The Central Park Conservancy has been maintaining and advocating for the Park—its trees, gardens, landscapes, and water bodies—for over 40 years, and the recent launch of our Climate Lab is the next step in our mission to care for this space forever.
In the face of weather extremes and record Park visitation, the Climate Lab will build upon decades of Conservancy expertise and data to track, articulate, and inform best practices in urban park management here and around the country. Leading this research is Michelle Mueller Gamez (she/her), an urban planner with a passion for equitable access to greenspace. We spoke with her about this exciting new role within our Institute for Urban Parks and what motivates her work in the field of climate resilience.
Sheila McMenamin: The Climate Lab is certainly one of the most talked-about initiatives at the Conservancy this year, and your role as the Manager of Climate Change Research will have a profound influence on how we care for the Park and work with other parks facing similar challenges. How did you get into the field of climate resilience?
Michelle Mueller Gamez: I am an environmental planner, although I didn’t have a linear trajectory getting into the work of climate resilience and adaptation. But during my undergrad years at the University of Texas, I got involved in mapping and data analysis. I feel like one of the big reasons I did that was because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do quantitative research. I wanted to say, “I am a woman who can run a statistical analysis.” So that’s how I kind of fell into it!
I eventually studied urban planning for two years at MIT with a focus on the environment and ecology, and I also worked at a large nonprofit that was doing resilience planning throughout the United States and globally. My focus there was on intertidal and riparian [land situated along water] zones along the water’s edge. That work required looking at how cities are adapting to rising sea levels, changing river flows, and increased rainfall, and that’s when I started getting really invested in natural infrastructure and the power of plants for managing the threats of climate change.
And green infrastructure comes in many forms. What is your relationship to urban greenspaces and parks?
My love of the natural world and passion for working with the earth and land was really cemented at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. When I first moved to New York City, I was a bit overwhelmed by how concrete everything was, but the Refuge is proof that you can have an essential migratory pathway in a huge urban oasis for all New Yorkers. After years of degradation, that landscape was completely transformed through advocacy and policy, and now it’s a place where I go for peace of mind. I am a steward of the Bay, and I do a lot of cleanups there to build a relationship with this landscape that has provided me with so many mental health benefits. I am thrilled to be at the Central Park Conservancy now and feel like there’s so much to learn from my colleagues in the Park, our visitors, the plants, and the landscape itself. It’s such an important oasis for so many New Yorkers and folks coming in from out of town, so I am honored to help inform how the Park gets managed in the long term.
Can you describe the ways climate change—and the erratic weather patterns it creates—impacts cities today, and how greenspaces are mitigating the worst effects of it?
The first thing I think of is the urban heat island effect. We all feel it as New Yorkers in the summer, and we are getting more frequent and intense heat waves each year. Greenspaces—by way of their natural areas, woodlands, plants, and trees—create a cooling effect that counteracts all the cement and concrete that is absorbing heat. We also know that natural areas absorb water during extreme rain and flooding events, slowing down the speed of water that carries pollutants out to surrounding rivers, bays, and estuaries. We are living in this impervious, non-absorbing environment, so expanding these natural areas as much as possible is important to mitigate flooding.
How will the Climate Lab operate, and what are some of the indicators you’ll be monitoring over time?
Our intention is to get a baseline understanding of how the Park has been impacted by climate change in the last 50 years, understand and build out our data collection processes, and complete future risk analyses for the Park—like how extreme rain could impact specific landscapes over time. The first year or two is going to be focused on science and analysis, and then the intention is to share those learnings with a network of other urban park organizations that may be struggling with management or assessment of how climate change is impacting or degrading their parks.
We’ll be creating maps of where urban parks are within different municipalities, and then the different typologies within those parks—like the distinction between playground landscapes, lawn landscapes, and natural areas landscapes. That can inform how cities weigh options and make decisions around mitigation and adaptation for these landscapes, the plants and species that live there now, and the types of ecosystems that will thrive there in the future.
We’ll also be monitoring fluctuating temperatures on landscapes, soil quality, and the health of trees over time. This project is going to be very collaborative with our fellow staff at the Conservancy—many of whom have been collecting various data for decades—so we’ll work with them, see what data is feasible to collect, and map out our process accordingly.
One of the things I am most excited about is learning from our staff that works with plants daily—the Natural Areas technicians, gardeners, and arborists who have really intimate relationships with the space. I am also especially interested in how humans are processing the loss of our previous climate and biodiversity. There are so many ways to involve the public through advocacy and art, and I am excited to see how we speak to this evolving narrative.
And of course, climate change is a racial justice issue, too. Black and brown communities across the United States, through historic redlining, have had less access to parks, fewer resources to manage those parks, and therefore greenspaces that can be more susceptible to the effects of climate change. Getting this research, planning, and mapping done right is incredibly important, so that all park organizations have the proper resources to inform their management, funding, and future.
With so many daunting reports about the climate crisis, and so many people and species already being impacted by it, mere hope can feel like an incomplete response. So instead, what ignites a sense of purpose in this work for you?
I’ve spent a lot of time researching Black and indigenous approaches and relationships to landscapes, via scholars like Katherine McKittrick and Sylvia Wynter. There is so much scholarship written about plantation landscapes; during that era, there was incredible violence through the forced removal of indigenous people, the enslavement of African people, and the displacement of entire cultures. Accompanying the attempt by plantation owners to dominate lives for profit was the control and homogenization of plants through a monoculture.
But within these landscapes, there were plots where enslaved people grew their own food to feed themselves and their families. These plots not only nourished people, but a diversity of birds, insects, and other species. When I think about the climate and our future, I think about the plot. Amidst this otherwise bleak landscape, there are moments of collaboration, nourishment, and support of one another and of our natural environment. History is filled with these stories—people organizing, leaning on one another, and creating alternate worlds within this world. That's the hope I hold onto.
Sheila McMenamin is Senior Content Manager at the Central Park Conservancy.
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