Last month we introduced you to Marielle Anzelone, an urban ecologist, and the PopUP Forest installation with which she plans to temporarily transform New York City’s Times Square. Anzelone runs an organization called NYC Wildflower Week that gets people connected to nature in the city, and her goal is to show the importance of incorporating, and relative ease with which we can incorporate, nature where people are in the city. Following is the second half of a conversation Parks & Recreation had with Anzelone about this project, which she hopes to unveil in spring 2017.
Parks & Recreation magazine:You plan to carry out this transformation in the middle of the night. What logistically is involved in installing and dismantling this exhibit?
Marielle Anzelone: We don’t know yet because it depends on the design, and of course, the design right now is such that we would be able to do that. But, I don’t know what the final shape of it will take. It will be a lot of people doing a lot of work during the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. That’s essentially what it is…a lot of bodies. Times Square is a really big commuter hub with people coming in from New Jersey and from other parts of the city. All those people will be on their daily routine, you know the morning slog, and all of a sudden, they’ll come out of the subway and they’ll be greeted by this crazy business.
P&R: What does success look like for you once this project is complete?
Anzelone: I would say that it’s a number of things. First of all, the PopUP Forest is an art exhibit, so it’s temporary. Some people have said, “Wouldn’t it be better to have a forest in Times Square permanently?” And it wouldn’t because that’s not what Times Square is about. The forest is there to be this stark contrast between the two polar opposites of New York City. The way it’s designed right now, it’s modular, so the pieces would be broken down and put into groups and donated to schools throughout the city, especially schools that are in need of green space and gardens. So they would have an awesome afterlife. I want to have some kind of classes for students around what the plants are and why they are important in New York City to get the kids engaged. So that would all be part of the PopUP Forest project.
We’re going to be especially targeting neighborhoods that have very low amount of green space and typically those are socioeconomically depressed neighborhoods. There’s a lot of research that looks at nature from an environmental justice angle and shows that people who live in lower-income neighborhoods typically see less green overall and the green that they do see is less diverse. So this would be a way of addressing some of those issues.
Kids in the city don’t think that there’s nature here or they have negative connotations of it. Education for kids about nature is so huge. Even just having them walk through the woods. It’s good for their little brains. Every kid in New York City should have an opportunity to do that and there shouldn’t be limitations on it because they live so far away from a park. There should be a way and it should be part of the curriculum. I don’t know how to do that but it’s something I’m looking into and trying to figure out.
But also, what I’d like to see is more greenery where people live. I don’t think nature should be a destination. It should be embedded in people’s daily lives. It behooves urban planners to think about ways to weave ecological elements into neighborhoods. I live very close to Prospect Park…it’s out the back of my apartment building. Okay, first of all I live in an apartment building, as a lot of people in New York City do, so I don’t have a yard. My yard is Prospect Park. But what if I lived a little further from Prospect Park? In the front of my building, there aren’t a lot of trees on my block. It’s moderate income and there aren’t a lot of garden spaces, so where are the green things? How does anyone who lives on my block or lives on any other block like it when they look out their window and they hear things like “New York City has nature.” They must look out their window and be like, “Man, they are pulling my leg,” because they don’t see anything like that out their window. So, how do you help people make that kind of mental leap? You have to bring nature to where they are. And it goes back to all the studies that have been shown how good nature is for people to be around.
So, I want to build these things that I’m calling City Block Biomes that would be pockets of nature built into neighborhoods. They would have native plants in them and also re-contextualize the street trees. When I worked at NYC Parks, I’d get a couple of calls a year from cranky New Yorkers who were complaining about the fact that the tree outside their house was dropping stuff. “Is someone from Parks going to come and clean up after it?” they’d ask. I’d be thinking, “No lady, because it’s a living thing. You should be psyched to have a tree. Trees are great!” But, it’s this nuisance and problem, instead of like it’s giving you oxygen to breathe. There’s this huge disconnect for people. People see street trees as infrastructure, so we need to reclaim street trees, and we reclaim them by having larger tree pits…let’s call them tree beds to have it sound nicer. Have them be bigger — in New York City that’s already happening in some places…they’re making them bigger — so there’re more opportunities for groundwater retention and infiltration. Let’s plant them with native plants, so now not only is this a beautification project, but it’s also an opportunity to create habitat for Monarchs that have flown over New York City for thousands of years, for other migratory birds that pulse through the city every spring and every fall, for the green darner dragon flies that migrate thorough…there’s lots of things and we pay them no mind. So let’s pay them mind. Let’s do something for them and have opportunities then for people who live on these blocks to be able to see these things up close.
And now, the scale is different. Now, if you’ve got grasses and ferns…what if you had wildflowers and shrubs and grasses? Now there’s something to see and, now, if you have bees coming, which of course you will, if you plant it they will come…that’s just how it works and that’s what I’d like to see. Have there be this legacy of nature throughout the city, and have there be policy intertwined with it that protects the open spaces that we have in New York City in a meaningful way because, right now, they’re not protected. There are no protections for the natural areas in this city. So, let’s protect the nature that we have and then let’s work harder to get nature out to where people are. Those are the two parts.
P&R:How do you envision the public engaging with the installation? What do you hope people take away?
Anzelone: I want people to feel something when they engage with it. I don’t know what their reactions might be. They might be totally disgusted, or they might think it’s incredible and be really happy. But, I want them to feel something, to have a visceral reaction to it — that is success. Then I’ll know we’ve won the day because that to me is how you interact with nature. Nature is not something distant. It’s squishy and smelly and colorful and alive and all this good stuff, and I just think that makes you feel something. So that’s what we want…for people to feel something. And the takeaway is for people to know that there’s nature in New York City. That’s the biggest takeaway. Beyond that, ideally I’d want them to feel vested in this nature, to feel like stakeholders in this nature, to perhaps go to Inwood Hill Park or some other New York City natural area and go for a walk in the woods and see what the city has to offer because not enough people are doing that. We need people to be vested in these places and feel like they’re stakeholders. They are because as New Yorkers everyone pays city tax and your city dollars go toward maintaining these places, so it’s something that we all own.
P&R:What do you plan to do next?
Anzelone: Have a vacation; take a break. The PopUP Forest is all consuming…Continue to advocate for nature and rare plants in New York City and maybe share the PopUP Forest with some other people and places. I did a Kickstarter campaign, which is where the Mental Floss article came from, and it got an insane amount of press attention. It was also really popular on Twitter for a while and people were tweeting at me from all over the world. “When you’re done with New York City can you come here?” And here might have been London, Hong Kong, somewhere in Thailand and Lima, Peru. Lima, Peru, really? Like, don’t you already have nature in Lima, Peru?
I got this sense that it really resonated with people. I think people are hungry for ways to connect with nature, and no one is helping them do it. And it seems hard and you’re being told there’s no nature, so it’s this kind of overwhelming proposition but it’s actually really easy to solve.
Sonia Myrick is the Managing Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine.