Manhattan's Last Forest and the Nature of Cities Everywhere

In the 1950s my grandparents moved my father and uncle out of the Bronx, New York, and into the New Jersey countryside on the other bank of the Hudson River. Growing up hearing stories from my dad about how felicitous it was to be plunked down into the open spaces and woodlands of the mid-century Jersey suburbs, I thought of New York City as a place devoid of natural areas. "The Big Apple" was to me a concrete kingdom adorned not with trees, but with towers of brick, glass, and metal.

A short time ago, this perception was firmly put to rest when Marielle Anzelone, initiator of NYC Wildflower Week and the Times Square PopUP Forest project, invited me for a walk in Inwood Hill Park. Perched along the Harlem River on the northern tip of Manhattan, Inwood Hill is the realization of the daydream in which one thinks, Imagine what it would be like if one patch of New York City had just been left alone.

The history of Inwood Hill ran deep well before Henry Hudson sailed past it in 1609, with a number of different American Indian groups using the place over millennia. Some have even claimed that it was later the site of the infamous "sale of Manhattan" to Dutch merchants in 1626. (It likely wasn't.) What can be said with confidence is that not much has happened to Inwood Hill since then, with current estimates that the forest has not been disturbed since the days of the American Revolution seeming quite likely.

As New York has grown into perhaps the globe's most famous metropolis, Inwood Hill has remained largely the same as it ever was: a verdant oasis on the edge of the city's most densely populated borough.

So what does a 196-acre relict forest have to offer to 8.4 million New York City residents? As Anzelone explains in the latest episode of Plants are Cool, Too!, the very existence of any natural areas in New York makes them some of the great treasures of "The City that Never Sleeps."

New York's natural areas continue to "survive and thrive" despite the city's "best efforts to smother them out," says Anzelone. "and its something that makes city living really bearable and, in fact, really wonderful."

With more than half of the world's human population currently living in cities, urban natural areas represent increasingly important opportunities for people to experience the outdoors and to feel a connection to nature. In an era of steep biodiversity decline, it is imperative that we all learn to value the "other" life around us and to appreciate the global ecosystem that we share.

For the price of a subway token, New Yorkers who can't get to the Catskills, the Adirondacks, or the Jersey Shore, can get to places like Inwood Hill Park. And, once there, they could have an experience in nature that inspires them to embrace a conservation ethic that not only helps protect other aspects of nature in their city, but might even someday extend beyond the five boroughs.

For starters, though, let's concede that the most fundamental benefit of an Inwood Hill Park is that it is, simply, a place to be outside. My father's stories of his childhood years in his "new wilds" of northern New Jersey are of fields to play in, hills to climb, and woods to wander through.

Urban natural areas and other green spaces can serve up these same pleasures for the millions of young people in our cities, not to mention their parents and grandparents. For this reason, alone, these are places worth appreciating, embracing and protecting.