Surrounded by the Pond at the southeast corner of Central Park is the four-acre Hallett Nature Sanctuary, a peaceful haven just feet away from some of the city's busiest streets. Like all of Central Park's woodlands, the Hallett provides an intimate and immersive experience with nature and a valuable wildlife habitat. Though these areas look and feel like natural woodlands, it takes careful planning and constant upkeep to maintain a seemingly-wild sanctuary for plants, animals, and people in the middle of New York City. This ongoing work includes removing invasive species, monitoring soil and water health, and planting and maintaining a diverse array of native plant communities.
The Hallett was enclosed and designated a bird sanctuary under New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses in 1934, limiting maintenance and public access. In the decades following the Hallett's closing, the lack of consistent management resulted in erosion, overgrowth of invasive species, and the deterioration of infrastructure. Invasive species installed in the early Park design for their exotic, decorative characteristics, such as Chinese and Japanese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis and W. floribunda), glossy buckthorn (Frangula alnus), Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), and jetbead (Rhodotypos scandens), had taken hold in the absence of regular maintenance, choking out other plantings and creating monocultures of only a few types of flora.
The Central Park Conservancy began restoration work in the Hallett in 2001. Key to the ongoing management of the Hallett is ROOTS (Restoration of the Outdoors Organized by Teen Students), one of the Central Park Conservancy's important service-learning programs, which takes place every spring and fall. ROOTS was created by the Conservancy in 2003 as a way for high school students to gain an early look into the value of urban parks through active participation in restoration practices. ROOTS students have been instrumental to the Hallett's restoration, building its wood-chipped trail loop in the program’s early stages. Some of the other work that ROOTS students have done includes removing invasive plants, maintaining trails, and planting native shrubs, trees, wildflowers, and ferns.
Through such work, ROOTS students create habitat for wildlife and increase the biodiversity of the Park. The ROOTS program, in turn, gives students insight into careers in urban park management, creates strong connections with urban nature, and allows students with an interest in the environment to meet similarly-minded teens. One participant noted how the program changed his perspective on Central Park:
Before I started participating in ROOTS programs I believed that the park naturally looked beautiful and that there wasn't a ton of work that people did to make this the case. But I have learned from my two experiences in the Hallett that in fact it takes a ton of work, and work that isn't just done for a paycheck but work that is done because you love doing it. From these experiences I have gained a new appreciation for the park and for the people who work there. This also makes me understand that the park should not be taken for granted.
As Vanessa Francisco, Associate Director of Career Development Programs at the Central Park Conservancy Institute for Urban Parks, puts it: "How many teens can say they’ve planted trees in Central Park? All of our ROOTS students can. Through service-learning programs like ROOTS, students can not only learn skills like tool use, plant identification, teamwork, and horticulture techniques, but also build a deeper understanding of the Park landscape and the care such an urban park requires."