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