BiodiverCITY – Why it Matters for NYC

BiodiverCITY - Why it Matters for NYC

Did you know that 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity? If not, you are not alone. For something so crucial to our survival and well-being, biodiversity gets little attention. Mayor Bloomberg’s vision for a sustainable New York City — outlined in a document called PlaNYC, which discusses climate change, transportation alternatives and drinking water — makes no mention of nature or biodiversity.

The document is currently being amended, and Mariellé Anzelone is leading an effort to convince the Mayor that biodiversity needs to be included in PlaNYC 2.0, to be published in April 2011.

A wild strawberry in Bovina, NY.

A wild strawberry in Bovina, NY.

Anzelone is a botanist and urban conservation biologist, garden and landscape designer, writer, and founder and executive director of NYC Wildflower Week. Her newest project is a tumblr blog called BiodiverCITY, where people are encouraged to share their stories and photos of NYC nature.

It's called "The Big Apple" for a reason! NY State apples at the Farmers Market.

It's called "The Big Apple" for a reason! NY State apples at the Farmers Market.

The New York State Department of Natural Conservation’s NY Natural Heritage Program maintains a comprehensive database on the status and location of rare species and natural communities. The program currently monitors 174 natural community types, 727 rare plant species, and 432 rare animal species across New York, keeping track of more than 11,900 locations where these species and communities are found.

Some of the U.S.'s most fertile farmland is found in the Hudson Valley. Here, Paisley Farm in Tivoli, NY.

Some of the U.S.'s most fertile farmland is found in the Hudson Valley. Here, Paisley Farm in Tivoli, NY.

Queens County Farm is the oldest working farm in New York City.

Queens County Farm is the oldest working farm in New York City.

Grapes are a common sight as Long Island has turned out to be an ideal place for winemaking.

Grapes are a common sight as Long Island has turned out to be an ideal place for winemaking.

New York is one of the richest natural habitats in the world, which is why so many people came here to live. Ironically, the ensuing urban population surge resulted in much of our surroundings being paved over. I caught up with Mariellé Anzelone to learn more and figure out who we all can help preserve biodiversity in your cities and neighborhoods.

Mariellé Anzelone.

Mariellé Anzelone, founder of NY Wildflower Week and BiodiverCITY. Photo courtesy of Mariellé Anzelone.

Goodlifer: Why, in your opinion, is it important to preserve biodiversity in NYC?
Mariellé Anzelone: I think it’s important for people to understand that New York City has nature at all! People think of biodiversity as being distant and in pristine places, when it’s really right in our collective backyards. Despite being just a subway ride away, most New Yorkers have no idea that there are towering forests, vibrant marshes and grassland meadows in the five boroughs. In fact, nearly 1/8 of NYC’s land is nature, more than Los Angeles and Chicago combined!

In Fort Tryon Park, in the Inwood/Washington Heights section of Manhattan, there is enough of the original habitat left that you can get a sense of how Mannahatta used to look.

In Fort Tryon Park, in the Inwood/Washington Heights section of Manhattan, there is enough of the original habitat left that you can get a sense of how Mannahatta used to look.

Amazing rock wall with vegetation in Fort Tryon Park.

Amazing rock wall with vegetation in Fort Tryon Park.

This beaver was just hanging out, not at all bothered by my presence (which he shouldn't have to be!).

This beaver was just hanging out, not at all bothered by my presence (which he shouldn't have to be!).

Humans benefit from this local biodiversity on many levels. The organisms that have evolved here for thousands of years are the foundation of our ecosystems. These ecosystems provide us with fresh air to breathe and pure water to drink. We benefit from abated floodwaters and the pollination of food crops. Nature provides these ecosystem services for free, but there is no public accounting of them.

Urban wetlands, such as this one in Central Park, are under duress, due to increased runoff from paved areas and higher pollutant content in that surface water.

Urban wetlands, such as this one in Central Park, are under duress, due to increased runoff from paved areas and higher pollutant content in that surface water. Photo courtesy of Mariellé Anzelone.

Biodiversity also enhances the quality of our lives. Anecdotally, people know going outside feels good. Recent research backs this up. A walk in the woods can lower stress, boost immunity, and heighten creativity and may even help fight some cancers. Henry David Thoreau’s “tonic of wilderness” actually exists!

Last summer, I went foragning for ramps in Upstate New York. I had never seen one before, but after half an hour I was an expert as spotting them on the forest floor. It's all about opening our eyes to our surroundings.

Last summer, I went foragning for ramps in Upstate New York. I had never seen one before, but after half an hour I was an expert as spotting them on the forest floor. It's all about opening our eyes to our surroundings.

GL: How many species have we already lost? Are there any now that are particularly endangered?
MA: Over the past 100 years or so, 75% of the city’s woodlands, wetlands and meadows have been destroyed. The persistent pressure of urbanization has driven many of the city’s native plants to the brink of extirpation (local extinction). Sadly, we have already lost 43% of our flora. In fact, I’m writing an op-art/op-ed piece for the New York Times that will run in March, “The Lost Flowers of NYC.”

Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) is one of the exotic invasives that is overrunning our urban natural areas.

Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) is one of the exotic invasives that is overrunning our urban natural areas. Photo courtesy of Mariellé Anzelone.

One of the plants I write about is Small Yellow Ladyslipper – (Cypripedium parviflorum). If you’ve ever seen this wildflower in bloom, you should be grateful. Its complex flowers are so energetically expensive to produce that the plant goes dormant for years afterwards to save up the strength for a repeat performance. Small Yellow Ladyslipper and other forest orchids have been utterly decimated by urbanization. Historically, there were 30 species of orchids in the five boroughs. Today only six remain. Small Yellow Ladyslipper was once found in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, now it no longer grows here at all.

Yellow Ladyslipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) orchid. Photo by dogtooth77, Creative Commons.

Small Yellow Ladyslipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) orchid. Photo by dogtooth77, Creative Commons.

GL: Is there something that everyone can do to help this cause?
MA: On a local level, New Yorkers can help save this local biodiversity by grabbing a field guide and going for a walk in the woods. Get to know your foliar neighbors and keep track of their whereabouts. This familiarity will build advocacy and encourage us to keep things whole. Preservation comes to those places that are loved by people.

Flowers in bloom in the center of Woodstock, NY.

Flowers in bloom in the center of Woodstock, NY.

So, let Mayor Bloomberg know that you care about biodiversity in our boroughs! Sign the petition and/or text 917-791-3064 (the official PLANYC mobile input unit) and fill in the blank “One idea to create a greener, greater New York City is to ____.” Contribute your thoughts, photographs and videos on why you love NYC’s nature and why you think it’s important for PlaNYC to protect it to the BiodiverCITY blog (they will be sent to the Mayor’s Office).

Top photo: flowers and grasses growing under the Brooklyn Bridge. All photographs, unless indicated, by Johanna Björk.

About author
A designer by trade, Johanna has always had a passion for storytelling. Born and raised in Sweden, she's lived and worked in Miami, Brooklyn and, currently, Ojai, CA. She started Goodlifer in 2008 to offer a positive outlook for the future and share great stories, discoveries, thoughts, tips and reflections around her idea of the Good Life. Johanna loves kale, wishes she had a greener thumb, and thinks everything is just a tad bit better with champagne (or green juice).
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  1. Good article Johanna. Love your photos…

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