The Concrete Jungle

Incredibly, scientists are starting to view New York as an ecological hot spot—more diverse and richer in nature than the suburbs and rural counties that surround it.

By Robert Sullivan , Published Sep 12, 2010


Wild turkeys crossing the intersection of Seaview Avenue and Father Capodanno Boulevard, near the South Beach Psychiatric Center in Staten Island.  
(Photo: Jason Fulford)

Coyotes are suburban news at the moment. Over Labor Day weekend, a rabid coyote showed up on the lawns of Rye Brook. It lunged at a 14-year-old, attacked a 2-year-old, and killed and beheaded its own pup before being shot under a trampoline by the local police. Nervous homeowners faced the television cameras to voice concern for their children and their pets. “Tonight,” a newscaster reported, “one of the victims who fought off the vicious animal speaks out…”

 But six months ago, a coyote made a high-profile visit to the city. It was a less macabre event, occasioning a long, weird video clip, filmed at about three in the morning, of a bunch of cops standing on the West Side Highway in Tribeca trying to catch the poor thing. It took the cops a long time. The coyote hid in the shrubs of Hudson River Park, then ran along the embankment. It looked pathetic and lost.

 The coyote may have been lost, but she wasn’t, ecologically speaking, out of place. As it turns out, she was as at home in the city as she might have been anywhere else. This can sound backward. You would expect coyotes to be perfectly happy living in the wilderness, if not in Rye Brook then at least a few hours north on the Taconic, far beyond Westchester County. But people who study coyotes are finding that the creatures are drawn to cities, with their large woodland areas, small rodents, and lack of large predators. The New York Police and Parks commissioners are aware of this, too, and they are quietly ironing out interdepartmental coyote protocols regarding when to capture them and where they might be taken. This last concern is significant, and an open question, because not all of the coyotes that will be captured in New York City are expected to be tourists. In fact, it turns out that there is a whole mess of coyotes already living in the city—specifically, in the Bronx.

 The way we currently think about nature in New York is that nature, for the most part, has skipped town. Henry Hudson pulled into New York Harbor and made possible the arrival of the Dutchman, who stood, as F. Scott Fitzgerald has it, “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity to wonder.” Then, over the centuries, the wonder—Fitzgerald’s “fresh, green breast”—moved off westward. Nature was paved, as New Amsterdamers logged and landfilled, and their ancestors subsequently filled with trash and sand and construction rubble the very swamps and marshlands that made New York Bay the great natural-resource-rich harbor that it was.

 What we built on top of the harbor was so awesome, and its effect on the natural landscape so extensive, that we tend to forget its foundation was once a teeming metropolis of flora and fauna. Like most large cities, New York was built where river meets ocean. But the network of waterways and islands that make up our harbor—the Hudson, Bronx, Passaic, Hackensack, and Raritan rivers; the creeks, kills, narrows, and tidal straits; the bays, inlets, basins, and coves—is one of the most intricate and ecologically complex estuaries in the world. This variety of place attracted a variety of species, all living in proximity, and as a result, New York was vibrant, dense, and diverse before it even was founded. We were a natural capital first.

 Then the city happened. But over the last handful of years, as the occasional charismatic megafauna has caused headlines by squatting in Central Park or nesting on Fifth Avenue, scientists and naturalists have discovered something much more fundamental: Nature is prospering in New York. Yes, the otters, minks, bears, and mountain lions have long since disappeared. But nature as a whole—the ecosystem that is the harbor—never went away. In fact—and this may seem implausible—nature is in many ways more plentiful in New York City than it is in the surrounding suburbs and rural counties. New York is again a capital of nature; we are an ecological hot spot.

 How can this be possible? What does the grimy coast of Queens have over the fields and forests of Dutchess County? The answer is the same thing the city has: variety. While upstate nature may be robust and all-encompassing, it is also, from an ecological point of view, relatively barren—a small and fairly static number of species coexisting in a scenic but manicured wilderness. This is true for most of America’s wide-open spaces. “People think of the rural as this pristine, untouched place, when it’s actually highly controlled and highly engineered space,” says Nette Compton, a senior project manager at the Parks Department. “The fact is urban areas are not as well controlled. They are messy. There is diversity.”  Continued….

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