On Urban Ecosystems

To mark the fifth anniversary of the launch of Urban Omnibus, we look at themes that have emerged in our content over time and think about what those threads reveal about the needs, desires, and priorities of the city today.

Before it became one of the world’s most densely populated (human) cities, what we now call New York was one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth. The many hills that give Manhattan its name were home to forests brimming with megafauna, and the estuaries and wetlands that connect the landmasses to its waterways teemed with oyster beds. And while the intensified development that has given us the city of today did mar and destroy some of these ecosystems, it has not — despite what seems at times its best try — done away with them entirely. Renewed attention to the ecological health of our environment continues to reveal the crucial services functioning environments provide and ways in which we can harness ecological restoration for the benefit of humans and larger systems.


Photo by Alicia Rouault

The oysters of New York City (particularly of the Gowanus) were once considered some of the tastiest around before industrial outflows made their consumption less than advisable and harder to find. The Oyster Restoration Research Project, directed by a multitude of stakeholders, seeks to revive the bivalves in our waterways to improve water quality, facilitate nutrient cycling, enhance biodiversity, and stabilize and protect shorelines.

Shellfish are just one of many fauna and flora that cohabitate with us in the city. By mapping the urban ecosystems that exist along the 7 line and creating a series of podcasts that guide straphangers through those systems as they travel, Safari 7 illuminates the city’s life support system and the interconnections between the human-built environment and the natural world. David Seiter and Future Green Studio have done something similar for the many “weeds” that arise spontaneously in the concrete jungle, cracking through pavement and colonizing vacant lots. Rather than view the plants as unwanted intruders, Seiter advocates for recognition of the ecological benefits and appreciation for their spunk.


Commelina Communis (Asiatic Dayflower) | Image via Future Green Studio

The potential to harness these benefits as a means to better manage waste flows, protect communities from flooding, and reduce energy consumption is increasingly seen as a set of strategies collectively referred to as green infrastructure. Paul Mankiewicz, director of the Gaia Institute, believes that human activities, the waste they produce, and natural systems can coexist to mutual benefit. We took a walk with Mankiewicz to discuss the bioswale system he’s installed on Stratford Avenue to regulate stormwater runoff, the cooling potential of wastewater, and the soil he’s created to improve green roofs. While the relevance of this approach to wastewater management may have risen in recent years, green infrastructure has a much longer history. The Staten Island Bluebelt, an extensive system of wastewater treatment mechanisms designed into natural areas to mitigate inadequate infrastructure after a real estate boom, has been implementing these principles for the last twenty years with great success.

And beyond dealing with newly generated waste flows or forestalling future damage, supporting ecosystems can actively remediate already polluted bodies of water (thanks to oysters) or land sites. Phytoremediation is the use of plans to remove contaminants from the environment, and given the prevalence of brownfield sites across the city, it represents a low-cost alternative to traditional clean-up technologies while creating more vibrant places in the process. And along the banks of the Gowanus Canal — a waterway renowned for the surfeit of pollution that earned it Superfund status — four designers began a project to house the urban birds of the canal and further improve the surrounding ecosystem through composting and plantings. While these may not make the canal any cleaner, they can, however, greatly improve the experience of its adjacent areas for humans and animals alike.

An ideal of a future Gowanus may be to return it to its “natural” state, but Alexander Felson, a landscape architect and ecologist, sees greater possibility in designing experiments within our ecosystems to inform the construction of new ones. Rather than adhere to an ideal of what is natural (read: untouched by humans), Felson thinks we should embrace our presence and instead make ecologies work better than what came before or exists today. Being more flexible with how we approach landscapes is at the heart of landscape architect Chris Reed’s practice and teaching. See some visions of a dynamic future for Jamaica Bay generated through one of his studios at the Harvard Graduate School of Design that embrace ecological change within the context of urbanism.


Amphibious Landscapes | Juan J. Reyna Monrreal and Mikaela S. Pearson

Jonathan Tarleton is a writer, activist, and urbanist with aspirations to contribute to a more sustainable and inclusive urban environment. He is a former assistant editor at The Architectural League and has made his way to Brooklyn from his roots in Georgia and North Carolina.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.