Adrian Benepe has spent much of his life promoting the outdoors in New York City, from serving as a park ranger in the 1970s to the park commissioner some 30 years later. Still, he is amazed at what he has seen in the city lately.
“I grew up in the parks,” said Mr Benepe, now the president of… Brooklyn Botanical Garden† “There were never red-tailed hawks or peregrine falcons or bald eagles. You haven’t even seen raccoons; there were pigeons and rats and squirrels, that was it. Now there are bald eagles spread across the city. This winter they were in place you haven’t seen them in generations, and they were hunting in Prospect Park.”
Birds of prey are the tip of the iceberg.
There have been bats and threatened butterflieswild and rare native bees† a coyote in Central Park; beaverssalamanders and leopard frogs on Staten Island; a bobcat† mink and several foxes in the Bronx, along with endangered alewife herring and American eels crossing fish ladders in the Bronx River, while hungry ospreys and egrets lurk nearby; big savage oysters and small seahorses at piers along the Hudson River; baby damselflies, the world’s most endangered sea turtles and a baby seal in queens; and exotic insects not seen in Brooklyn for decades.
New York City is experiencing a surprising return of native wildlife, remarkable in number and diversity even for local ecologists and park managers. “You see miraculous wildlife happenings in the middle of the city,” said Mr. benepe.
It would be easy to assume that nature blossomed and the creatures came out during New York City’s lockdown last year. But wildlife needs habitat and the animals’ return, according to Kathryn Heintz, the executive director of the NYC Audubon Society, is because of the city’s 40-year effort to expand and clean up its parks, rivers, forests and wetlands. This included planting more trees, wildflowers and grasses native to the area, ban pesticides into parks and spend billions converting former landfills and industrial wastelands into nature reserves.
New York is now “the greenest big city on Earth,” said Ms. Heintz.
But while park managers say they are excited about these ecological breakthroughs, many are expressing concern about the city’s relatively low park budget, which they say poses a threat to natural habitats due to deteriorated drainage systems and understaffed maintenance personnel.
Funding is more important than ever, said Ms. Heintz, Mr. Benepe and other officials.
Last month, the remnants of Hurricane Ida inundated parts of the city, killing at least 13 New Yorkers† “Parks should act like sponges, but instead they see massive flooding,” said Adam Ganser, the nonprofit’s executive director. New Yorkers for Parks†
Park financing has ended 0.6 percent of the total budget for decades, while other cities spend 2 to 4 percent, Mr Ganser said. Democratic mayoral candidate Eric Adams has said he is determined to increase the budget up to 1 percentwhile Republican candidate Curtis Sliwa said in a debate earlier this month he would raise it to 2 percent. Mr Ganser said such a move would be transformative.
“New York City has done a really good job reclaiming and building post-industrial habitats, and we have incredibly intact wetlands and grasslands,” said Rebecca McMackin, director of horticulture at Brooklyn Bridge Park† “We have to protect them.” Under the direction of Mrs. McMackin, the park, built on the East River piers, is now home to a growing population of rare bees, moths, pollinating flies, butterflies and birds.
With enclaves like these, the city now has 77,580 acres of green space, including wetlands, cemeteries, parks and forests, according to the Conservation of natural areas, a nonprofit organization founded in 2012 under the administration of Mayor Mike Bloomberg. About 30,000 acres are managed by the city, said Meghan Lalor, a spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. (Chicago has just 8,800 acres of green space; San Francisco, 5,810.)
For Sarah Charlop-Powers, the executive director of conservation, urban swamps and forests are a priority because their benefits go beyond providing habitats for wildlife. Wetlands play a critical role in reducing flooding during major storms, she said, adding that the city has lost 85 percent of its salt marshes and streams and 99 percent of its freshwater swamps since the 17th century.
“The longer we delay investments, the more likely we are to lose important areas and species forever,” she said. “I feel a real sense of urgency.”
According to the City Parks Department, it has restored 148 of New York’s 5,650 acres of wetlands since 1993. But sea level rise and erosion are causing the city to lose six acres a year, Ms Charlop-Powers said. “We have to build swamps to keep up,” she said.
There is a need for stricter regulations to protect wetlands, she said. Currently, a group of Staten Island residents is trying to stop an approved commercial development on a large wetland there that helped prevent Superstorm Sandy flooding. The retail development was approved because the wetlands were not eligible for state protection.
Forests are another concern. Without more funding, they risk becoming “vineyards of tangled weeds,” Ms Charlop-Powers said. “We are losing biodiversity, which means a decrease in stored carbon, local cooling and rainwater harvesting. Those things require active management.”
The city’s great forests are found in the Bronx, in Van Cortlandt Park and Pelham Bay Park — the latter is 2,700 acres including beaches, bike paths, grassland and wetland, built in part on a capped landfill — and within the Green Belt on Staten Island† However, there are many other forest stands, such as the old canopy in Inwood Park in Manhattan, with tulip trees “as tall as skyscrapers,” said Jennifer Greenfeld, the assistant commissioner for forestry, horticulture and natural resources.
Another habitat, one that is globally threatened, New York City also calls home: grassland. A very large one stands on what was once the largest garbage dump in the world, Fresh Kills, on Staten Island. The 2,200-acre reserve is still under construction, but already has more than 200 species of birds and a thriving fox population. Once completed, it will be three times the size of Central Park.
“When you’re there, it’s great,” Ms Heintz said. “You could be in Nebraska.”
Despite concerns about funding and maintenance, the web of new and restored parks and the sprawl of green roofs in the city are working symbiotically to support wildlife, Ms Charlop-Powers said.
Hudson River Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park are two such examples of parks that also serve as nature reserves. For the past month, their wildflower beds provided a stopover for hundreds of endangered monarch butterflies as they traveled from Canada to Mexico.
This spring, a rare blueberry bee, seen only once in Brooklyn in recent decades, was discovered on one of New York’s native blueberry bushes in Brooklyn Bridge Park; the bees have multiplied since then. Mrs. McMackin, the horticultural director there, encourages residents to plant the shrubs on patios, roofs and yards in an effort to bring back the blueberry bee (and wild blueberries).
But even this progress, Ms. McMackin said, is 40 years in the making. She credits the city’s work Greenbelt Native Plant Center, which opened on Staten Island in the 1980s to rescue and propagate hundreds of local seeds and plants, providing the native flora essential to attract wildlife. The center’s seeds are currently germinating in Prospect Park and Central Park, and the native grasses have been used to restore dunes in the Rockaways, which are near nesting sites for endangered shorebirds.
“People see cities as degraded,” Ms McMackin said. “But cities can be a haven for animals that cannot survive in rural and suburban areas,” mainly because of the heavy use of pesticides on suburban lawns and rural farmland, she explained.
mr. Benepe is excited about the animals’ return, but sees it as part of the planet’s evolution. “The wildlife has been forced, through habitat loss, to adapt,” said Mr. benepe.
He continued: “It’s as if wildlife has said, ‘You’ve taken away our habitat. OK, we’ll live in yours.’”