My ancestors came from Holland in the mid-1600s and settled in New York City. When I learned that, I had to find out what Manhattan was like back then. I was not surprised to find that what are now the five boroughs were rich ecosystems of forests, rivers, wetlands and rolling hills filled with wildlife. Native people sustained themselves on the bounty.
Today, New York is filled with skyscrapers, infrastructure and people of many backgrounds. Quite different now built up with commerce and culture. In a small way, though, New York and many other cities around the world are working towards bringing the green back. Parks, nature preserves and street plantings are popping up to benefit residents as well as the planet.
The High Line
In Manhattan, the High Line, an abandoned, elevated rail track, is being converted to a public park. In the 1990s, after trains had not run for almost 20 years, neighbors lobbied to build an open space along the historical railroad. It is coming together slowly. Construction began in April 2006, the first section opened three years later, and the second section, two years after that.
This month, another phase is opening. Residents and visitors can walk or bike for 22 blocks thirty feet above the city. There are places to view and learn about native plants, and read about the history of the High Line. Bench seating offers places to relax and enjoy the views of the city and the Hudson River. Seasonal, open-air cafes have fresh food, and there are places to picnic.
Green space benefits
Environmentally, urban green spaces have many benefits. They reduce the heat island effect caused by concrete and structures acting as thermal mass, absorbing and radiating heat. Plants convert CO2 into oxygen, filter air and water pollutants, and reduce storm run-off and flooding. Native plants increase biodiversity by attracting native wildlife and pollinators.
City dwellers also benefit from green space. It has been shown that people with access to green spaces enjoy sustained mental health. For locals in the neighborhood, a park gives a sense of community pride. People feel good about themselves when they are surrounded by beauty and nature, instead of just high-rises and sidewalks. They experience less stress, too.
Physically, fresh air, sunshine and exercise (walking, biking, playing sports) are good for our bodies. Connecting with nature can be an educational experience for children and adults alike. Just being outside puts them in touch with the climate and the seasons. They can learn about native plants and wildlife, too.
Manhattan will never be the forest it was 500 years ago, but any addition of green space is welcome. There are many benefits to creating parks for city residents. I am glad to see history and nature blending to become a public park.
Encourage your city to build more green spaces – parks, food forests, nature preserves. Get involved with your native plant society and city planners to transform unused areas for the health and well-being of residents, visitors and the environment.