What We Can Do

by Spencer Oakes Dawson

New York City is vast and expansive. I can imagine it being nearly impossible to travel anywhere in the world, and for someone from that culture to not know of New York City (NYC). Covering four hundred and sixty nine square miles, more than eight million people call it home. Over 400 years after the first European explorers came to what is now called Manhattan, there is hardly any land that has not been covered over with cement, pavement, and massive skyscrapers.

As a result of exponential growth, many native plant and animal species have become completely extinct from the area. Additionally the native diversity inherent in such an ecologically rich land has lessened with the increasing distance between parks and nature preserves. It is easy to forget about the biological richness of the greater Manhattan area as concrete and metal abound, but there are plenty of ways that city residents can attract wildlife, while helping to increase the biodiversity of the city.

It may be difficult to imagine, but the Wildlife Conservation Society has this to say about the richness that once inhabited this island, “With 56 ecological community types, it rivaled the biodiversity of Yellowstone.” One can still see remnants of some of that richness in the upper parts of Manhattan, and on many parts of Staten Island.(1)

New York City’s laundry list of parks and green spaces rivals that of other large cities, but more needs to be done to protect those spaces, and promote biodiversity. The American Museum of Natural History published a Biodiversity Assessment handbook that details the state of biodiversity in the greater New York City area. Given the distance between New Yorks green spaces they recommend that “green corridors must be established among certain sites to accommodate the need of many plants and animals to move from one habitat to another at different times of the year; to connect them with nearby populations so that genetic interchange can occur; and to enable them to respond to climate change as habitat shifts and the sea level rises.”(2)

But how can individual citizens help without getting involved in local politics, you ask? There are a myriad of small steps that many New Yorkers can take in order to attract wildlife back to the city, and increase and support biodiversity. I have had plenty of friends with backyard, and roof access. If you have either, it can be as simple as planting a flower box with Wild Geraniums, or Brown-eyed Susans. If your backyard is open grass and soil, you may ask your landlord about starting a small garden, or planting a cranberry bush, or swamp rose. Bushes, and small trees that grow berries are a great way to attract wildlife to any yard, or park.

An incredible thing that the New York City Department of Sanitation does is composting. They work with the parks department to use the organic waste that they compost as fertilizer for city parks. This greatly increase the richness of the soil in parks, and ultimately increases biodiversity as the health of plants increases.

Long before the urbanization of Manhattan and its surrounding areas, many native plants that are still found in the area thrived. Given the great distances between plant habitats in New York City the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, a division of the NYC Parks Department, created a bold initiative to study native plants and their genetic variability.

In their rationale they state that, “little attention has been given to the management of rare species in the urban context, and no attempt has been made to assess and manage the more common, yet declining, species found in urban, fragmented populations.” (3) The reason that this conservation research study is so bold is due to the fact that conservation efforts are most often directed at rare or endangered species.

In New York City, despite the sprawling concrete landscape we have a great friend in our local government. It will take partnerships with borough presidents and local officials to create and manifest such feats as “green corridors” that the Museum of Natural History suggests. If we are able to identify the species that are suffering as a result of the distance between habits, we many also be able to identify areas where we can create such land passages.

I don’t know about anyone else, but for me, thinking that this area’s ecosystems once rivaled today’s Yellowstone Park makes me want to work so much harder to protect what we do have, and to create more green spaces. If there is anything that we can learn from New York City’s cultural richness, it’s that our ecological richness is just as important. So start composting.

You can save your scraps in the freezer to avoid any smell, and bugs, and then bring them to your local farmers market. Find out where here:


For a more focused look at composting in the borough of Brooklyn, and specifically at Empire State College’s campus visit:


Talk to your neighbors about composting, and what they think of your hood. Look around for trees on your street that need to be taken better care of. NYC’s 311 call center is a great resource to use if you identify a tree that needs some love. Check out:


for clean up days. Take public transportation, and think about investing in a pair of rollerblades or a bike.

The possibilities, and opportunities to increase and protect our great city’s biodiversity are endless. We just have to care enough.

  1. http://archive.wcs.org/sw-high_tech_tools/landscapeecology/mannahatta/phase1science.html
  2. http://www.amnh.org/our-research/center-for-biodiversity-conservation/publications/for-policymakers/biodiversity-assessment-handbook-for-new-york-city
  3. http://www.nycgovparks.org/greening/greenbelt-native-plant-center/conservation-initiative

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