Botanist's aim: revive New York ecosystems
Paul Mankiewicz wants to harness wastewater to make things grow.
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He notes the nearby boy’s bathroom. City dwellers pay $2 per 100 cubic feet of water, and $3 to treat it. Why not save $3? Gray water from the sink could be fed to the garden via solar-powered pump. He has to convince the city it’s safe first. “I want it so that people can build green roofs without the Department of Health worrying about it,” he says.Skip to next paragraph
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Mankiewicz grew up Bloomfield, N.J. When he was young, Bloomfield farmers grew vegetables to sell in New York City. He himself sold tomatoes from his mother’s garden door-to-door. But urban sprawl eventually did away with the fields. “All the areas I grew up with that were beautiful were paved over,” he says.
He earned a BA in philosophy from the New School for Social Research and a PhD in biology from City University of New York, among other degrees. In the 1980s, he spent lots of time at St. John the Divine, an Episcopal cathedral in Morningside Heights and a hotbed of environmental thinking.
James Parks Morton, sometimes called “the green dean,” presided over and encouraged the religious-environmentalist ferment for 25 years, ending in 1997. He recalls one project in particular: Inside a bay of the soaring gothic cathedral, by some accounts the world’s largest, Mankiewicz constructed a living model of the Hudson River ecosystem: several 20-foot-long tanks filled with fish, “various green stuff,” and blue crabs.
“It was incredible, people saying, ‘My God, in a church?’ ” recalls Mr. Morton. “That was the point, to say that [the environment] is a deeply important, religious concern.”
In the 1980s, Mankiewicz itched to apply his ideas on ecosystem design to the real world. “People were saying, ‘interesting idea,’ but no one was doing anything,” he says. So in 1995, he incorporated the Gaia Institute, a nonprofit. “Nothing was going to change, otherwise,” he says.
It was an unusual move, says Dominick Basile, Mankiewicz’s PhD adviser at Lehman College in the Bronx. Most biologists choose the reliable paycheck of research or academia. But Mankiewicz and his wife, Julie – both of whom Dr. Basile describes as “brilliant” and “dedicated” – chose to “spread the gospel” of biology. “I really worried about them,” he says. “They’ve made some considerable material sacrifices.”
Says Mankiewicz: “If you want quick money, never get into the green-roof business.” For 25 years, the overriding problem was lack of interest from on high. City officials favored a hard engineering approach – chemicals and machinery – to solve issues like storm water runoff. Now that’s changing. “People are just [now] getting it,” he says.
The city now has 2,300 green streets, a program begun under mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the 1990s. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pledged to surpass 3,000 by 2017. MillionTreesNYC aims to plant
1 million more trees throughout the city in coming years. (The current tree census: 592,130.) It’s all inching the city closer to Mankiewicz’s “zero discharge” dream. “It would change the local climate,” he says, “and that would be magnificent.”