When Nature Gets a Second Chance

By Ginsburg, Elisabeth | The Christian Science Monitor, June 18, 2009 | Go to article overview

When Nature Gets a Second Chance


Ginsburg, Elisabeth, The Christian Science Monitor


Nearly two decades ago, Steven Handel was asked to help breathe new life into a former landfill in Kearny, N.J. The barren tract - bounded by highways, salt marshes, and railroad yards - had been closed and covered for 20 years. But it was an ecological desert, supporting no birds or mammals and home to only two plant species, both of which were alien to northern New Jersey.

After studying the site, its history, and the native flora and fauna of the area, the Rutgers University professor and his team of graduate students began installing groups of native trees in hopes of creating a dynamic, healthy ecosystem on top of the old landfill.

The addition of soil and smaller plants came later. As time passed, researchers studied the changes at the site. Among their observations: Fruiting trees and shrubs attracted birds, which then dispersed seeds over the area. The original plantings matured, and the number of species on the site increased. It had once again become a viable ecosystem.

The Kearny experiment led to an even larger project at the former Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, N.Y. It also launched Dr. Handel on a succession of far-flung restoration projects, which, in turn, advanced the young discipline of urban restoration ecology.

Now, it's a discipline whose time has come, Handel says. As the world becomes more urbanized, people have become increasingly estranged from nature.

A majority of Earth's population now live in metropolitan areas, many of which contain ecologically depleted tracts that can't support the plants, wildlife, and insects that provide what Handel calls "environmental services" - cleaning air and water, pollinating crops, cooling overheated cities, preventing erosion, and improving the quality of human life.

A renewed public awareness of environmental issues has caused many urban planners, scientists, and even city dwellers themselves to recognize the high cost of neglecting land stewardship.

This awareness has also provided Handel and his team with opportunities to restore sites ranging from a former Air Force base in southern California to the area surrounding picturesque Great Falls in Paterson, N.J.

Handel is "one of the real pioneers of exploring the urban environment," says Edward Toth, director of the New York City Parks and Recreation Department's Greenbelt Native Plant Center. He adds that the urban ecologist is known for having "brought rigor and intuitive questioning" to his urban environmental work.

It's only fitting, Handel believes, that the northeastern United States, the first American region to become urbanized, has become home to the Center for Urban Restoration Ecology (CURE), a joint venture between Rutgers and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York. Handel, a professor of ecology, evolution, and natural resources at Rutgers, is also director of CURE. The nine-year-old organization describes itself as "the first scientific initiative in the US established specifically to advance the study and practice of ecological restoration on human-dominated lands."

Although former landfills, such as those at Kearny and Fresh Kills, are dramatic examples of environmental degradation that have been transformed into new habitats, Handel says that the quest to improve the quality of human life through biodiversity should not be restricted to such manifestly "ugly places."

Asphalt, he points out, is not the only surface that creates a boundary between people and the environment. "Mowed lawns surround most factories, schools, churches, and other buildings," he says, "and they give nothing back to people or the environment."

Even on a small scale, meadows and open wooded areas do much more than lawns to improve the quality of human life, he says. They are also cheaper to maintain, a concept that has special appeal in hard economic times.

Every ecological restoration project, Handel says, begins with the question, "What parts of nature can be restored? …

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