Sense of place in parks

Place meaning – how you view certain places – depends on many factors, and one of them is the history of places. At 6:00 in the morning I explored Mill Pond Park, a new 10-acre waterfront park, which has recently opened just one block from my house in the South Bronx on the bank of Harlem River. Unlike many other parks, this green space has a number of great interpretation signs. They tell you that this site used to be the largest food terminal market in New York City with thousands of barges, trains and trucks delivering fruits and vegetables to wholesalers and families. And before that the Lenape people were hunting, fishing and gathering right here. I think that as you learn such stories you start to build a stronger connection to this place and maybe even care more about it.

The Mannahatta Project


In 2009 New York City celebrates the Quadricentennial of Henry Hudson’s voyage. He has sailed on his ship “Half Moon” from Amsterdam to explore an estuary from Staten Island to Albany, which is known today as Hudson River. He met with native Americans and observed almost undisturbed forested landscapes on an island, which is known today as Manhattan, or Mannahatta in a native language, the land of thousand hills. What has changed since that time? Streams, small lakes, hills, and forests gave way to skyscrapers and the first mega-city. Probably Hudson would never imagine this change, just like it is difficult for us to imagine what New York City will look like in 100 years from now.

This week Hunter College hosted a conference about the urban environment. One of speakers was Erik Sanderson. He is working on The Mannahatta Project, which recreates what Manhattan looked like 400 years ago – both visually and ecologically. Comparing the past and current Manhattan stimulates our imagination, and helps us to think about future changes of urban systems. This project is also very educational because it helps students to think about how to modify urban systems to make them sustainable and resilient in the long run.

History is everywhere

History

The Bronx River and the Bronx itself have a rich natural and social history. The last glacier left the area that is now New York City 11,000 years ago (Weisman, 2007). As early as 6,000 year ago Native Americans were hunting and fishing here (Barnard, 2006). After Europeans came to this area, it was converted into farmland. On the photograph above, Damian Griffin, Education Director at the Bronx River Alliance, talks with interns about the history of the West Farms neighborhood in the Bronx, which used to be a farm and now is in the heart of the Bronx. One of the best ways to learn about the history of the Bronx River, surrounding neighborhoods and ecosystems is to talk with Damian or other people at the Bronx River Alliance, who always have rich stories to tell. I also want to share this article in New York Times (1912) (PDF) demonstrating that environmental problems became obvious in the Bronx more than one hundred years ago. Restorationists in the past were more focused on restoring ecosystems in the upper portion of the Bronx River in more affluent communities, and often have overlooked serious environmental problems in the lower portion of the River.

References:

Barnard, E. S. (2002). New York City trees: a field guide for the metropolitan area. New York: Columbia University Press.

New York Times (1912, September 22). Beauties of the Bronx River to be restored. New York Times, p. SM3.

Weisman, A. (2007). The world without us. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press.