To the conservationist, cities are the great heartbreaks unstoppable behemoths devouring resources, wildlife and open space. The modern metropolis is the lord of the landfills and the enemy of the natural landscape. So why is it that a landscape ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) sees cities as the solution to pressing environmental concerns?
Enter Dr. Eric Sanderson, Associate Director for the WCS's Living Landscapes program and founder of The Mannahatta Project, a digital recreation of Manhattan circa 1609. As a landscape ecologist, Dr. Sanderson studies habitats and ecosystems, and as a conservationist, he makes plans to protect them. When he moved to New York from California just over 10 years ago, Sanderson settled amidst soaring skyscrapers and sooty streets. To acclimate himself, he began researching his new surroundings and uncovered a history of Manhattan he hadn't expected to find. He came across paintings and maps (most notably Victor Gifford Audobon's "View of Hudson River" and the British Headquarter's Map of Manhattan from 1783) that presented idyllic visions of Manhattan, which got him wondering: what was this island really like centuries ago and what could it look like centuries in the future? And so began The Mannahatta Project.
Thousands of years before Europeans inhabited Manhattan the Lenape people made it their home. They called the island, Mannahatta, meaning "Island of Many Hills." Over the past decade, Dr. Sanderson has developed the most detailed topographical and ecological record to date of both Mannahatta and present-day Manhattan. Using a computer program he developed himself (based upon a system called "Muir Webs" after his hero, the naturalist John Muir) Sanderson set about rebuilding Mannahatta. Mapped out in a current exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, a book (published by Abrams), and an interactive Website, The Mannahatta Project allows us to understand Manhattan as an ecosystem and pushes us to see the island as something more than a mega-city. When you visit the Website, you can type in any location on the island of Manhattan and see exactly what that spot looks like now and what it would have looked like when, some 400 years ago, Henry Hudson's Half Moon was sailing its way up the Hudson. You see the wildlife, plant-life and topography of "blocks" as they were in Mannahatta and as they are in Manhattan today.
As a native Manhattan-ite myself, I have found it nearly impossible to imagine this island covered with dense forests and abundant with streams, wetlands, bears and mountain lions. It has been even harder to envision a composite city of Mannahatta and modern Manhattan until now.
By looking back at Mannahatta, Dr. Sanderson believes we can learn how to set much-needed standards for sustainability and environmental protection for the present day. By exploring Mannahatta, we can fully comprehend what effect humans have had on the landscape and then devise an informed plan for future urban ecosystems: "Manhattan is one of the most transformed places on the face of the planet and it is humans that are the thing that continues to change landscapes," Sanderson said in our recent interview. He continued, "Urbanization is the number one land use trend and for years, we were sort of assuming that all [our resource needs] were taken care of for us. But we're realizing they cannot and will not always be given to us. Manhattan takes resources [now rapidly dwindling] from the whole world, whereas Mannahatta was dynamic and provided for itself off the local environment, and it was able to withstand for thousands of years on its own. So let's look at what we can incorporate from Mannahatta and see how we might develop a real standard real criteria for having cities last forever." If we could somehow learn to combine the two, the hope is that we could create self-sustaining, highly livable cities. We could end the resource vacuum that cities have become and greatly reduce urban sprawl to protect the "wild 'Mannahattas' that still exist." Cities and nature could be allies.
So what would this city look like, how long would it take to transform into it and how will the general public be convinced to make this (or any other environmental issue) a true top priority?
First, Sanderson stresses that we must start to develop long-term thinking: "Think of how long it takes for something to evolve," he urged in our interview, "Most decisions are made for the 'short term' and we need to think about how to make cities last for eternity. If we look at everything that's happening now: economic turmoil, wars and serious environmental problems, we might realize they are not all a complete coincidence." In many ways, the converging of crises presents us with an opportunity to reflect and reevaluate. As Sanderson points out, "Our priorities are shifting back to the basic principles that are most important to us."
Copyright Heidi Neilson
Any actual change to the structure of the city would, therefore, not come immediately, but Sanderson hopes to start seeing possible blueprints. He has been working with the Van Allen Institute on Mannahatta 2409. Set to launch this summer, the competition challenges architects and city planners to expand upon Sanderson's work and make workable models that, according to the Website, "imagine the long-term future of Manhattan as an ecosystem in the context of its rich ecological and social history."
With the quadricentennial of Hudson's arrival in New York approaching, Sanderson will also be teaming up with the City to stage various large-scale Mannahatta events (think: interactive virtual time machines). In the meantime, little Mananhatta movements are springing up around town: Lenape gardens are popping up, solar panels are being installed on rooftops, vertical farming is gaining popularity and parts of Broadway are closing down to traffic. There is also talk of doing this for other cities, but for now the focus is on Manhattan.
I asked Dr. Sanderson: Though this may be a long-term plan, what is one thing we can do to take immediate action no matter where we live? "Take a walk in the woods," he said. "Go outside and learn about the natural landscape around you."
Perhaps therein we will find the solution.
Purchase Dr. Sanderson's book at Barnes and Noble: Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City
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