Before & After: New York City's Urban Ecosystem

Art by Philip Straub, via National Geographic.

In its latest issue, National Geographic shows what the now bustling urban jungle of Manhattan looked like before Henry Hudson spotted the island in 1609.

Four hundred years ago, there were beavers, just like this little critter, named José, who was discovered in 2007 along the banks of the Bronx River after two centuries of the animal’s absence from the city. There were also turkey, elk and black bear. And instead of skyscrapers, there were towering chestnut, oak and hickory trees.

For nearly a decade, Dr. Eric Sanderson, an ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo, has led a project — known as The Mannahatta Project — to imagine the landscape of Manhattan before it became a city, comparing today’s street grid with topographic details from an 18th century map created by military cartographers. Then, researchers went beyond the two-dimensional pictures to trace a multidimensional Web-like network of relationships between different plant and animal species that would have existed in the original environment.

What is revealed through this method is a complex ecosystem that Nat Geo writer Peter Miller says is “one of the most detailed scientific reconstructions of a landscape ever attempted, identifying 1,300 or so species and at least 8,000 relationships linking them to one another and their habitats.”

Dr. Sanderson says, “I wanted people to fall in love with New York’s original landscape. I wanted to show how great nature can be when it’s working, with all its parts, in a place that people normally don’t think of as having any nature at all.”

When viewed from a cynical perspective, the legacy of “Mannahatta” (the Lenape people’s name for “island of many hills”) is one of dysfunction: the land used to be pristine, natural and untouched, and now it’s polluted, man-made and crowded. Much of the landscape was bulldozed to build the city. But when viewed from an optimistic standpoint, the legacy of the island — and its transformation into one of the most iconic cities on earth — is one of learning, adaptability and growth.

Just as Dr. Sanderson shows reverence to the past and a mild undercurrent of regret for the way things turned out (“It makes you wonder what was here before…” and “If the island had stayed the way it was back then, it could have become a national park like Yosemite or Yellowstone…”), he’s also part of a larger project that provides a scientific basis to be hopeful about the future of cities.

From The Mannahatta Project website:

“The goal of the Mannahatta Project has never been to return Manhattan to its primeval state. The goal of the project is discover something new about a place we all know so well, whether we live in New York or see it on television, and, through that discovery, to alter our way of life. New York does not lack for dystopian visions of the future…. But what is the vision of the future that works? Might it lie in Mannahatta, the green heart of New York, and with a new start to history, a few hours before Hudson arrived that sunny afternoon four hundred years ago?”

To learn more about the project, click here.

And see related posts, below, about NYC’s efforts to make its streets — and their evolved ecosystems — into something more sustainable. If not for our children’s children, then at least for José, the beaver.

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