AMC Outdoors > Features > From the Magazine

Urban Jungle: One NYC Ecologist Has Big Plans for Times Square

April 19, 2016
Wildflowers
Courtesy of Marielle AnzeloneA rendering depicts what Anzelone’s proposed pop-up forest could look like in the midst of Times Square.

It’s early October 2015, and Marielle Anzelone is strolling among the wildflowers—some of them past bloom, others still pushing out petals in spite of the shortening days. There are violets, fritillaries, evening primrose, roundhead lespedeza, milkweed, mountain mint, dogwood, and white mulberry, all of whose heads have either gone to seed or long crumbled to compost. And then there are the late-season nectars: purple asters atop tall, slender stems; the year’s last black-eyed Susans; and clouds of yellow goldenrod, above which a single monarch butterfly hovers, most likely fueling up for its long migration to Mexico.

Shade your eyes and you can almost imagine you’re in a peaceful meadow, except for the insistent buzz of traffic from the Prospect Expressway, which runs below this pocket of green in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope. Anzelone, the founder of New York City’s annual Wildflower Week, has come here to monitor the health of a small wildflower garden she planted with students from her son’s nearby elementary school. The good news, evidenced by the visiting monarch, is that the garden appears to be thriving.

For Anzelone, that’s one project down. Next up is something bigger. Much bigger: a pop-up installation like the boutiques that appear briefly around the city and then vanish into the urban ether. Only this one won’t feature clothes or food or art but an entire forest: trees, shrubs, mosses, ferns—and, yes, wildflowers.

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Diane GaristoAnzelone, in Brooklyn

If the idea of an urban forest—or urban wildflowers, for that matter—strikes you as incongruous, Anzelone, 46, will set you right. She has made it her business to introduce New Yorkers to the wild plants flourishing, often unnoticed, in their midst. From 2001 to 2007, she worked as a plant ecologist in the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.

While tending to the conservation, management, and restoration of the city’s native plant populations, she discovered just how little most New Yorkers knew about the surrounding flora. “A lot of people know there are peregrine falcons and red-tailed hawks living in the city, and when there are sightings of sturgeon or dolphins or whales, people get really excited,” she says. “But a lot of times, plants are under the radar.”

It’s not just that Anzelone wants to share her passion for wildflowers; she also believes native plants are critical to urban survival. “If for no other reason, you should care about plants because they create habitats for wildlife,” she says. That wildlife includes the pollinators—birds, bees, bats, butterflies, beetles, and the like—that in turn help propagate wildflowers. It’s the cycle of life, writ miniature.

Doug Weihrauch, an AMC ecologist who monitors alpine flowers and helps the public to do the same through the Mountain Watch program, sees wildflowers performing a similar function for people as they do for pollinators: They attract attention. “Because they’re so eye-catching, wildflowers provide an introduction and a connection to the natural environment, especially for kids,” he says.

But their role doesn’t stop there. The wildflowers that bloom so profusely in early spring soak up essential nutrients deposited by the previous autumn’s decaying leaf litter, preventing the kind of runoff that can cause destructive algal blooms in nearby waterways, Weihrauch says.

Boosting awareness of wildflowers’ small but significant cog in the ecosystem led Anzelone to hatch a plan. In 2008, a year after leaving the parks department, she founded New York City Wildflower Week “as a way to educate New Yorkers about the nature nearby and to show them that you don’t have to leave the city to find it,” she says. The festival returns for its ninth year May 7–15, 2016, with some two dozen naturalist-led events—held in each of New York’s five boroughs, most free—showcasing the city’s 53,000 acres of open space and 778 species of native plants. Past years’ activities have included a guided wildflower hike in Staten Island’s Greenbelt Nature Center, a sunrise listening tour in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, planting wildflowers in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood, and a kid-friendly interactive nature fair in Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Cove Park.

“Wildflower Week gives voice to one of our planet’s unsung heroes,” says Sara Hobel, executive director of the Horticultural Society of New York, which cosponsors the festival alongside a cadre of other organizations. “Perhaps not as showy as garden ornamental plants, wildflowers create a big splash in our ecosystem, and they need to be recognized and protected.”

Plants aren’t the fest’s only beneficiaries. Wildflower Week gives city kids a chance to come face-to-face with nature. “Being outside in nature offers health benefits through fun, physical exercise, and sunshine,” says Rebecca Cohen, author of 15 Minutes Outside: 365 Ways to Get Out of the House and Connect with Your Kids. “It provides an effortless education in natural science and an appreciation for nature’s life cycles.” Beyond the immediate payoff, an up-close encounter with nature can be life changing: “It lessens aggression and improves cooperation and creativity,” Cohen says.

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If Wildflower Week opens people’s eyes to what we often think of as weeds, well, that’s a shift with which Anzelone is familiar. An interest in biology led her to major in premed at Rutgers University, but she quickly decided medicine wasn’t her calling. After switching to environmental science, classes in solid waste and air pollution left her uninspired. Then she took a course called Principles of Applied Ecology, and just like that, she found her passion.

Anzelone was enchanted to learn about plants’ ability to adapt to their environments: how leaves in tropical rainforests encourage runoff as a natural defense against mildew; how the cones of pitch pines release their seeds only after a forest fire. “That blew my little 18-year-old mind,” she says. She went on to graduate school at Rutgers and received a Master’s in Ecology and Evolution in 2000.

Nature wasn’t a significant part of her life growing up in Westfield, N.J. “We didn’t have a garden at the house; we never went camping; we visited the Bronx Zoo once, when I was 3,” she recalls. Her own late-blooming interest reinforces her conviction that nature can grab anyone, at any time of life. She takes her sons, James, 6, and Jackie, 9, “botanizing”—her term for searching out wild plants in natural areas—both in and outside of the city. One of their favorite destinations is Upper Manhattan’s 196-acre Inwood Hill Park, home to the last remaining natural forest and salt marsh on the island.

“I show them things, and then they go off and collect sticks,” she says of her kids. “I share what I’m interested in, but they also need to find their own paths, to discover what they love about nature and their own ways of interacting with it.”

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In Anzelone’s ideal world, every resident of New York would visit Inwood Hill, but she has a plan B. When the idea first occurred to her, in 2013, it was a fantasy: a pop-up forest planted in containers in Times Square, offering a visceral lesson in the glories of the natural world. “Instead of bringing people to nature, we could bring a piece of nature to where people are,” she says.

A major mass transit hub and one of the busiest urban intersections in the world, Times Square sees some 330,000 pedestrians traverse the 13-block area on any given day. It’s the perfect place, in other words, to blow people’s minds en masse. “Who wouldn’t stop dead in their tracks when they come out of the No. 2 subway and they’re confronted by a giant forest?” Anzelone asks.

The idea was still a personal pipe dream—“I thought, It’s so crazy, who would ever say yes to this?” Anzelone recalls—when she brought up the idea during a 2013 panel hosted by the Municipal Art Society. Someone in the audience tweeted a mention of the pop-up forest and included the Twitter handle of the Times Square Alliance, a nonprofit organization that promotes the Times Square neighborhood. To Anzelone’s surprise, she was contacted by the director of the Times Square Arts Program, Sherry Dobbin. They met and agreed to try to figure out how to get the forest off the ground. One of the things Dobbin loves best about the project, she says, is that “it’s a concept that can be expanded in many places.

With the initial goal of debuting the forest in the spring of 2016, Anzelone launched a Kickstarter campaign on March 30, 2015. By the end of that first day, she had reached her initial goal of $25,000; by the campaign’s close, on April 19, she had raised an additional $15,000. Before long, the project had been covered in the magazine of Singapore Airlines, a Polish monthly, on the Paris AP wire, and on German public radio.

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Despite early financial and PR success, plenty of hurdles remain. For one thing, there are the engineering challenges related to siting dozens of trees in portable containers over a sprawling subway hub. And then there are the safety concerns: How can organizers ensure the trees won’t provide cover for potential crime? On the commercial front, the design also must account for pedestrian flow and clear sight lines of the area’s iconic billboards.

To address these and other considerations, Anzelone has worked with COOKFOX, a New York City-based firm specializing in “environmentally responsive” architecture. (Past projects include Manhattan’s 512 West 22nd Street, with 15,000 square feet of open space, and Long Island’s Ross Institute Center for Well Being, featuring a geothermal HVAC system.) And then there’s the money: some $260,000 still to raise.

The project, now known as PopUp Forest: Times Square, is tentatively scheduled for a three-week run in the spring of 2017. If and when fundraising goals are met, a team of designers and landscape architects will submit the completed plans to the Times Square Alliance for approval, after which the trees and other flora will be planted in containers and left to overwinter offsite. Then Anzelone and her team would convene in Times Square under the cover of darkness to install the forest overnight.

To make the experience more immersive, Anzelone hopes to stream a live audio feed from her beloved Inwood Hill Park. Visitors would be able to take guided tours through the urban woods, with special programming for younger nature-lovers, and at the project’s conclusion, Anzelone’s team would dismantle the forest and transplant the trees to city schoolyards.

If she manages to pull it off, Anzelone anticipates two distinct stages of outcomes. First, she envisions “this crazy spectacle that will blow people’s hair back and get them thinking, Nature’s awesome!” Second, she hopes to spark a larger conversation. “If we don’t talk about cities as places that have nature, then these places don’t exist,” she says. “They don’t exist to the mayor’s office. They don’t exist to decision-makers. The ideas of conservation and biodiversity preservation and habitat management never come into play.”

While New York City has an abundance of open spaces, “If they’re owned by the city’s economic development corporation, they’re considered ‘predeveloped,’” Anzelone says. “They’re already slated for a Home Depot, a Target, a Bed Bath & Beyond.” Leaving them undeveloped is rarely, if ever, part of the plan, and preserving the city’s biodiversity isn’t a priority. “But why shouldn’t it be?” Anzelone asks. “Other cities, including San Francisco, London, Seattle, and Chicago, are doing that.”

And cities, after all, are where we increasingly live. “As the world becomes more urban, the future conservation of wild spaces may well depend on the ability of the growing population of city dwellers to relate to nature,” says Mark Weckel, a conservation scientist with the American Museum of Natural History, in New York. While habitat management has long been crucial, in the face of climate change it is increasingly dire.

Some would say you can’t put a price on nature as you would real estate, but Anzelone argues the opposite. Salt marshes, she says, should be valued for stormwater retention and coastal buffering, and wildflowers for their pollinator support. Oh, and about those pollinators: Legislation protecting monarch habitats is next on her list.

In a city synonymous with commerce, her thinking sounds almost fanciful. But then again, so does an entire week dedicated to weeds.


LEARN MORE: WHERE TO SPOT URBAN WILDFLOWERS 

Rock Creek Park | Washington, D.C.

In spring, this 2,100-acre park is ablaze with nearly 100 wildflower species, including yellow trout lily, bloodroot, Virginia bluebells, cardinal flower, Indian-pipe, and dogtooth violet, many of which grow along the creek that gives the park its name. nps.gov/rocr

Bartram’s Garden | Philadelphia, Pa.

A sweeping wildflower meadow constitutes one-third of this national historic landmark’s 45 acres, easily accessed via the number 36 trolley. The same trail that takes you to the meadow also winds along the Schuylkill River, delivering spectacular city views. bartramsgarden.org

Neutaconkanut Hill | Providence, R.I.

Rising nearly 300 feet above Narragansett Bay, this wilderness park features 88 acres of valleys, ravines, fields, glacial boulders, and a thick forest of oak and hickory. You might spy jack-in-the-pulpit, columbine, wild daisies, violets (the official state flower), purple statice, and, in summer, an abundance of wild berries. nhill.org

Fresh Pond Reservoir and Park | Cambridge, Mass.

This city water supply sits amid 162 acres of open space. To get a sense of the wild plants—blue flag iris, monkey flower, yellow goatsbeard, yarrow, and monarch favorites, such as asters and goldenrod—follow the 2.25-mile loop. Note: Only Cambridge residents are allowed to park in the lot; public transit is available. cambridgema.gov/water/freshpondreservation

Ethan Allen Homestead | Burlington, Vt.

A short drive from downtown Burlington lies the bucolic setting of the state founder’s historic home. Several trails along the Winooski River lead past blue violet, bloodroot, jewelweed, birdsfoot trefoil, butter-and-eggs, black-eyed Susans, and a host of other wild flowering plants. ethanallenhomestead.org


FURTHER READING

Get details on Wildflower Week, find AMC naturalist outings near you, and take a time-traveling tour of regional plants and the people who love them.


 

 

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Leslie Garisto Pfaff

Leslie Garisto Pfaff lives in Nutley, N.J., and has written for publications including The New York Times, New Jersey Monthly, Parents, and Coastal Living.