftop garden, where visitors are encouraged to swap all the garden-related goods–plants, clippings, bulbs, seeds, soil, and gardening tools, all are welcome.

Fort Greene Park
Fort Greene Park

Create landscape art in Brooklyn

Walt Whitman is credited with persuading Brooklyn to designate Fort Greene as its first official park in the late 1840s. Since then, this 30-acre downtown parkland has seen a local community of almost 200,000 residents enjoy its green acreage of open fields, rolling hills, and playgrounds. 

On April 24, the Fort Greene Park Conservancy holds its annual Earth Day event—where locals can volunteer to clean up the park, create landscape art with the Ephemeral Landscapes Art project (a collective of artists and park goers), learn about the sustainable initiatives being deployed at the park, and get intel on the Fort Greene Young Naturalists program.

Embark on a nature walk through NYC’s largest public park

At more than 2,700 acres, the Bronx’s Pelham Bay Park is the largest public park in NYC. For almost 30 years, the Friends of Pelham Bay Park have worked to sustain the park’s native biodiversity, create a sensory garden for special needs children, and sponsor community events

This year, for the first time, they’re raising funds to hire two seasonal staff members to support the park’s needs. On April 25, they’ll hold EarthFest to clean up the park in socially-distanced groups and host a series of nature walks, featuring a local historian and member of the NYC Park Rangers.

Hudson River Park
Hudson River Park

Participate in the 10th Annual Riverkeeper Sweep 

The Hudson River Park Trust (established in 1998) was set up to ensure a public park and sanctuary was built, designed, and operated along the Manhattan shoreline. The River Project maintains the 400-acre estuarine sanctuary, centering its efforts around fish ecology, shoreline debris, pathogens, microplastics, and water quality.

On April 30, the trust is holding its annual day of service in a shoreline cleanup of the Hudson River tributaries, as well as a tree planting project. On May 1, the 10th annual Riverkeeper Sweep extends to 125 project sites across the state of New York, from Brooklyn to the Adirondacks. Since its inception, Riverkeeper volunteers have serviced hundreds of miles of shoreline and removed nearly 300 tons of debris.

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Swathi Reddy is a contributor for Thrillist.