Actor Edward Norton is unhappy. He is miffed because although he had starred as The Hulk in an earlier movie, he was not cast as the great green hero in a follow-up film. Cheer up, Ed! You've landed an even greener role: United Nations' Biodiversity Ambassador. As the former botanist for New York City, I know first-hand the importance of biodiversity. In fact, I'll be hosting international diplomats on a tour of New York's nature this fall for the UN's Biodiversity Summit. Since we're going to be colleagues, I'd like to help you prepare for your new role. Here are some things you should know.
Urban nature exists. Most people embrace Kurt Vonnegut's description of the Big Apple as a "Skyscraper National Park". While accurate at 51st Street and 7th Avenue, it obscures the fact that there is bona fide nature in the five boroughs, even in Manhattan. New York City has more open space than Los Angeles and Chicago combined. These 53,000 acres include towering forests, vibrant marshes and grassland meadows. The world looks increasingly like New York, with more people now living in urban settings than rural areas. The city's 8 million residents are drafting a blueprint for biodiversity from which global lessons can be learned.
Clean air isn't free. Local biodiversity provides us with fresh air to breathe and pure water to drink. Humans benefit from abated floodwaters and the pollination of food crops. Nature provides these ecosystem services for free, but there is clearly a price to be paid for their loss. Purifying contaminated water costs money. Recently a study commissioned by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection determined that natural ecosystems provided benefits worth $18 billion per year, equal to the state's construction industry.
Charismatic megafauna are attention-grabbers. A few years ago, New Yorkers went cuckoo over Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk in Manhattan. His mate Lola had a nest on a tony apartment building across from Central Park. The management of the building found it messy and wanted to take the nest down. The public was having none of this. There was a giant outcry, with plenty of media coverage and dozens of protestors carrying placards. The birds won. This outcome is wonderful for the flashier elements of nature, but what about organisms incapable of garnering any attention for themselves?
Plant blindness is real. People barely notice plants or even realize they are alive! Most see native vegetation as the green backdrop to their outdoor forays. At the same time as the Pale Male controversy, scientists rediscovered Torrey's mountainmint on Staten Island. This globally-rare plant was inconveniently located on land threatened with development. Despite being only one of 20 known populations in the world, there was no public outcry. Bulldozers rolled in and the strip mall was built. Today the mountainmint lives in a sad, garbage-filled strip along a roadside. Its future is precarious. Without a large fan base, our native plants may survive only as photographs.
Extinction is quiet. Dramatic events such as fires, hurricanes and even oil spills have gross negative consequences, but extinction usually is not one of them. Most native plants and animals are lost to quiet, everyday events. The destruction of red maple swamp forests cut down for ball fields and the introduction of invasive garlic mustard seeds from mountain bikes destroy and degrade the places where biodiversity lives. Even parkland is not safe when parking lots, public works, and active recreational pursuits trump preservation of wild spaces.
Nature is good for you. More intangibly but no less important, biodiversity enhances the quality of our lives, providing scenic vistas and shady spots for picnics. Research shows that being in nature lowers stress, boosts immunity, and heightens creativity. The "tonic of wilderness" was well documented before Henry David Thoreau wrote about it. Yet it is difficult for people to understand the benefit of open space conservation - how their individual well-being is fundamentally intertwined with the vast richness of the nature that is around them.
This is why we need you. Most folks think my line of work is interesting, but irrelevant to their everyday lives. People used to know the nature in their backyards, back when basic biology classes were taught regularly in schools. Now more children can identify the McDonald's logo than a white oak leaf.
What nature really needs, then, is your star power to help garner better publicity. Human beings grossly undervalue and ignore the importance of this biodiversity, their life support system. Your voice will amplify the work that we conservation biologists do, and help mitigate our struggles with popular perceptions. I wish you much success but would encourage you to not quit your day job.
Marielle Anzelone is an urban conservation biologist and Co-Founder and Executive Director of NYC Wildflower Week.