Learning How the 'Unnatural' Becomes Natural Through Restoration Ecology


James Danoff-Burg and high school students in the New York Young Conservationists class determine the approximate near-shore marine biodiversity using a BioBlitz approach in Great Kills Park on Staten Island.

Photo credit: Eric Jacobson

The many natural respites in New York City — frequented by humans, migratory birds and other animals — are not natural at all, says Professor James Danoff-Burg of Columbia University, but the result of a post-industrial phenomenon called restoration ecology.

“New York City is at the forefront of many restoration ecology projects and approaches,” says Danoff-Burg. "What is seen as ‘nature’ for New Yorkers is really restored ecology sites."

And according to Danoff-Burg, that makes New York City an ideal place to learn about the importance of this kind of ecology.

On August 7, 2006, Columbia University kicked off its first 10-day course designed to teach high schoolers how to explore the natural environments of New York City’s five boroughs and to learn practical skills in ecology.

The class, New York Young Conservationists: Restoration Ecology in NYC, ran from August 7 to 18, and was taught by Danoff-Burg, who is an Associate Research Scientist at the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, part of The Earth Institute, and Director of the Summer Ecosystem Experiences for Undergraduates Program.

And while it seems that developers are eating up every last bit of space, Danoff-Burg is quick to disagree. “There are many new restoration projects all over the city, at least five in each borough. The City is, in some ways, gaining green land.”

The class of 13 students, most of them juniors and seniors, visited eight of New York City’s most popular and well-known natural environments, including Manhattan’s Central Park, Jamaica Bay in Queens, and Great Kills in Staten Island. Throughout the course of their visits, students were exposed to important field-study techniques used in conservation ecology.

The foundation of this course lies in the fact that all of the natural sites visited by students are actually restored areas once heavily damaged by human activity.

“Central Park, for example, is completely man-made,” says Danoff-Burg. “Starting in the late 1800s, in just 5 to 10 years, the park was created, including all four of its bodies of water. Central Park is a classic representation of restoration ecology — a ‘natural’ environment created by humans.”

Danoff-Burg hopes that the young people who took his course will walk away with an experience that will influence their lives. “My hope is to get children energized about conservation biology and inspire them to get involved in some way, as volunteers for parks, young scientists studying ecology or as informed conservationists — in other words, to act as seeds for future change.”