Restoring New York City's Ecosystems in the Face of Climate Change

Celebrating Earth Through Climate Action

Each year, New Yorkers join together in a worldwide celebration of the earth and the importance of turning environmental protection into action. This year, the theme of Earth Day is "Restore Our Earth," which emphasizes restoring the world’s ecosystems to address climate change. The UN also marks this 2021 Earth Day as the beginning of a decade of ecosystem restoration—with the urgent mission of “preventing, halting and reversing the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean.” 

Here in New York City, our ecosystems have faced the challenge of climate change head on. Rising temperatures, sea level rise, and more dangerous and unpredictable storms make it imperative that we Restore Our Earth. With the help of thousands of volunteers, we've come together in support of this worthy goal. Check out some of the ecosystems that New Yorkers just like you have helped restore—giving our city fresher water, cleaner air, and providing a home for endangered and threatened species. See what we've been doing, and come join us in the park to help out!

Streams: Bronx River

bronx river

In days of old, nearly 250 miles of streams flowed through New York City’s wetlands and forests to the estuary that had been stewarded by the Lenape, Rockaway, and Canarsie tribes for centuries. Today, over 112 miles of streams remain in NYC, only 40 of which are historical. The largest remaining stream is the Bronx River, which would've been teeming with fish and wildlife. Decades of development and pollution have degraded this ecosystem, but the river has made a comeback in the last few years—and so have the fish and wildlife it supports! We installed a fish ladder over the 182nd Dam to allow fish to migrate upstream to spawn and access 12 acres of freshwater habitat that had been blocked for centuries. Since 2017, Parks and local partners have also stocked the river with hundreds of alewife river herring with the goal of re-establishing a self-sustaining population of these native fish that serve as important food source for larger fish, birds, and other wildlife in our ocean, estuaries, and rivers. Take a look at the Bronx River Greenway Then and Now

Upland Forests: Inwood Hill Park

park visitors ride past the forest in fall color

New York City’s 10,000 acres of natural forest are the lungs of the metropolis. Ranging from sweet-smelling scrub woodlands on the coasts to the towering upland forests, such as this one in Inwood Hill Park, these spaces boast a huge diversity of native tree and plant species, as well as havens for birds, amphibians, insects, and many other wild New Yorkers. Ensuring these forests are healthy for the next 100 years is a full-time job. Inwood Hill—one of NYC’s oldest forests—has improved over the years thanks to the hard work of local volunteers and Parks staff.

Since January 2020, NYC Parks cared for over 60 acres of Inwood Hill Park’s forests, removing invasive vegetation, improving trails, and planting native trees and shrubs. The volunteer group Friends of Inwood Hill Park also plays a key role by removing invasive plants and restoring the native forest canopy through new plantings.  

Beach Grass Dunes: Coney Island

beachgrass at the beach

New Yorkers have been hard at work plugging Coney Island’s beaches with native beach grass—Ammophila. These tough-little tufts help stabilize our natural waterfronts in the face of storms and erosion by keeping soil in place and absorbing stormwater. Last year, our staff and ninety-five volunteers processed over 80,000 “culms” (groupings of grass), that were grown in our native plant nurseries by the Greenbelt Native Plant Center. Then, in social-distanced working areas, our volunteers planted 15,000 square feet of Ammophila in front of the NY Aquarium. This new generation of native plants will build on the city’s resiliency to the coming challenges.

Salt Marshes: Saw Mill Creek Marsh

a view of a creek surrounded by the lush green marsh

There are over 4,000 acres of salt marsh in NYC. These vibrant wetlands are regularly flooded by the tides, provide essential habitat for wildlife, improve water quality by filtering out pollutants, absorb floodwaters, and help mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon in rich soils. We restored nearly 15 acres of salt marsh at Saw Mill Creek, Staten Island in the past several decades. Most recently, we worked with the NYC Economic Development Corporation as a part of the city’s first mitigation bank to restore 17 acres of salt marsh and enhance 36 more to help preserve this vital resource. The project was funded through a system in which credits are sold to offset required wetlands mitigation at off-site infrastructure or development projects throughout the city. 

Grasslands: Oakland Wildflower Meadow, Alley Pond Park

a meadow of tiny white and yellow flowers

With the changing climate, pollinators that help grow our food, such as birds, bees, bats, and butterflies, are at risk. Grasslands and the native wildflowers they support provide sustenance and shelter for a range of pollinators. Supported by the Stewardship Program and Citywide Nursery, local volunteers founded the Oakland Wildflower Meadow Project in Alley Pond Park. Over the years this group planted one acre of open grassland with over 1,000 native wildflowers to restore a piece of this important and colorful ecosystem.

Published: April 2, 2021

Related Content

Help us restore and care for forests, wetlands, and other green spaces across NYC. Sign up to volunteer

The first Earth Day was celebrated in Union Square Park in 1970. Take a look back. Learn about the history of Earth Day

Celebrate Earth Day from home or at a social distance at fun events, from tree plantings to arts and crafts. View our Earth Day events

Was this information helpful?