New Yorkers planted a tiny forest in a spot where the city used to warehouse prisoners and smallpox patients

New Yorkers planted a tiny forest in a spot where the city used to warehouse prisoners and smallpox patients
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Volunteers begin planting a pocket forest in Roosevelt Island's Southpoint Park on April 6, 2024.
Volunteers begin planting a pocket forest in Roosevelt Island’s Southpoint Park on April 6, 2024.

  • New York City got its first tiny forest, planted on Roosevelt Island on April 6. 
  • The planting method, developed by a Japanese botanist, uses minimal land to maximum effect.
  • The effort is designed to both boost biodiversity and connect the community.

On a chilly Saturday morning in early April, a few hundred people gathered in a park on Roosevelt Island, a skinny strip of land in New York City’s East River, to dig around in the dirt.

The occasion was the creation of New York City’s first tiny forest, a planting method developed by the prominent Japanese botanist and ecologist Akira Miyawaki that’s designed to accelerate dense growth to promote biodiversity. Volunteers had signed up to help plant 1,500 native trees and shrubs on a 4,000-square-foot plot on the southern end of the island.

“The idea is very simple, it’s to bring back what was once there,” said Elise Van Middelem, the founder and CEO of SUGi, an international foundation behind the effort.

The small, dense plot of greenery is just the newest feature on an island that’s undergone many transformations.

Volunteers and supporters gather in Southpoint Park on Roosevelt Island for a ceremony before planting a pocket forest on April 6, 2024.
Volunteers and supporters gather in Southpoint Park on Roosevelt Island for a ceremony before planting a pocket forest on April 6, 2024.

Before a Dutch colonist bought the strip of land in 1637, it was home to the Lenape people, who called the land Minnehanonck. In the late 1660s, the land was acquired by a British captain whose descendants eventually used it for farming and renamed it Blackwell’s Island. When the city took it over in 1828, it built a penitentiary, the New York City Lunatic Asylum, and a smallpox hospital on what became known as Welfare Island.

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Curtis Zunigh of the nonprofit Lenape Center told attendees at the planting that the mini-forest is an opportunity “to reverse the process of many generations that have threatened the existence and the wellness of this land and our collective spirit.”

US Rep. Jerry Nadler, who represents the island, said the forest is a way to combat the climate crisis. “Let’s not stop here. Let’s make the Manhattan Healing Forest a model for expanding green spaces across our city.”

The island was fully transformed in the 1970s, after the city moved the last of its prisoners to Rikers Island, renamed it after President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and leased most of the land to New York State. As a way to lure residents to the dilapidated place, the state planned something of an urban utopia with hundreds of below-market-rate apartments.

A volunteer at the planting of a pocket forest on Roosevelt Island in New York on April 6, 2024.
Sharon Bean volunteered at the pocket forest planting in honor of her sister, Kat Livingston, an avid gardener who died of cancer in January.

Judith Berdy was 29 years old when she moved into a one-bedroom apartment for $321 a month on the island in 1977. Forty-six years later, she’s still a resident — and the island’s chief historian. Despite its newer luxury homes, Berdy says the island has retained much of the community feel it had decades ago. “It’s a real small town, you walk around and most people know each other,” she said.

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Other Roosevelt Island “pioneers” included current resident Christina Delfico’s grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins. Delfico moved to the island herself more than a decade ago and founded a nonprofit called iDig2Learn that helps reconnect people with nature. She spurred the creation of the pocket forest when she reached out to Van Middelem last summer after reading about SUGi’s work. Van Middelem jumped at the opportunity. A few months later, Delfico secured the necessary approvals from the island’s authorities.

“We’ve been through a lot of changes,” Delfico said, “So this restoration rejuvenation project is just what the doctor ordered.”

An aerial view of where Roosevelt Island's tiny forest is located (outlined in white).
An aerial view of where Roosevelt Island’s tiny forest is located (outlined in white).

SUGi has created pocket forests in 42 cities on six continents since 2019 — the Roosevelt Island forest is the group’s 200th. Van Middelem hopes London, where SUGi has planted 23 pocket forests — a total of 30,000 trees on 2.7 acres — will be a model for New York. The goal is to create “biodiversity corridors” through cities, Van Middelem said, likening the project to “urban acupuncture.”

An aerial view of Roosevelt Island.
The tiny forest, also known as the Manhattan Healing Forest, sits at the southern end of Roosevelt Island.

Sharon Bean, who lives in Syracuse, New York, drove down to volunteer at the planting in honor of her sister, Kat Livingston, an avid gardener who died in January of cancer. Bean, a member of the Navajo Nation who grew up in New Mexico, believes kids, in particular, need to connect with nature. “They should learn plants first — our nature first — people second, things last. And it seems like we reversed it.”

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Volunteers place native trees and shrubs in pre-dug holes in what will become a pocket forest on Roosevelt Island in New York City.
Volunteers plant native trees and shrubs in pre-dug holes.

Despite being designed as an urban paradise — a small, affordable town with plenty of green space — the island “is sitting on a lot of untapped potential,” said resident and urban researcher Tayana Panova. Its urban design, Panova said, could do more to bring people together. “It has the bones of a great main street with a lovely main square,” she said, but there’s little to attract residents and visitors there.

The waterfront, she noted, has outstanding views, but “there’s almost nothing to do there – no cafés, squares, shade structures, plentiful seating, or other kinds of amenities and assets that we know make the best waterfronts around the world great places that people flock to.”

Ideally, the tiny forest can offer a new attraction.

Olivia MacDonald, a 24-year-old copywriter who lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, read about the event in the New York Times and immediately signed up to volunteer.

“It seems very modern and almost utopian to think about doing something like this,” she said. “I just wanted to be a part of it.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

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