Mariellé Anzelone

There are few places in Amer­i­ca where you can you lose your­self in a shad­ed forest teem­ing with hun­dreds of diverse species, take a twen­ty-min­ute break to enjoy chicharos and empanadas at a Mex­i­can bode­ga, and then return to the wilder­ness to fin­ish your hike. That is exact­ly what we did on a Thurs­day after­noon last fall with urban ecol­o­gist Mariel­lé Anzelone.

Mariel­lé walked us through Inwood Hill Park at the north­ern tip of Man­hat­tan. Along the way we touched white wood aster, witch-hazel, and shade-tol­er­ant species of gold­en­rod as she iden­ti­fied the plants. Inwood Hill Park is decid­ed­ly urban – over­head, planes momen­tar­i­ly drowned out Mariellé’s expla­na­tion of earth­worms’ neg­a­tive impact on forest soils and the sound of fall leaves crunch­ing under­foot, while truss­es of the Hen­ry Hud­son Bridge just became vis­i­ble through the shed­ding branch­es of oak trees. How­ev­er, after hik­ing ten min­utes into the woods, it real­ly felt like a depar­ture from the city. This is a feel­ing that Mariel­lé is attempt­ing to bring to a wider pop­u­la­tion of New York­ers, a feel­ing she hopes will encour­age peo­ple to rethink the way we aim to ‘green’ NYC.

What exact­ly does con­ser­va­tion mean in an urban envi­ron­ment like New York City’s?

Peo­ple imag­ine that urban ecol­o­gy is start­ing with a clean slate. They think nature must be “designed in” because no pre­ex­ist­ing part of a city’s land­scape still exists. That’s not true; one-eighth of New York City is com­prised of nat­u­ral areas. The issue is that nature is com­plex — the def­i­n­i­tion of “nat­u­ral” and the meth­ods for mea­sur­ing it are less than explic­it. It’s much eas­ier to pro­tect things in situ than it is to restore or cre­ate nat­u­ral spaces from scratch.

Mon­ey is abun­dant for restora­tion and inter­ven­tion projects, for bring­ing land­scap­ing into urban sites. There are great “before and after” pic­tures. Peo­ple love the High Line, and I do as well. It’s nature in the city. But, it’s a gussied-up nature for peo­ple to imbibe and digest. It takes people’s atten­tion away from the nat­u­ral spaces. When a land­scape is designed, it is always dumb­ed down and sim­pli­fied nature — you get nowhere near the com­plex­i­ty of a nat­u­ral sys­tem in a built park.  It’s com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent from a genet­ic stand­point.

It’s much eas­ier to pro­tect nature than it is to re-cre­ate nat­u­ral spaces from scratch.

To many peo­ple, nature in NYC is usu­al­ly about build­ing more parks. For you, what is the dif­fer­ence between build­ing more parks and pro­tect­ing exist­ing nat­u­ral spaces?

It may not make a dif­fer­ence from an “admi­ra­tion stand­point,” but you don’t see this rich­ness of flo­ra in con­trived land­scapes. I’m real­ly pas­sion­ate about plant con­ser­va­tion and I want to know what we’re los­ing and what’s rare. To me, that’s inform­ing man­age­ment: How we are fail­ing the­se plants and how can we redress that?

See­ing cer­tain plants also speaks to some­thing. For exam­ple, see­ing that low bush blue­ber­ry ear­lier told me that the soil is low pH and most­ly undis­turbed. There are myc­or­rhizae that grow with blue­ber­ry, which is this inti­mate fun­gal rela­tion­ship that they have along their roots and it helps them to uptake more nutri­ents from the soil.

And that lev­el of com­plex­i­ty is what’s lack­ing in a man­i­cured park or green space?

Yes. A long-term, sus­tained, man­i­cured land­scape relies on con­stant human input. Soils are so com­plex. When you see a place being devel­oped and you see all that native top­soil that has evolved here over 20,000 years being removed… it’s heart­break­ing, if only to me.

 Oth­er peo­ple may be sat­is­fied walk­ing through spaces like the High Line. The High Line is won­der­ful, but to not have sort of unknown places like Inwood Hill Park where we can dis­cov­er and explore would be real­ly unfor­tu­nate.

Let’s say we lose the­se places that have been rel­a­tive­ly untouched, we lose the com­plex­i­ty found in the­se places. What’s the impact?

Remem­ber the Red Admi­ral but­ter­fly that we saw while we were walk­ing around? It’s a migra­to­ry species, and puls­es of them flock through here. The same with a lot of bird species.

Large nat­u­ral spaces provide many dif­fer­ent lev­els of habi­tat for a vari­ety of species. Poi­son ivy, for exam­ple, is one of the first plants to turn bright red in the fall — the thought is that the­se plants have real­ly valu­able fruit, and they want to adver­tise their fruit to the birds that are pass­ing en masse.

So that they will eat the berries and spread the seeds?

Exact­ly, and since birds can’t see the dark blue of the berries, but they can see red, it’s a way to adver­tise that there is some­thing of inter­est down here. So the­se high-fat berries for­ti­fy the birds for their migra­to­ry flight, and since they dis­perse the berry seeds by eat­ing them, the plants also win. Who designs for that? When you lose spaces like this, you just lose all of that.

What do you do as an urban ecol­o­gist in New York City?

My work varies depend­ing on which projects I’m engaged in, and the time of year. I teach a class called “Sus­tain­able Gar­den­ing with Natives” at the New School. I’ve been writ­ing op-eds for the New York Times. I found­ed NYC Wild­flow­er Week, which I orga­nize every year. I also spent many years work­ing as a plant ecol­o­gist for the New York City Parks Department–most of my work there was in con­ser­va­tion.

I need to share my love for the­se things with oth­er peo­ple —

Is the bat­tle for pro­tect­ing bio­di­ver­si­ty more of a bat­tle for preser­va­tion than it is for smarter design in green spaces?

We can do both simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, and they feed into each oth­er. But, while there’s not a lot of dis­cus­sion around preser­va­tion, there is a lot of talk about design. Design is sexy, and archi­tects are real­ly excit­ed and ready to jump on the band­wag­on for design­ing green spaces. But the most basic lev­el is sav­ing the huge tracts of nat­u­ral land that we have. PlaNYC, which is a won­der­ful doc­u­ment, iron­i­cal­ly talks about bio­di­ver­si­ty and about plant­i­ng trees, but at the same time it is talk­ing about build­ing huge des­ti­na­tion parks in all the bor­oughs.

Like Freshkills Park on Staten Island? 

Freshkills is one of them, but there are places like Ocean Breeze, also in Staten Island, and Ridge­wood Reser­voir on the Queens/Brooklyn bor­der.  There are sig­nif­i­cant nat­u­ral areas there already that they want to pave over and make into recre­ation­al park facil­i­ties. To me, there is a sense of irony there. They are work­ing real­ly hard to plant a mil­lion trees, which is a won­der­ful goal, but why aren’t we pre­serv­ing what we have?

What has to hap­pen to change the way we look at green space so that PlaNYC is talk­ing about con­ser­va­tion, bio­di­ver­si­ty, and con­tigu­ous nat­u­ral spaces instead of just recre­ation­al parks or street trees?

Writ­ing my piece on the Tor­rey moun­tain mint for the New York Times was so utter­ly dev­as­tat­ing for me, and after it was pub­lished I got a ton of peo­ple email­ing me say­ing, “Your arti­cle made me cry,” and I thought “…good.” It’s not to be mean, it’s that I want peo­ple to feel that dev­as­ta­tion so that may­be down the road they want to be vest­ed in a local land­scape near them, too. In any case, at that point I real­ized I can’t pre­serve the things I love in a vac­u­um.

I need to share my love for the­se things with oth­er peo­ple who are going to help me fight the fight. I start­ed giv­ing talks at nature cen­ters around the city on plants–and it would always be about rare plants — rare plants of Marine Park, rare plants of Pel­ham Bay Park, etc, because no one cares about a plant unless it’s rare or a wild­flow­er. It’s sneaky but this is how you get peo­ple to care.

Once I left the Parks Depart­ment I start­ed some­thing called NYC Wild­flow­er Week, which, quite hon­est­ly, is meant to build a con­stituen­cy for the­se nat­u­ral areas. I have no hid­den agen­da — I want an army of plant peo­ple like me, so that next time some­one wants to devel­op a salt marsh, there are 100 peo­ple hold­ing signs that say “LEAVE MY SPARTINA ALONE” and “SALT MARSH GRASS FOR EVERYONE.” That would be like a dream.

I want peo­ple to come with me — it’s lone­ly out there by myself. I try to show peo­ple places that have the­se won­der­ful plants and make them love them. And it’s a basic edu­ca­tion, but my hope is that over time it gets peo­ple to care to the point where they are also vest­ed in this future, and speak­ing for the trees.

Now, if peo­ple are speak­ing for the trees it’s for street trees. If I hear one more per­son talk about street trees as an urban forest, I’m going to lose my mind. I mean, street trees are great, but if that’s an urban forest then what is Inwood Hill Park?

marielle_flower-webSome­thing that advo­cates in all walks of envi­ron­men­tal­ism face is that the gen­er­al pub­lic becomes fix­at­ed on, or inter­est­ed in, some ele­ment of the move­ment and it takes all of their atten­tion from what might be more sig­nif­i­cant. Is there a solu­tion?

It’s about mak­ing informed choic­es. For exam­ple, the east­ern ridge of Inwood Hill is pret­ty eco­log­i­cal­ly intact but the west­ern ridge has a his­to­ry of devel­op­ment, so it has a lot more inva­sives and exotics. If you’re going to put bike paths through Inwood Hill Park, that’s the place to do it.

Bik­ers may not know the dif­fer­ence between an inva­sive like mug­wort and a native aster, so put them through areas that are already degrad­ed.  But choic­es like that take time and sen­si­tiv­i­ty, and the­se choic­es often come down to eco­log­i­cal sense or polit­i­cal expe­di­en­cy.

For a lot of peo­ple, hav­ing a place to go moun­tain bik­ing in nature is part of hav­ing a liv­able city. What makes a city liv­able to you?

Oh, boy… Well, I love the idea being able to walk places; I walk around a lot with my kids. We live real­ly close to Prospect Park, and we love that. To me, Prospect Park is not the place that I’m going to go and get real­ly excit­ed, or weepy, about plants that I see. But it’s good enough and it’s good enough for my kids. There’s a play­ground, they can, you know, get their ya-yas out. And hav­ing that kind of blend of recre­ation and nature is real­ly good. Hon­est­ly, that is going to sat­is­fy most peo­ple in terms of being out in nature. The ques­tion then is why do we need to be delv­ing into nat­u­ral areas for moun­tain bike trails?

What do you say to peo­ple who agree with PlaNYC that we should be build­ing parks for peo­ple to play in, even if it means paving over a more nat­u­ral space to make room?

Why can’t we have des­ti­na­tion around nature instead of ten­nis courts or oth­er recre­ation­al facil­i­ties? There is a lack of vision and lack of under­stand­ing about what the­se exist­ing spaces are doing for us. That under­stand­ing isn’t rep­re­sent­ed when deci­sions are being made, and I think that is huge prob­lem. The last time I saw the pro­pos­al for Ocean Breeze Park, they knew that there are at least twelve, state-list­ed, rare plant species grow­ing wild there that haven’t been tak­en into account. That’s cause for con­cern.

At City Atlas, we’re also pas­sion­ate about the issues you are fight­ing for, but we’re not ecol­o­gists — we aren’t trained in the details of species and their habi­tats.  What can peo­ple like us do?

Doing this kind of thing–talking to ecologists–is real­ly impor­tant in get­ting that mes­sage out. Anoth­er thing is bring­ing peo­ple who make deci­sions, who design spaces, and work in green build­ing togeth­er with peo­ple who know about ecol­o­gy.


Design­ers and archi­tects do have a lot of input on how the­se spaces ulti­mate­ly end up.

They do, and ecol­o­gists real­ly don’t.

This might get me in trou­ble, but I’ve met with a lot of design­ers and most­ly I’ve found them to be real­ly con­fi­dent in their lack of deep knowl­edge. They say, “Oh, we don’t need to work with ecol­o­gists because we have in- house exper­tise.” And I’m think­ing: On local native flo­ra? I promise that you don’t.  It’s just a fact — I mean, how do you define nativ­i­ty? And how do you under­stand what’s rare and what isn’t? 

Design­ers have so much pow­er and there’s a lot of pat­ting on your own back, as in, “Wasn’t I bril­liant to think of adding native grass­es to the green­roof instead of sedum?” Kudos for try­ing to think out­side the box, but there’s this real­ly expan­sive con­ver­sa­tion going on in the ecol­o­gy world and you’re not hear­ing it.

There could be a real­ly rich dia­logue between those two worlds. How do you make the­se peo­ple lis­ten to some­one who has this knowl­edge? That’s why I keep cir­cling back to pol­i­cy, which I think is so impor­tant. I mean, I can’t make the­se peo­ple do it, but I’m like, “by God, someone’s got to.”

About Mariellé Anzelone

As a botanist and urban con­ser­va­tion biol­o­gist, Mariel­lé Anzelone pre­serves and restores the floris­tic diver­si­ty of the five bor­oughs. Her cur­rent research includes the NYC Native Plant Con­ser­va­tion Ini­tia­tive in part­ner­ship with the Brook­lyn Botan­ic Gar­den and NYC Depart­ment of Parks & Recre­ation; she also lec­tures exten­sive­ly in the NYC-metro area. Her gar­den and land­scape design work is inspired by the beau­ty of region­al plant com­mu­ni­ties.

She is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to The New York Times, includ­ing writ­ing a botan­i­cal op-art piece on the extinct flo­ra of NYC“When New York City Bloomed,” and a 14-week series, Autumn Unfolds, report­ing on the changes in a forest in upper Man­hat­tan. Anzelone is the exec­u­tive direc­tor of  NYC Wild­flow­er Week, which will hold over 30 events across all of the five bor­oughs, from May 11 — 19, 2013.

A bill that Anzelone helped devel­op, to sup­port native bio­di­ver­si­ty in pub­lic land­scapes, was approved by the City Coun­cil and signed into law by May­or Bloomberg in Feb­ru­ary, 2013.


Pho­tographs by Mau­reen Dren­nan

Inset pho­to, top: blue stemmed gold­en­rod (Sol­idago cae­sia)

Inset pho­to, bot­tom: red maple (Acer rubrum)