¡Dragado ya Caño Martín Peña!: Sustainable Community Restoration of the Martín Peña Canal

The Caño Martín Peña is a 3.5 mile long canal linking the San Juan Bay to the San Jose Lagoon. Initially an important channel to divert runoff and water from the lagoon into the ocean, the channel is now filled with sediment and trash, blocking the flow of water to the bay. During Puerto Rico’s period of rapid industrialization, rural migrants settled along the banks of this waterway, creating dense informal communities with little municipal infrastructure and severely limited access to city services. Currently, 30,000 inhabitants live in this under-served area that is often flooded with polluted waters. Today, we were welcomed into the communities of Buena Vista Santurce, Barrio Obrero Santurce, and Hato Rey through the ENLACE project, an innovative and highly integrated development project created by the Department of Transportation and Public Works to reduce tensions between the government project to ecologically restore this area as a TMZ (tidal marine zone) (Gaztambide-Arandes).  Compared to other government environmental restoration projects, the “Proyecto ENLACE del Cano Martin Pena” established a precedent of highly participatory planning, giving these communities a voice: “spaces for open dialogue, community development, and effective community decision-making” (Gaztambide-Arandes).

The community huerto, or garden, initiatives supported by ENLACE solve ecological, social, and economic issues caused by temporary vacant lots created during redevelopment. ENLACE’s approach is inspiring as their solutions are comprehensive, dynamic, and long-term. These community gardens not only serve an ecological function, but also as a structural function—gardens reduce run-off, promote urban biodiversity, but most importantly, these gardens turn “invisible” unwanted spaces “visible”. By giving structure to the space, gardens serve not only as an aesthetic improvement to the community, but also prevent pollution and illegal dumping. As we walked through these gardens, I admired each community’s resourcefulness, creativity, and character. I could not help but feel wistful learning that a few of these gardens were only temporary but realized that these gardens represented those who created them–a community is more than just the space itself, but the passion, resiliency and generosity of the people themselves. We were introduced to community leaders, such as Doña Ana, who welcomed us into her home to try delicious homemade limbel and Carlos, her son, who generously picked fresh tomatoes for us to taste.

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Policy and program implementation in communities is a tricky process, requiring a fine balance between what the objectives of the larger players hope to accomplish and what the communities aim to achieve. The ENLACE project an exemplary example of a sustainable, long-term policy that addresses the socioeconomic needs of the community through gentrification protection strategies (land trusts), financing and providing support micro-enterprises, and providing subsistence produce through the gardens (in the future, these may produce enough to be self-sustaining or bring in cashflow). They also encourage environmentalism through innovative environmental education strategies by promoting science education for students traditionally considered unsuitable for studies.This project may be as whole, an ecological development project, but has evolved into a holistic community development project engaging the vibrant communities they serve.

To tie this back to the theme of the first day at Atenas Pineapple, cooperation between private, public, and community stakeholders appear to be the key to successfully implementing policy solutions in Puerto Rico. Although these gardens may be transient, the seeds were already planted in the community supporting environmentalism, access to healthy produce, and a vision for a sustainable Caño Martín Peña.

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For more information on the ENLACE project, check out this write-up by the EPA, or visit their website to watch a short film.

This innovative, citizen-driven project is currently facing setbacks from a lack of funding and postponed approval for dredging. They need your help! Like them on Facebook and spread the word!

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