Driving through the flooded streets of Long Wharf this wet week, then ditching the car to hike up my skirt and trudge barefooted through filthy knee-high water in front of Union Station – all to catch a Metro-North commuter train to Manhattan -- I flashed on a day when life would seem less at odds with nature. Usually, I’m not a green utopist, but a visually stunning and provocatively written new book, Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City (Abrams) is turning me on to the ecological origins and conceivable futures of cities. I’m so taken with this book that I’ve bought several copies as gifts (perfect for Father’s Day) and am planning to present it to my daughter’s grade school to adapt into the curriculum – that’s how important I think the ideas are.
Here’s the premise: even a city as developed as Manhattan began as a natural landscape of forests, trees, rivers and streams. In 1609, when explorer Henry Hudson first came upon Mannahatta -- the “island of many hills” to the Lenape tribe – it teemed with flora and fauna among fifty-five ecosystems that “reused and retained water, soil, and energy, in cycles established over millions of years.” Back then, Mannahatta supported a human population of three hundred to twelve hundred. Today, Manhattan is home to millions of people on a planet of billions. Yet, as author Eric Sanderson argues, it’s a “conceit” to think any city and its inhabitants -- no matter its technological and economic development – “can escape the shackles that bind [us] to our earthly selves, including our dependence on the earth’s bounty and the confines of our native place.”
Scholarship and research aside, Mannahatta is a fun read. Full-page color photos of today’s Manhattan juxtaposed with photographic visualizations of 1609 Mannahatta open up, centerfold-like, throughout the book. Author Sanderson, a landscape ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, is adept at making complex scientific issues accessible to the lay reader. Charts and maps show habitats of species, distribution of fauna, and even the location of beavers in the vicinity of today’s Times Square. City buffs can pore over bathymetry and topography maps. I laughed aloud when I learned that the bronze bull standing at Bowling Green (the New York Stock Exchange) was once a hill twenty feet high.
By 2050, the majority of people on earth will live in cities, and they will have to become greener and more hospitable if they are to continue being the vibrant cultural and business centers they are today, as well as comfortable places to live in. In the last chapter, “Manhattan 2409,” Sanderson addresses basic human needs – food, water, shelter, energy – acknowledging that changes in infrastructure will most likely come piecemeal. Waterways and greenways will slowly replace beltways and avenues. Sanderson proposes new green buildings with lizard-like second skins that can both shade and insulate, open and close depending upon the season.
As to this week’s flooding at the New Haven train station? The next time the city renovates Union Street, they might use permeable paving materials that capture rainwater below the surface. Or perhaps, we can add a “green roof” -- a thin layer of soil planted with grasses and flowers that slows water flow and cools a building -- atop the New Haven Police Station? I can always dream.
Note: This September 12, 2009, celebrates the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Henry Hudson in New York Harbor. See also, the exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, Mannahatta/Manhattan: A Natural History of New York City.