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Ecology and Manhattan: Mapping What Henry Hudson Saw

Oct 01, 2015 12:06 PM EDT
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A conservation ecologist is combining data from maps, GPS, history and other sources to create images of how Manhattan likely looked in 1609 when Henry Hudson arrived. He says the information is useful to green-space managers today, as well as to residents and visitors to New York, to know what lies beneath.
(Photo : Flickr: Bill)

If you sometimes want Manhattan's green spaces -- its terrific new High Line with native grasses and flowers, and the glacial-remnant boulders and trees in Central Park -- to extend further and further outside their perimeters and take over 42nd Street, say, you might want to look at the work of Eric Sanderson.

Sanderson is a conservation ecologist with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, and he is utilizing satellite information and historical maps, lots of data and GPS, to create the Welikia Project--formerly known as the Manahata project. In this work, he is recreating the ecology of Manhattan as it was likely seen by Henry Hudson when he pulled up next to the wooded, long isle in 1609. 

At that point, notes Sanderson, the island had black bear, wolves, white-tailed deer, beavers at every stream, and river otters. "If Manhattan existed as it did then, today, we would think of it as the Yellowstone of the East Coast," says Sanderson, in a video on the WCS website. 

Using tools from modern landscape ecology, Sanderson is building up the soils, streams and species to show Manhattan in images that include past and present, side-by-side. One image, for instance, shows Times Square as it is today, beside its forested version.

What's the point of doing this? Sanderson says that, for one, knowing the past ecology helps people who manage parks and wetlands in the city's metro area to understand what is underneath it all, and how human impact affects it.

But more than that, says Sanderson, it's important that while we all think of Manhattan as a place that belongs to us as we walk its busy streets, it's useful too to realize that the nature that underlies New York also belongs to all of us. From that, we can ask useful questions going forward about how to make the nation's largest city as ecologically healthy as possible, Sanderson notes.

Want to hear Sanderson or see images of forest in Manhattan outside of Central Park? Go here to TED.com and the Welikia Project

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