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?
Something 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.
Photographs by Maureen Drennan
Inset photo, top: blue stemmed goldenrod (Solidago caesia)
Inset photo, bottom: red maple (Acer rubrum)