Should All NYC Parks be Certified Wildlife Habitats?

Should All NYC Parks be Certified Wildlife Habitats?

At the corner of Fifth Avenue and President Street in Park Slope sits a cozy and inviting garden dubbed GreenSpace @President Street and on its gate a sign designates it a “Certified Wildlife Habitat.” Awarded this distinction by the National Wildlife Federation, the creed reads:

This certificate recognizes the establishment and maintenance of an official wildlife habitat. This habitat is certified in the National Wildlife Federation’s worldwide network of mini-refuges. Because of the owner’s conscientious planning, landscaping and sustainable gardening, wildlife may find quality habitat – food, water cover, and places to raise their young.

Greenspace @ President Street
Greenspace @ President Street

In 2014, after talks at the Greenwich House Senior Center by performer Penny Arcade and Washington Square Park re-designer George Vellonakis organized by Harvey Osgood, a park regular, Vellonakis took a small group on a park tour to talk about some of the changes that his (yes, contentious) redesign brought. During the walk, he noted that he had added specific trees and plantings which would bear nuts, fruits and/or seeds for the squirrels and the sparrows and other wildlife that live within the park. However, these trees and plantings will take around 10 years to grow and get to the point where they will actually provide this food for the wildlife (and this is IF they don’t die as so many other trees have, repeatedly, due to the Parks Departments neglect and politics).

The birds and squirrels at many city parks are helped along with water and food, some left behind but mostly provided by people who come to check on them. At Washington Square, that is certainly the case; there are squirrel nest boxes in the trees which were installed by Susan Goren and others. The pigeons do get some food from seeds from the lawn grasses. Sparrows are probably able to find the most food within the existing habitat but they still struggle without human intervention.

At Central Park and Prospect Park (both run by private organizations), Canada geese are not allowed to live in peace – they are harassed by dogs which chase them. At other parks, the resident Canada geese have been rounded up by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), with the approval of New York City government, under the flawed premise that this is making our airways “safer.” Parks should be safe spaces for wildlife.

In 2003 at Bryant Park, Daniel Biederman, president of the Bryant Park Corporation, the private organization which runs that park, famously hired a hawk to scare away pigeons at the midtown public space. This plan backfired when the hawk attacked a small dog. The Parks Department stepped in and said – no more. Bryant Park is so overly sanitized and commercialized, a good example of yet another way private organizations change the nature, so to speak, of our public spaces. The Bryant Park Corporation has not yet figured out a way to monetize the wildlife so co-existing is not given much thought. However, most city parks are not thinking in these same austere terms and finding ways to enrich our parks for wildlife seems a natural direction to go.

Mayor De Blasio recently announced an “education and awareness campaign” dubbed WildlifeNYC with an initial focus on living peacefully alongside deer, raccoons and coyotes.

What if tree species and plantings that helped New York City park wildlife with food and cover existed now and other initiatives were implemented? And if all parks made themselves places of “quality habitat” for our city wildlife?

Shouldn’t all New York City parks be places that are welcoming to these other species who inhabit them? And how can we make this happen?

Photos: Cathryn