Magazine

A Shared Space: Finding Connection Through Conservation

As New Yorkers, we don’t often feel the grass beneath our feet. Fortunately, urban greenspaces like Central Park offer a place to stretch our legs, get fresh air, and bask in the beauty of nature. The Park also connects city dwellers to something even larger than the skyscrapers that loom above us. Intricate and dynamic ecological systems exist with these 843 acres, and while we need this space for reflection and recreation, many other species count on it for survival.

These myriad purposes of the Park are integral to the Central Park Conservancy’s strategy to care for this space, especially in the face of our most daunting global challenges. As climate change causes frequent and severe heat waves, intense storms and droughts, and alarming rates of extinction (an estimated one million species are now threatened), our Park community is adapting with intention, expertise, and a sense of possibility.

That hope is foundational to the modern conservation movement, which has made great strides despite the converging climate crisis and coronavirus pandemic. Forced to reckon with the problems that emerge when humans destroy natural habitats, it can be hard to feel hopeful. But humans, for all our foibles and fraught efforts, have the capacity to change.

We sat down with Michelle Nijhuis, author of Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, to talk about what we can do to preserve natural spaces. And it turns out, a good place to start is right in your own (urban) backyard. These global problems are enormous—but then again, so are the opportunities. Here are some key takeaways from our conversation.

Book jacket showing a wide variety of threatened species, including a buffalo and a lion, among others.

Michelle Nijhuis, author of Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, describes Central Park as an “island of green in a human-dominated urban sea.”

Central Park: An Island of Green

Central Park may be massive as far as urban parks go, but 843 acres is tiny in the scheme of things—although certainly not inconsequential. A relatively small piece of habitat can make a huge difference for an entire region, Nijhuis says, and describes the Park as an “island of green in a human-dominated urban sea.” Although Central Park is in fact man-made, there is real nature within it, sustaining ecosystems that have become increasingly vital over time. Take, for example, its role as a migratory stopover for birds or monarch butterflies.

We can appreciate Central Park as the special place it is, but our enjoyment might be even richer, she suggests, if we truly understand how the Park is connected to the region and the globe, thanks to the far-flung travels of these species. This greenspace in the middle of Manhattan is not an isolated “diorama of nature,” Nijhuis notes. The Park itself is pulsating with life, and it is connected to larger, wilder spaces around it—habitats that are being devastated by climate change and whose migratory species need a protected space for survival.

An egret stands on the banks of the Loch, surrounded by the lush green landscape

Central Park offers New Yorkers and people from around the world an opportunity to commune with the natural world, and it needs all who visit to get involved in its care.

Coexist, Not Conquer

Every time we visit Central Park, we’re entering the home of many species of mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, and amphibians who depend on it for sustenance and shelter. “Conservation is about people living successfully alongside other species,” Nijhuis explains, not just protecting them in isolation. She highlights Central Park as a prime example of a place valuable to humans, while simultaneously benefitting other species by being part of a larger ecological network.

The staff at the Central Park Conservancy is deeply familiar with this symbiotic relationship. The health of each landscape—whether a water body, woodland, meadow, or lawn—effects the next, as well as the species who depend on it and the visitors who enjoy it. By cultivating ecosystems that support rather than compete with each other, our staff, with the public’s support, contributes to a stronger, more sustainable greenspace.

Conservancy worker Aubrey Carter, knee deep in underbrush, reaching toward a co-worker.

Aubrey Carter, a member of the Conservancy’s Natural Areas team, works to remove Japanese knotweed in the Ramble. "It crowds out a bunch of native [species],” he explains. “I love [the] ecological and horticulture work. I feel like we are doing...a biological service to the Park and its people.”

All Creatures Great and Small

The conservation movement has long struggled to find the right word to describe nonhuman life on earth, Nijhuis says. Using terms like “nature,” “wilderness,” or “biodiversity” to classify other species gives the impression that nonhuman lifeforms are somehow set apart from us, in a (lesser) category of their own. But in fact, our lives are very much intertwined with theirs.

The coronavirus pandemic can serve as a reminder of what humans stand to lose if we continue to encroach upon natural spaces. When animals are exploited and their habitats invaded, there are costs for us too—often in the form of disease transmission to the human population. Research shows that outbreaks of diseases such as SARS that cross over from animals to humans have increased in the past few decades, and scientists point to a pressing need to investigate biodiversity’s role in pathogen transmission. “Conservation can be a really important part of preventing the next pandemic,” says Nijhuis.

A turtle plods along a rock with a summer day in a soft-focused background

Conservation plays an important role in preventing the next pandemic, and those efforts can start right in your neighborhood greenspace.

Adaptation Nation

Humans need to adapt to climate change in dramatic ways in the coming decades. We can’t save everything, but instead of despairing we must adapt. The hope lies in what can be saved. Here, Nijhuis points to the current state of Central Park as a reason to remain optimistic. The Park, she says, is an example of a group of people taking action to protect an essential habitat. Our community has the foresight to understand that this greenspace is not only important now but will continue to be for future generations. By protecting the Park and ensuring the species who live here year-round or during migratory travels have a thriving habitat, we can build upon the successes of the larger conservation movement and help it adapt in these changing times.

It Takes a Village

It often comes down to our community to help sustain a sense of possibility in unnerving times. In Beloved Beasts, Nijhuis details the accomplishments of indigenous communities in conserving natural spaces. When a community has a direct interest in the long-term health of a place, humans are both motivated and successful at getting involved and protecting the land. She reminds us that it’s difficult to be optimistic if we feel like we’re alone. Working alongside and strategizing with others who share our goals is imperative to sustaining conservation efforts.

As an organization formed with a grassroots spirit, the Conservancy is familiar with the importance of community. Central Park provides a healthy habitat today thanks to community activism that began 40 years ago, when a few New Yorkers joined together to save the City’s backyard—and all the species who need it—from ruin. As human actions continue to impact the environment, it’s going to become ever more important to get involved in the Park’s care. The health of its habitats is in all of our hands.

Park-goers take in the autumn scenery on the banks of the Pool.

Aldo Leopold, often considered the father of wildlife ecology, found inspiration living in the natural spaces he studied and called for an ethical, caring relationship between people and nature. His daughter told Nijhuis of the family’s time in nature: “We restored those places. And they restored us.”

“Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.” 

Anyone who has visited and experienced the grandeur of Central Park can relate to these words from Rachel Carson (one of the prominent figures of the modern conservation movement profiled in Beloved Beasts). Central Park is our own little slice of nature here in New York City. But in every way the Park is grand, it is also grounding. Whether New Yorkers frequented it for solace during the pandemic or seek out its 843 acres on any ordinary day, they can find a sense of trust and continuity in the Park.

Nijhuis, who has dedicated much of her career to exploring the complex human ecosystem that has grown out of our shared love for certain species, has seen first-hand how people come to conservation out of sense of real affection for places and the creatures within. Central Park, she says, allows people who live in a very dense urban area to be grounded in a landscape. Love for Central Park—its woodlands and water bodies, lawns and lifeforms—can open the door to larger conservation issues. We often refer to the Park as New York City’s backyard, and in a way a piece of it does belong to all who enter. It’s a place to find a sense of peace, but also a sense of pride—there’s a continuous give and take between the Park and its people, each equally in need of the other. Together, our love for this place can motivate us to think bigger, and perhaps even turn the tide.