Making Space for Nature in a Big Apple Way

I never thought I would say this, but I need to get a native plant guide for New York City. The expanding parks of the Big Apple are becoming a refuge for native flora. It is an exciting development in an unexpected place-one of the largest cities in the world. With 80% of Americans living in cities, suburbs and exburbs interacting with the natural world is increasingly difficult. As these human landscapes keep expanding they inevitably infringe upon rural and wild lands. Worldwide, there will be a projected 2 billion more of us by 2050 according to the United Nations, the majority (63%)  living in ever larger cities. Nature is being crowded out. If there is going to be a place for wild things on this planet than urban areas will need to make some room and New York City is doing just that.

It seems no matter where one walks in the Big Apple these days native gardens can be found. They are particularly prevalent in City parks such as the High Line on Manhattan’s west side and Brooklyn Bridge Park in its namesake borough. Winding through the west side of Manhattan, the High Line lies above the street on an old railroad grade. Native plantings line the narrow park creating a river of flowers along the meandering path during spring and summer.

Wildflowers along the Highline, NYC

In one stretch, the path enters a canopy of trees-a little forest above the street that is contributing to the City’s ambitious program to plant one million new trees by 2017. Begun in 2007, the City and its implementing partner, the New York Restoration Project (NYRP), have already planted over 430,000 trees, 20% ahead of schedule!

Patrons walk through a grove of trees along NYC's Highline Park. Patrons walk through a grove of trees along NYC’s High Line Park.

The new Brooklyn Bridge Park is a wonder of ecological restoration, or more correctly put, ecological creation. Filled with native trees and plants, the park, which is still under construction, features a wetland as well as a prominent hill filled with native trees. And this natural landscape is literally within the shadow of the famous bridge.

Space for nature has been created in the new wetlands of Brooklyn Bridge Park. Space for nature has been created in the new wetlands of Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Both parks also feature art. But this is not the staid statues of dead white males that are prominent in the parks of Frederick Olmsted like Central and Prospect Parks. These new park sculptures are having a conversation with the landscape, both natural and built, and thus a conversation with the visitors who come across them. And really, how could the art capital of the world not have art as a component of these natural places it is creating.

Playful sculptures are found along the Highline, contrasted here with art from the neighborhood's less glamorous past in the background. Playful sculptures are found along the Highline, contrasted here with art from the neighborhood’s less glamorous past in the background.
Oscar Tuzuan's Oscar Tuzuan’s “The Rain” in Brooklyn Bridge Park is a conversation between nature, the built environment and art.

As inspiring as Brooklyn Bridge Park and the High Line are, there are places far from the crowds of tourists that are perhaps more inspiring because they lack those advantages of visibility. On the very edge of eastern Queens, across the inlet from Great Neck where F. Scott Fiztgerald lived in the 1920’s  (and the town that West Egg of Great Gatsby fame was based), lies Fort Tottenwhere the NYC Park’s Natural Resources Group and its partner the Natural Areas Conservancy have planted fields of native plants, trees and shrubs amongst the historic structures of this Civil War military installation. Still active, the fort is a hybrid: an NYFD training facility, an Army Reserve base, a Coast Guard Station and, of course, a park

The landscape of this CIvil War Era fort has been naturalized. The landscape of this CIvil War Era fort has been naturalized.

The Natural Resources Group shares space with the Urban Field Station-a partnership between NYC Parks and the US Forest Service. Here in a former dormitory, scientists from an array of disciplines are providing the science that is helping to make space for nature in one of the world’s great cities. And the time for that is now. As the City grapples with how to manage climate change, green infrastructure will play an increasing role in mitigation actions. Trees and green roofs cool the streets and buildings, restored wetlands and dunes absorb some of the surges that storms such as Sandy will increasingly throw at the City’s 520 miles (837 km) of coastline.  The benefits are already proven. But they are more than just mitigation strategies. These efforts make New York a better place to live for both people and nature. And Fort Totten Park is not the only place where nature is finding a place in the City.

In Upper Manhattan, across the Harlem River from the Bronx, a truly miraculous open space has been wrestled from the collective neglect of decades. It even comes with an evocative name-Swindler Cove(alas further research revealed that Swindler is the last name of a benefactor, not a story of nefarious activities in a remote Manhattan cove that I was hoping it would be). Nevertheless, the surprise at Swindler Cove and adjacent Sherman Creek Park, is not in a name but how beautiful this little spot on the Harlem River has been restored. As you cross Dyckman Street you enter a path lined with wildflowers across from a new primary school (PS5). Walking through an entrance gate you are treated to a small pond straight ahead, and a children’s garden on your right.

Swindler Cove features a freshwater pond lined by wetland flora providing habitat for NYC's wild things. Swindler Cove features a freshwater pond lined by wetland flora providing habitat for NYC’s wild things.

The garden is tended by students from the neighboring school, Boys and Girls Clubs and others. In this garden children grow food that helps them connect with nature while they tend to crops that benefit their families. Simply learning that these items don’t grow on grocery shelves is, in itself, worth the effort. The people behind the garden and Swindler Cove have been at the forefront of urban gardening in New York for years—the New York Restoration Project.

Colorful signs made by the gardeners personalize these vegetable plots. Colorful signs made by the gardeners personalize these vegetable plots.

Exploring further there are trails lined with native wildflowers and a restored salt water marsh, (Manhattan’s only salt marsh!). Peaking through the tree canopy (remember those million trees the City is planting), is the boat house. Connecting kids to nature includes connecting them to the water that surrounds them (Manhattan is an island after all). And this would not, could not, have happened decades ago, because the Harlem River, along with many of New York City’s waterways, was so foul, no one would dare go near it for the smell, let alone venture on it in a rowboat, kayak or canoe. But the clean water act and deindustrialization have made the City’s waterways cleaner. Cormorants, egrets and other water fowl are common sights these days. Harbor seals have returned to Jamaica Bay and people are able to venture out on the water. And thanks to NYRP boat houses are not just found in the tonier neighborhoods, there’s one in upper Manhattan too.

Reconnecting the neighborhood to the water is one of the primary reasons the Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse was built.

Here, too, art is found, and, like the art found on the Highline and Brooklyn Bridge Park, it also is having a conversation with its surroundings. Part of the  the Ephemeral Art Project, Erin Turner’s In the Eye of the Storm: A Tornado Installation is suspended . The work reminds me of birds nests that incorporate the tiny refuse of people-a kind of avian recycling above the path adjacent to Swindler Cove connecting Sherman Creek and Highbridge Parks.

Erin Turner's Erin Turner’s “In the Eye of the Storm: A Tornado Installation” is both playful and provocative.

One of the sweetest surprises in this little park is its housing. Not for people, but for animals. Remember, if nature is to have a chance, we have to make room for it in our increasingly urbanized world. But, where can a respectable animal find an apartment in New York City, people have a hard enough time?! Here at Swindler Cove some lucky bats, owls, martins and wood ducks have been provided suitable housing rent free courtesy of the Los Angeles artist Fritz Haeg. His Animal Estates creates a conversation between native animals, the landscape and people in both a beautiful and practical way.

Part of Friz Haeg's art installation, Part of Friz Haeg’s art installation, “Animal Estates”, this shelter welcomes tenants who prefer the night life: Big Brown Bats
This Purple Martin This Purple Martin “Condo” is both an art installation and habitat restoration, one of Fritz Haeg’s “Animal Estates” at Swindler Cove

New York is not the only city to embrace its natural past, but it has arguably taken the lead, and it is doing it in typical New York fashion, bigger and more grandly. So, whether you live in the City and are heading out for a stroll in your neighborhood park, or you’re visiting from afar, don’t forget the field guides and binoculars –you might be surprised to discover the wildness that lays at the core of the Big Apple.

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