Conservation in New York City: Focusing Less on the Concrete and More on the “Jungle”
This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.
By Mollie McGinnis, C+S ’15
Nature has something to offer all of us. When we think of a natural ecosystem, our minds immediately wander to tall prospering trees, clean flowing water and the plentiful flora and fauna that makes each of these ecosystems unique. Nature, in the pristine form that we picture, provides us with all of the ecosystem services that make our daily lives possible. Clean water and food, building materials and breathable air provide humans with the basics to thrive on this planet.
Beyond providing these imperative resources, nature is filled with countless recreational opportunities that maintain the mental and physical health of those who take advantage of them. From hiking to fishing to rock climbing to sitting in the park after a long day at work, enjoying nature is an essential piece to the daily routine of people around the world.
It can be easy to lose sight of the natural environment living in New York. After all, it can take multiple bus, train and ferry rides to access what we think of as the natural world. However, through effective environmental education, it is possible to establish a new perspective on nature in an urban setting and instill a sense of responsibility for these unfamiliar yet vital ecosystems.
Nature in urban settings can come in different shapes and forms. Large green spaces like Central Park, creative sustainable structures like the High Line and invasive species-covered vacant lots have the potential to not only provide ecosystem services but offer other vital amenities that help reduce the environmental impacts of cities.
In New York, these pieces of nature scattered throughout the city control storm water runoff, counteract the urban heat island effect, ensure the preservation of native plant species, provide habitat to important pollinators and wildlife and allow New Yorkers to have a nearby escape from their office buildings. However, how often does the average resident in a city think about their role and their impacts on this novel ecosystem?
Hopefully, your gears have started turning about the daily interactions that you may have with nature. During my summer internship with the Student Conservation Association (SCA), I am working to introduce similar concepts to my Community Conservation high school crew and get the students thinking about the role they play in their own urban ecosystem.
Based in Gateway National Recreation Area in Brooklyn and Queens, my work throughout the summer involves leading 12 high school students on various projects related to Hurricane Sandy restoration and resiliency building. Although the surface-level goals of the summer projects are focused around removing washed-up debris and rebuilding damaged structures so that they can be enjoyed by the public, the underlying mission of the organization aims to build a future generation of conservation leaders.
Many of the kids that I work with on a daily basis have very limited experience with nature in its undisturbed form. The lack of emphasis on environmental education in their high school curriculums paired with their urban lifestyles contribute to this lack of exposure. Therefore, when it comes to instilling a passion for conservation and helping the kids comprehend what nature looks like in their own communities, it takes creative thinking and experiential learning opportunities.
Giving kids firsthand exposure to the environment in their own communities is an ideal way to spark an interest in conservation. By taking advantage of teachable moments when we are working in the field, I am able to tangibly demonstrate the interactions and processes that are constantly happening in these urban environments.
That means the kids are not only contributing to the restoration and beautification of habitats in their community, but they are comprehending all of the symbiotic relationships and ecosystem services being provided locally by environments like the ones we are working in daily. In addition to these teachable moments, it is extremely beneficial to ask open-ended and thought-provoking questions related to the work we are completing. By asking the kids what they think something is or how they think something happened, I have been able to get them thinking in an environmentally-minded way.
By the end of the summer session, it is my goal that all of the members of my crew will have learned something they never realized about the natural systems in their own communities. The intention is to keep the conservation momentum going so that they can critically evaluate their interactions with their urban ecosystem and be environmentally-conscious residents of the city long after their summer job.
But it doesn’t stop there. This same idea can be projected on a larger scale in the urban environment.
If we are able to get all residents in cities to realize the importance of urban nature, then we can create a more environmentally-conscious community. It all starts with a passion for the environment.
Find something in the urban environment that you are excited about, whether it be climate change, recycling, wildlife or green infrastructure, and pass it on to anyone that will listen. Eventually, we will be able to create a population of city-dwellers that not only appreciates their local ecosystems but will also be advocates for reducing our detrimental impacts on these beneficial urban environments.