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Enviro-Conscious Apartment Living: Creating Urban Wildlife Corridors
Emily Gertz, 29 Oct 07
Article Photo

My outdoor garden is my fourth-floor fire escape. It's a highly illegal place to grow plants, since the law worries, with reason, that they may block my escape (or a fire fighter's access) during an actual fire. Still, before the super caught me and evicted the planters, I grew herbs on mine for several weeks this summer. Given the height from the ground and the overall uninviting metal and stone environment, I was surprised that some birds and insects managed to find their way to my tiny bits of soil with their flowering basil plants. Their presence led me to consider how I might make my building's stony facade a more inviting rest stop and snack bar for critters trying to commute between the 585-acre Prospect Park, across the street, and the woodsy Green-Wood Cemetary about a mile to the west -- the largest green expanses in Brooklyn.

Wildlife corridors: they're not just for bears and wolves in the wilderness anymore. Urban wildlife need wildlife corridors between green open spaces in cities, ideally stocked with native plants that have evolved to flourish in local soil and climactic conditions, and feed the local animals. Creating this sort of networked conservation or green latticework in the city can connect us humans to our neighbors, too, because ultimately you need to engage with the people around you to convince them to do something different with their own properties.

Creating urban wildlife corridors can be portrayed as animal welfare, or as enlightened thinking: hey, we can take the needs of other living creatures besides ourselves into account in our urban planning and living. But if this sort of soft sell fails to persuade people, note that increasing the plantings in a city neighborhood has purely practical payoffs as well: more plants cool the neighborhood in summer by helping to disrupt the heat island effect of all the stone, concrete and asphalt, ultimately lowering energy costs for cooling in the summer. If they're native plants that can tolerate local conditions better than exotics, they'll generally need less water, soil inputs, or pesticides. And unlike asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks, soil absorbs stormwater runoff that otherwise ends up overtaxing our increaasingly strained sewer systems, and draining into and polluting local water bodies and waterways.

There are a lot of gardens in my neighborhood, ingeniously crammed into small plots of dirt, or containers bunched on paved terraces and stone stoops, and even windowboxes -- as well as more than a few biggish front and back yards -- but in my unscientific visual surveys, they're generally not stocked with the native plants that attract, nourish, and provide shelter for the local birds, butterflies and other flying creatures. (I love me a beautiful geranium, but it doesn't provide lunch for a wandering bee.) My research into what the ideal native plants would be eventually led to a very nice neighbor dropping by my building one summer afternoon to give me two big, plastic pots containing small plants that, she told me, would grow into blossoming purple coneflowers and asters by next summer. This generous woman is Jennifer Hopkins, and she's working to establish green links for avian creatures between the park and the cemetery.

According to Jennifer, coneflowers and asters would be the most attractive to pollinators coming out of the park. "Sunflowers grow well in containers and attract alot of butterflies," she told me in email, "but the squirrels get them after they go to seed. Purple lantana is also good for window boxes as well as containers because it doesn't get very tall." Keeping a birdbath stocked shallowly with water would help the birds, she said.

Further, as Jennifer told a reporter from The New York Daily News earlier this year, milkweed and parsely are good host plants for breeding butterflies, including Monarchs.

Jennifer's had her eye on my building for years as a prime greening cadidate. The planters in front of my building are eyesores as well as net losses for greening the stoop: they're typically bare dirt or contain half dead ornamental fir plants. And the big lawn at the corner, also part of our co-op's property, is largely a wasteland of grassy turf and banal hedges. She even called the big old tree on the corner of our yard, which we've fought to save from years of poor care, a "weed tree," because it's non-native.

Right now I'm considering how much I can do to get these spaces more populated with native plants that will attract birds and pollinators. (Sorry Jennifer; the tree stays.) It's ultimately going to mean outreach, advocacy, and persistence with my fellow residents, the co-op board, and the building's management company, to change landcaping practices that have endured for a decade or more. Fortunately, there's hard data showing that street plantings improve property values, which is always a good selling point for a new idea. And hopefully the mainstreaming of green will make my case an easier sell; since really new and hip green retrofitting is currently out of the question for our buildings, which are nearly a century old, perhaps having a native plants garden will soon become a positive selling point for my fellow owner-residents. But no matter what, something growing and green in those concrete urns will be an aesthetic improvement over half-dead bushes.

So far, I've managed to place the pots of cornflower and aster plants on my fire escape with no pushback; the plants are still small enough to be invisible behind the lips of the pots. (I doubt my super reads blogs, but strongly suspect that my co-op board president does. Hi, Matt! Let's talk.) I think I'll be able to harbor them until next spring. Their next stop, hopefully, will be those planters.

Image: Renegade native cornflower and aster plants on a Brooklyn fire escape. Credit: Emily Gertz

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Comments

Community based efforts to create habitat that is inviting to wildlife and humans is a trend I hope continues to catch on. I wouldn't necessarily rely on native species to create urban corridors, however. Urban settings have few similarities to the native habitat. Factors such as polution, fill dirt, proximity to pollinators and the heat island effect, mentioned above, create an entirely new habitat. Many native species cannot survive in such conditions and may require more water or pesticides to survive than an exotic cultivar.

Don't rule out non native species as weed trees either, especially established specimens. Such trees often are the only trees that can survive the trials of an urban environment.


Posted by: Jonathan Smith on 1 Nov 07

Community based efforts to create habitat that is inviting to wildlife and humans is a trend I hope continues to catch on. I wouldn't necessarily rely on native species to create urban corridors, however. Urban settings have few similarities to the native habitat. Factors such as polution, fill dirt, proximity to pollinators and the heat island effect, mentioned above, create an entirely new habitat. Many native species cannot survive in such conditions and may require more water or pesticides to survive than an exotic cultivar.

Don't rule out non native species as weed trees either, especially established specimens. Such trees often are the only trees that can survive the trials of an urban environment.


Posted by: Jonathan Smith on 1 Nov 07

Hi Emily. From the description of your surroundings, it sounds like you are close enough to warrant an invitation to Sustainable Flatbush's upcoming Town Hall Meeting, where Sustainable Gardening will be a topic of discussion and future plans. (There is also a community garden in the works nearby.) Please check us out at

http://sustainableflatbush.org

We are based in Flatbush but welcome all Brooklynites, especially from nearby 'hoods such as Prospect/Lefferts Gardens, Kensington, Windsor Terrace, Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, etc.!


Posted by: Sustainable Flatbush on 2 Nov 07



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