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The Greenbelt Native Plant Center (GNPC), a facility of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, is a 13–acre greenhouse, nursery, and seed bank complex located on Staten Island, NY.

The Urban Ecotype Study

Extreme overdevelopment in New York City has caused an unprecedented strain on our limited open space. Most of our old industrial sites are neglected and polluted, and the opportunity to develop new parkland is rare.

However, the trend of careless urban growth and polluting development is waning, and ecological rehabilitation is anticipated or underway for hundreds of these degraded natural areas within our metropolitan region. The goal, given our City's limited financial resources, is to utilize the most cost-effective and sustainable land restoration techniques possible.

picture of the urban genotype study

The Urban Ecotype Study is a collaborative three–year research project to determine if some native plant species are genetically adapting—evolving—to conditions on harsh urban sites such as brownfields and former landfills. And while that is a useful and exciting scientific question to answer, we are equally interested in the practical implications. If we can demonstrate that this is true, we will develop restoration plant materials derived from these tough urban plant populations for use in re–vegetating such sites with native ecosystems.

The use of proven appropriate ecotypic plant materials will maximize the success of revegetation efforts and will add back valuable missing pieces of functioning and diverse habitats to our city.

Project

The Urban Ecotype Study

Partners

Duration

2004–2007

Rationale

The ecological rehabilitation of degraded natural areas within New York City will have widespread positive environmental, social, and economic consequences for the City.

  • City populations—over 80% of Americans currently live in cities—create enormous pressures on limited land and open space resources while urban sprawl has also reduced the quality and quantity of available greenspaces.
  • As open space becomes scarcer, degraded lands have the potential, once remediated and restored, to add back useful open space for human activities and for improving human and environmental health.

Degraded areas in urban centers have distinct stressful environmental conditions.

  • Brownfields in urban areas are generally hotter, wetter, and more polluted than degraded lands elsewhere.
  • The soils are more contaminated, compacted, and disturbed.
  • The soils have altered chemistry and few essential soil organisms.
  • The hydrology of these areas is highly modified with extensive impervious surfaces that cause rapid surface runoff.
  • Adjacent wetlands flood rapidly and have highly polluted waters.

Special plant types are needed to address these stresses and protect the City's lands, waterways, and human health.

  • Native plant species are in constant competition with non–native invasive plant and animal species on these disturbed lands.
  • Many species of native plants cannot cope with these pressures and are eliminated, decreasing biodiversity and environmental vigor.
  • Many of the small habitat parcels that do remain, helping to keep water and air clean and to prevent soil erosion, are threatened and missing many historically important native species.

Some native plants, however, do thrive in these stressed urban environments, and there are significant opportunities for restoration of suitable functioning habitats.

  • There are hundreds of current and future land remediation projects planned in the metropolitan region, including the transformation of the nation's largest landfill, the 2,200–acre Fresh Kills as well as the other defunct landfills throughout the City, and smaller brownfield sites such as along the Bronx River.

Goals

  • From a scientific perspective, we wish to see if native plants in stressful urban settings, rather recent phenomena in evolutionary time, are evolving to better adapt to these conditions. This followed from our anecdotal observations that certain native species do compete well in these conditions.
  • Develop appropriate native plant lines from these source materials to increase the success of disturbed land remediation in NYC.

Objectives

  • Conduct what are called common garden studies to compare performance of five native species from urban and rural source materials on four depaupered urban sites and one rural control site .
  • Based on these studies—conducted over three growing seasons—identify specific source populations that performed well and begin to develop GNPC seed and plant stock.

Activities

  • BBG and GNPC staff botanists located and collected wild seed of native populations growing in depaupered soils in railroad yards, abandoned city lots, landfills, and brownfields from 30 sites in the greater NYC area.
  • Five test sites were selected for field trials:
    • Fresh Kills Landfill, Staten Island (capped sanitary landfill)
    • Drier–Offerman Park, Brooklyn (a construction–rubble fill site of former wetlands)
    • Federal EPA Training Facility, Edison, NJ (brownfield)
    • Belt Parkway Access Road, Brooklyn (urban roadside)
    • Duke Farms, Somerville, NJ (rural control site)
  • Five species were selected:
    • Eupatorium rugosum (White snakeroot)
    • Euthamia graminifolia (Lance–leaved goldenrod)
    • Panicum virgatum (Switch grass)
    • Solidago canadensis (Canada goldenrod)
    • Asclepias syriaca (Common milkweed)
  • Field trials were designed, planted, monitored, and evaluated for three growing seasons.
  • Data will be statistically analyzed for survival, growth, and reproductive output.
  • Collections that are most successful will be earmarked for production in the nursery.

Final analysis of data from the three-year study is underway and scientific papers are being prepared for publication. For further information regarding the outcomes of this study, contact Nursery Director, Ed Toth.

Thanks goes to New York Community Trust and New York City Environmental Fund for their funding.

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