Lush forests, babbling brooks, and expansive wetlands are not what New York City is known for, but the Natural Areas Conservancy, a nonprofit that works to manage the city’s uncultivated landscapes, hopes to change that.
The group has created an interactive NYC Nature Map that charts the more than 20,000 acres of the city’s natural areas—forests, freshwater wetlands, salt marshes, and streams. Users can filter the data by borough, council district, or park for an in-depth look at the city’s nature, as well as efforts to protect and restore it.
Researchers hope the map serves as a useful tool for decision makers investing in the city’s green spaces, but that it also provides New Yorkers with a greater understanding of what the city’s urban wildness has to offer.
“There’s this tendency to think of urban nature as a consolation prize that kind of tides you over until you get into ‘real nature,’ but we found that these places are a lot healthier than we expected,” says Sarah Charlop-Powers, the executive director of the Natural Areas Conservancy.
Over the last seven years, the NAC (which works in collaboration with the NYC Parks Department) has invested in thoroughly researching those spaces and developing a database to improve the way the public sector and its partners manage natural areas. That work has included the creation of the Forest Management Framework, a 25-year plan to bolster 7,300 acres of the city’s forested parkland.
To make that and other data easily accessible, the conservancy—in partnership with NYC Parks—uses the map to compile reams of data and analysis from years of fieldwork surveying the city’s wilds. The 10-month effort produced a map that allows everyone—from budding green thumbs to the most ardent of arborists—to learn something new about their city’s nature, while also giving administrators a wealth of information to utilize.
“We’ve been sitting on this huge treasure trove of information but we have not to date had a way share that information,” says Charlop-Powers. “We were really interested in having this as a resource for people who were nature enthusiasts and also for people who can utilize this information for planning and budgeting, and thinking about nature as part of our city’s infrastructure and how to make our city more livable.”
Most New Yorkers may be surprised to hear that 40 percent of all city land—private and government-owned—supports some kind of greenery. Of that, 10 percent is considered “natural area” that supports diverse flora and fauna. Aside from being a respite from the metropolis, these green spaces serve crucial functions: forests clean the air, salt marshes act as natural barriers to storm surges and flood waters, and so on.
In the map, users can click through data in three tabs—“what we have,” “how it’s doing,” and “what we’re doing”—to dive into the ecological and historical data of the green spaces. Breakdowns are offered for each type of natural area and, within those categories, specific parks and spaces. Users can explore how much of these spaces are healthy, threatened, in transition, or outright degrading, along with plenty of other noteworthy nuggets of information, according to Leila Mougoui Bakhtiari, an urban ecologist with Natural Areas.
In Brooklyn’s Canarsie Park, for instance, the map shows that it boasts eight acres of forest with 97 unique plant species, including eastern cottonwood, elm, and black cherry. Since 2007 a total of 1,577 trees and 731 shrubs have been planted to help that landscape thrive. That’s all data that parks officials say sheds light on where resources are most needed.
“This map highlights all of the restoration and planting work that NYC Parks does off the beaten path in NYC’s natural areas,” says Jennifer Greenfeld, NYC Parks Assistant Commissioner for Forestry, Horticulture and Natural Resources. “By using the assessments in this map, we can see where the greatest investment is needed and plan strategically.”
In the future, Charlop-Powers says the tool could include a way for volunteers to record the work they’re doing and request work in their council districts. In the meantime, park advocates hope the map helps people enjoy the city’s natural areas, but also recognize that their value goes beyond providing as escape from the concrete jungle.
“Too many New Yorkers aren’t aware of the great diversity of nature that we have right here in the city,” says Lynn Kelly, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks—a parks research and advocacy group. “This map will help New Yorkers find, access, and enjoy these spaces and also understand the critical role they play in the health of our city.”