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The Concrete Jungle

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Further out in the distance, the Empire State Building nudges over a ridge of black locust trees that have grown up on construction rubble, and here a vision of the future comes into focus. Urban ecologists are now taken by the idea of a feedback loop, in which the sullied, mixed-up nature of the city begins to affect the nature of the entire Northeast region. This is what happens when herring planted in the Bronx become food for bluefish in the Gulf of Maine, or when the uncommon trees grown in the NRG’s seed bank in Staten Island are planted in Pennsylvania. But it occurs in less premeditated ways, too. We see the feedback loop in the avian flyway that runs from Alley Pond Park to the little wetland on the brook that runs through the Wykagyl Country Club in New Rochelle and then up through the Hudson Valley into Vermont. Or in the wildlife corridors that connect the Lenoir Preserve in Yonkers through Bear Mountain State Park to the Catskill Forest Preserve. Or in the growing number of green roofs that connect insects across boroughs and counties, slowly turning Google’s satellite view of the city from gray and black to dusty green.

An ecological feedback loop is a natural extension of the idea that nature exists in the city, but it requires a change of thinking that is equally profound: There is no difference between urban nature and rural nature. It is all one ecology, adjusting and cross-pollinating in the face of change. This can be disturbing, since local stresses threaten to disrupt wildlife hundreds of miles away. But it is, in fact, a hopeful idea. If New York City’s ecology has taught us anything, it is that nature likes intrusions—counts on them, even. Change makes for vibrancy. We are not just a city of bedbugs and rats; we are a wellspring for regional vitality.

Like all the immigrants and urban pioneers who have come before them, the coyotes that live in Pelham Bay Park may take some getting used to. But they are not going away. “There are going to be more coyotes,” says Bram Gunther, the NRG’s current director. The question becomes how we think about them. Are they nuisances that might put in jeopardy a small off-leash dog or, in rarer circumstances, small children? Or, instead, can they be viewed as just another example of the ecological-feedback loop?

Over the next few years, the coyotes living in the Bronx will adapt to their surroundings. They will be exposed to new threats and exploit new opportunities, and they will mix and match with other like-minded coyotes who arrive from other counties. These coyotes will mate, and (suburban police sharpshooters notwithstanding) eventually some of their offspring will mate with coyotes who live in Westchester, and this scrambling of birth lines will likely continue over generations until it ultimately stretches back to the Adirondacks and Canada.

Scientists believe genetic diversity is as important to species survival as sheer numbers. It has a lot to do with the mix, in other words, and if it is characteristic of human nature to look at things metaphorically, then it turns out that the city serves the same function for nature as it does for human beings. It is an intersection, a place where outsiders arrive to set up camp anew, to commingle, to move on, carrying influences and encouraging dynamism elsewhere. Like cities in the seventies, our global ecosystem is in trouble; we are flirting with environmental bankruptcy. If we are to save nature—which is to say, save ourselves—then we need to embrace that which is around us.

The mayor of Rye Brook recently announced that the village will continue its coyote trapping (or what it calls “hazing”) indefinitely, doing its part to rid Westchester County of any potentially menacing wild megafauna. With any luck, we can be more welcoming here in New York and allow our environment to be a little more wild. We didn’t know until recently how much urban nature was doing for us. Now that we do, we have to ask: What can we do for it?

At its wildest, New York’s nature exists in the places humans let be, either because we mapped it as parkland and forgot about it, or we abandoned it as ruin.


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