Part One: Marielle Anzelone Plans a PopUP Forest

December 31, 2015, Department, by Sonia Myrick

An artistic rendering of the temporary PopUp Forest installation Urban Ecologist Marielle Anzelone is planning for Times Square in 2017.If you ever have the opportunity to talk to Urban Ecologist Marielle Anzelone, her passion for nature, particularly in the urban environment, quickly becomes evident. A tireless advocate for nature and rare plants in New York City, Anzelone runs an organization called NYC Wildflower Week that gets people connected to nature in the city. Why? Because, she says, “There’s value in having stakeholders in urban natural places. If we don’t have stakeholders in these places, we end up losing them.” This desire to connect people with nature is the inspiration for her audacious goal of bringing nature to people by creating a PopUP Forest in one of New York City’s iconic landmarks — Times Square. Following is a snippet from part one of a two-part  conversation Parks & Recreation had with Anzelone about this project, a temporary exhibit that, if all goes as planned, would be in place for spring 2017. 

Parks & Recreation magazine: What inspired you to create this project?

Marielle Anzelone: Inspiration for the project is a number of things, but one of the biggest drivers is the frustration of being someone who cares about nature and living in an urban environment trying to explain to people the value of nature in cities is really challenging. Most people don’t think that cities have nature at all. So, I run an organization called New York City Wild Flower Week that gets people connected to nature in the city because there’s value in having stakeholders in urban natural places. If we don’t have stakeholders in these places we end up losing them and this happens over and over again. Even in New York City there are places — an acre is lost here for a ball field, an acre is lost there due to pavement and roadwork — so there’re all kinds of little injustices that happen all the time, but mostly, it happens outside of the public purview. So, definitely part of it is just having people see these places and understand that they exist in the city and finding ways for them to fall in love with them. That’s what NYC Wildflower Week is about. But, it’s very hard to get people to these natural areas. Mostly they’re on the outer edges of the city, and we lead tours of natural areas in the city but instead of taking people to nature, one day I was like, “You know, it would be so awesome to have it be where people are.” And so, that’s essentially where the idea of the PopUP came from. Times Square has been redesigned so that there are a number of public plazas throughout it, so it would be contained within a public spot within these public plazas. The scale of it is to be determined. We don’t yet know how big it’s going to because that will depend on the formal approval process with the Times Square Alliance (TSA). So, what we’re proposing may not be what happens. We’re in the design phase right now. I’m working with Cook Fox Architects on the design, and we will be having a meeting soon with some folks from the Times Square Alliance to keep them abreast of where we are…where we’re going with the design. Once the design is finished, then there’s an application that I need to fill out and discuss why we’re doing this and what the point of it is and then submit it for formal approval. There is a formal approval process and right now we’re in the proposal stage, so we’re in the pipeline, and they certainly know about it. I’ve been speaking to the TSA for the last two years, so they are fully aware that this is something that I’m interested in doing, and they’ve been absolutely lovely. They’ve not told me no, so I’m glad for that.

P&R: Is there a particular date you’re aiming for to get this all done?

Anzelone: Yes, we’re aiming for May of 2017. My hope is that the design will be finished by January, and we can submit in February and then have it reviewed. Pieces of it would need to be fabricated and then the containers would be planted, and it would be nice to have them planted for the summer. I want the plants to overwinter in them, so then we would have them ready to go for next spring. But, there’s a lot to do before the spring and then there’s kind of a fallow period where, over next fall and winter, everything would be ready to go and it would be more about marketing than it would be about the on-the-ground execution.

P&R:Why do you feel public parks and/or spaces like this are important to the public?

Marielle Anzelone: To me they’re just important and it seems obvious. I guess they’re important to people for different reasons. Different people bring different values sets to them. I think natural areas are important personally because my background is in conservation biology. I was trained as a botanist and so I’m concerned with the rare plants of New York City, and we do have them. We have a lot of plants that grow wild. In some ways people have lost a sense of what nature is and that nature can exist in cities. It’s not this mind-blowing concept…it’s actually kind of obvious. I mean New York City was all nature, of course, at some point in time and not all of it has been lost to development. Pockets of that nature have existed for thousands of years, but will it continue to exist? Well, that’s where people come in. So, as much as people have been the driving force for demolishing this nature people are now critical to its survival. To me, I want to connect people to nature. Nature is good for people for lots of reasons not the least of which is that there is this emerging body of research and study that shows that it’s important physically, physiologically, psychologically. People have biochemical reactions to being in nature. There’re really great studies being done…so all of that. It’s just something that we take for granted and some people that I’ve known through the years have been like “oh nature” and feel like it’s this thing that’s far from here, but it’s around us, so I think it’s just a matter of thinking about it differently. 

It shouldn’t be an either/or proposition, and I think that that’s a kind of a hard thing for lots of larger conservation organizations. All their promotional material has pictures of these beautiful places. The Nature Conservancy has pictures of these really beautiful places and mostly there are no people in the pictures. And, when they do programs with children in New York City, the programs are about taking kids out of the city and bringing them to a nature conservancy preserve…the Nature Conservancy doesn’t own any properties in New York City. They do stuff where they get more bang for their buck, which is outside the city, but it’s kind of a perverse way to look at it because wouldn’t you get more bang for your buck having something conserved in New York City where you could then have it be an educational facility for the 8 million plus people that live here? So it’s not thinking of people as a resource in that way and that’s what I’m trying to do — bridge the mindset and the way that a lot of conservation-oriented people think about nature in a way that obviously we need large swatches of open space, and nothing makes my heart sing more than seeing big, massive populations of plants that are uncommon or rare in New York City. You go to the Catskills or even places further north of New York State and you’ll find really big populations of them. That makes me so happy, but at the same time, the plants that we still have in New York City are instructive because that’s where people are. So, we need to be doing a better job, all of us as people vested in nature, we need to be doing a better job of connecting people to nature and I don’t think we do. At least not in New York City; it’s just a really big gap. 

I use to work for the [New York] City Department of Parks & Recreation, and I think just now they’re starting to do a better job of connecting people to nature; but mostly when they talk about parks, it’s about exercise and recreation, and it’s never really something celebrating the natural areas, and I think that’s a problem.

Parks are amazing, especially the New York City park system. The division for which I worked was called NRG – Natural Resources Group – and that wasn’t formed until 1984, so it was a really recent part of the parks department. Probably 95 percent of the parks department personnel, time and energies is spent on recreational stuff. Largely, that’s because that’s where the people are. But, I just think NYC Parks is grossly underfunded. There are lots of issues, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a very good excuse for the lack of educational resources being given to natural areas. There are rangers that work in these places, but they don’t often know what a lot of these plants are. They can’t ID things. So, there’s a lack of knowledge, and it’s kind of sad. These places have really rich stories to tell and no one’s really telling them. There should be people on the ground engaging with the public and telling these stories and, as far as I can see, that’s not happening. 

It’s the things people see every day but don’t think about, and there’s also been research done by scientist looking at how people see their surroundings. There’s this thing called “plant blindness,” and they’ve done studies and, in fact, this is a thing where people can identify animals, and they just see plants as backdrop. It makes sense evolutionary because animals are going to be the things that are going come and could possibly kill you, so there’s a really good reason why you should be able to look at animals and see them really clearly. But, then you don’t see…you can’t detect the species of ferns that are equally in focus. It’s this kind of bias that you’re fighting against. 

The other thing that we’re also fighting against is the bias of the human interaction. I’ve noticed that people care more about things that have had some kind of human hand involved. For example, people care more about gardens than they tend to do about wild flowers. It’s mind blowing to me because people can see that the garden is organized. So, even if you may not really know that it’s a garden, people can make sense of it because it’s been kind of edited in a way. They feel more for it and don’t let their dogs walk through it. Meanwhile, you go into natural areas and dogs are walking everywhere and digging up rare plants. So, how do you help people to see that? That’s partly what the PopUP Forest is meant to do too. I want it to look as much like a forest as possible…like literally Inwood Hill Park (in northern Manhattan) plopped in the middle of Times Square, but it’s obviously not a real forest because of where you are. And have it be this disorienting feeling and have it be ridiculous…it should be ridiculous! People should walk away and be really inspired by it and have there be this rejiggering of the way we think. We can’t continue to think that cities and nature are at opposite ends of the spectrum because that doesn’t do nature any favors, and it certainly doesn’t do us any favors being even more separated from nature. So, I think we need to talk about nature as being on a continuum and finding ways to support nature and have there be more nature for where people are in the city. 

I have done policy work in the past and my hope is that in the very near future to start talking to legislators about supporting Monarch butterfly habitat in the city. Monarchs need milkweed and they need late-blooming nectar sources. That’s really easy — you’re talking milkweed and goldenrod: essentially, throwing some seeds out in tree pits. That’s something people could do really easily, but New York City doesn’t do anything to support Monarchs. New York City, overall, doesn’t talk about nature at all or biodiversity. There’s one piece of legislation on the books about biodiversity and that was a bill that I worked on. Otherwise, it’s just not mentioned at all. But meanwhile, there’s this global conversation happening where it’s talked about as being a real resource and a value in these urban environments and New York City is like the biodiversity dark ages. 

P&R: What challenges/support have you encountered along the way? Have there been any major surprises?

Anzelone: I would say that I’ve had zero challenges. If you can even believe it, there have been no surprises. It’s just taking a long time and it’s a long process…trying to figure all this out has taken a while but I would say there’s been surprisingly no challenges. At this point, there are enough other vested parties that it has a life of its own, and it’s not just something being pushed by me, which is amazing. No one has told me “no”: no one. They’ve not said “yes,” but no one has ever said to me flatly “no,” which is shocking! I’ve gone in and I’ve had meetings with some of the top brass at the Times Square Alliance and they were like “we think this is cool!” I went in and I was taking a deep breath and thinking: “Okay, I’m going get it today…this is where it ends.” And no…it did not happen, and I left there and I was like “What just happened? Did they like the project?” It was nuts. I don’t have formal approval yet, but this has been pretty smooth, and it’s been largely due to the fact that I’ve been in close contact with the director of public art at the Times Square Alliance. Her name is Sherry Dobbin, and she’s just been incredibly lovely to work with and very supportive, and really thinks the project is cool. And so that’s how the project would be coming in…would be through Sherry as a public art project, which I love. She saw that instantly — ‘this is how we would do this because it’s asking a question and that’s what good art is supposed to be – What would happen if New York City valued nature?’ It’s not meant to be an indictment, but it’s meant to be celebratory and fun for goodness sake. People should just go in there and have a blast and love it. It’s all good stuff but it’s definitely about asking questions.

Look for part two of this conversation in February’s People for Parks column. 

Sonia Myrick is the Managing Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine.