NYC and Green Space: An uncanny relationship

(Photo above) Eastern box turtle: by Hudson River Park Wild! Tour guide, Keith Michael

Hello Everyone! The Summer SCA staff and I went on a day hike in the Staten Island Mt. Loretto State Forest and Mt. Loretto Unique Area last week, and I was inspired to write a little bit about the importance of urban green space. These areas are reclaimed farmland purchased by the state from the Archdiocese of New York. We were guided on our hike by Keith Michael and Walter Laufer, our volunteer Hudson River Park Naturalists, and most of our hike consisted of being surrounded by views that looked liked the photos below.

It may be hard to believe, but I was still within the limits of the New York City metropolitan area when these photos were taken. If you thought all we had was concrete, you were wrong! Our trip had such an abundance of beautiful sights that we felt compelled to take gratuitous nature photos, as seen below.

The amount of green space in New York City is often overlooked, even by those who are lifetime residents. There is everything from the world-famous Central Park, to lesser known areas such as the Gateway National Recreation Area.

Gateway contains three individually run open green spaces, two of which are within the city’s limits. The complex contains Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a 13,000 acre green space that is famous for its birding. For those of you who are history buffs, the Floyd Bennett Field section contains an old air strip and buildings used during World War II. It gets better: there are also hiking trails and campsites open for use. The National Park Service goes out of its way to encourage use of its land by offering “camping for beginners” weekend courses, as well as directing people toward the canoeing, kayaking, birding, fishing, and swimming opportunities. Both of these areas are located in Brooklyn. The Staten Island portion is located not too far from Mt. Loretto, where I was last week.

Also in Brooklyn is Prospect Park, another great park in New York City. Designed by the same people who engineered Central Park, this 526 acre space includes a zoo, a carousel, and the same little nooks that its larger counterpart is famous for. Also included are the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens that make you feel like you have stepped into another place completely. The New York City Botanical Gardens in the Bronx is over 250 acres. And the Bronx River has recently claimed the return of the beaver to the Island of Manhattan!

In Hudson River Park alone, there are over 70 different bird species, as well as an extremely diverse insect population. I haven’t even begun to talk about the abundance of life in the aquatic portion of the park (which takes up more than half of our acreage). Close to Hudson River Park is the High Line, a unique park on the west side of Manhattan, built on an old elevated railroad spur covered in beautiful gardens.

Not only are these spaces beautiful, but they are also sorely needed in this sea of buildings. Normally, rainwater is absorbed by the grass, soil, and trees located within an area. However, when we begin to replace those areas with impervious material, we lose our storm water retention, as well as its ability to cleanse the water before putting it back into the watershed. Since New York City is in the Hudson River Watershed, you can take a good guess where that water will end up. Normally, its path is through our sewer system, which doesn’t keep up with storm water very well. This means un-filtered (either by natural or manmade means) water ends up in the Hudson River, and brings a lot of the city’s pollution with it. Our green spaces are like giant sponges, soaking up that water and filtering it as it drains slowly or evaporates. Not only do we need these areas for our own sanity and peace of mind, but the cleanliness of our natural resources is at stake when we don’t have them.

The future of a clean Hudson River (or East River, or Bronx River) depends on many factors. One of Manhattan’s biggest environmental challenges is managing storm water runoff, and these green spaces are making progress a little at a time. Maybe one day we can look forward to reintroducing the long lost oyster, and maybe even some marshes into this great estuary.