If you think you need to leave New York City to get in touch with nature, think again.
A new interactive map of the city-owned parkland locates the 10,000 acres of natural areas — wetlands, forests, grasslands and open water that would altogether cover Central Park 12 times over — on NYC Parks Department property. Users can input a park's name to find its natural areas and the acreage that each habitat covers.
A screenshot of the map of natural areas in city parkland (credit: Natural Areas Conservancy)
The map posted Sunday is the outcome of a two-year study of the city's natural areas by the Natural Areas Conservancy, a non-profit that collaborates with the Parks Department. The assessment, conducted by a team of ecologists, wildlife biologists and botanists from around the country, evaluated the diversity and health of area plants, in addition to mapping area perimeters.
"The map allows us to take the information that we learned about what makes the different parks unique and how these natural resources are distributed across the city, and visualize and share that with the public," said Sarah Charlop-Powers, the conservancy's executive director.
"Very few people are aware of how much nature exists close to where they live," said Charlop-Powers, whose organization aims to increase New Yorkers' awareness of and engagement with their natural resources.
In New York City, 40 percent of all land — private and government-owned — supports some kind of plant life. Of that 40 percent, 11 percent is considered to be "natural area," or environments supporting diverse plant and wildlife populations.
The conservancy's study found 750 different plant species in the 10,000 acres surveyed, according to the non-profit's senior project manager, ecologist Helen Forgione.
"We focused on plants because they’re the backbone of the community in which all plants grow and animals live in," she explained.
The city's vegetation includes everything from the common sweetgum tree, a native to this region that thrives in urban heat islands, to the rare sweetbay magnolia, the white fragrant flowers of which are exclusive in this state to Staten Island. While oak, hickory, tulip, and other trees dominate the city's forests, bluestem grass and switchgrass cover its grasslands, and cord-grass and reeds dot its wetlands.
Is the conservancy concerned that a map pointing New Yorkers to the sites where these plants thrive might put them at risk of endangerment?
No, said Charlop-Powers. "The majority of people who use [our parks] use them in really positive ways. And we view it as a part of our job and a part of our mission to make these places safe and accessible while at the same time finding a balance and protecting the natural environment.”
The Natural Areas Conservancy has worked to improve park trail systems, reinforcing main trails and closing off extras to prevent visitors from straying and crushing plants underfoot.
This summer, the organization is extending its research on the city's natural areas to federal parkland.
Their value amounts to more than providing New Yorkers an escape from the concrete jungle, Charlop-Powers said: ”Our forests and wetlands ... also provide this big unseen benefit for everybody who lives here, even if you never leave midtown Manhattan: our air is cleaner, our water is cleaner, and our city is cooler because we have so much nature."
There’s hundreds of millions dollars of indirect benefit from having these natural resources mitigating some of the actions of human beings in this landscape."