The argument proposed by Robert Sullivan in his NY Magazine article 'The concrete jungle' is that the city of New York is a hotspot for biological diversity is not in itself new. It reminded me of the shifting emphasis in Amazonian anthropology from artefact to landscape.
Listen to Robert Sullivan:
In fact—and this may seem implausible—nature is in many ways more plentiful in New York City than it is in the surrounding suburbs and rural counties. New York is again a capital of nature; we are an ecological hot spot.
How can this be possible? What does the grimy coast of Queens have over the fields and forests of Dutchess County? The answer is the same thing the city has: variety. While upstate nature may be robust and all-encompassing, it is also, from an ecological point of view, relatively barren—a small and fairly static number of species coexisting in a scenic but manicured wilderness. This is true for most of America’s wide-open spaces. “People think of the rural as this pristine, untouched place, when it’s actually highly controlled and highly engineered space,” says Nette Compton, a senior project manager at the Parks Department. “The fact is urban areas are not as well controlled. They are messy. There is diversity.”
In the city, we live in a nature that is even more resourceful and resilient than we have ever imagined. And when you look at nature that way, of course there are coyotes in New York. Look at all the forests and small mammals—not just rats, but also voles, chipmunks, and small red foxes—with whom we share the city. The question becomes: Where has the coyote been, and why are we so reluctant to have him? Why can’t we see the nature that we are living in?
In other words, the city’s forests are mostly an accident. “In a lot of ways, they are here because we are lucky,” says Wenskus. “After 300 years of Western man basically doing his thing, we still have these amazing forests that are predominantly intact—or as intact as they can be with 8 million people.” Recently, however, scientists have come to suspect that urban forests have thrived not despite their urban environment but because of it. “The old idea was that urban areas are not ecologically interesting or don’t have ecological processes, and that’s false,” says Richard Pouyat, who studies urban forests for the U.S. Forest Service. “The difference is, it’s been altered.” And altering the natural landscape isn’t always a bad thing.
Take fires. Alley Pond experienced many car fires over the years, and this is now understood to have played an important role in the forest’s ecological health. In some parts of Alley Pond Park, as well as in forests in the Bronx and Staten Island, open forest canopies encouraged sensitive species like upland sandpipers or a threatened suite of plants like purple and green milkweeds. In a 1996 article in Restoration & Management Notes, Marc Matsil and Mike Feller, an early NRG naturalist, called arsonists “New York City’s incidental restorationists.”
Urban forests are healthier than their suburban peers in other ways, too. The flora scene is more diverse. Much of the soil found in places like Alley Pond Park is pristine compared to suburban areas. Perhaps more interesting, from the point of view of the larger urban ecosystem, our forests have evolved to become more productive. According to a study comparing oak-tree stands in rural Connecticut with ones in New York City, city forests carry more of the metals associated with air pollution into the soil.