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When nature gets a second chance

Degraded landscapes can be returned to natural beauty and usefulness.

(Page 2 of 3)

It’s only fitting, Handel believes, that the northeastern United States, the first American region to become urbanized, has become home to the Center for Urban Restoration Ecology (CURE), a joint venture between Rutgers and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York. Handel, a professor of ecology, evolution, and natural resources at Rutgers, is also director of CURE. The nine-year-old organization describes itself as “the first scientific initiative in the US established specifically to advance the study and practice of ecological restoration on human-dominated lands."

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Although former landfills, such as those at Kearny and Fresh Kills, are dramatic examples of environmental degradation that have been transformed into new habitats, Handel says that the quest to improve the quality of human life through biodiversity should not be restricted to such manifestly “ugly places.”

Asphalt, he points out, is not the only surface that creates a boundary between people and the environment. “Mowed lawns surround most factories, schools, churches, and other buildings,” he says, “and they give nothing back to people or the environment.”

Even on a small scale, meadows and open wooded areas do much more than lawns to improve the quality of human life, he says. They are also cheaper to maintain, a concept that has special appeal in hard economic times.

Every ecological restoration project, Handel says, begins with the question, “What parts of nature can be restored?” The answer often depends on how the land has been used.

Sometimes sites slated for ecological restoration can be returned to a habitat that resembles what was there originally. But that isn’t always possible.

The Fresh Kills landfill, for example, was originally a wetland. Because it had been filled in with millions of tons of garbage over the years, it couldn’t be returned to wetland status. The 4.6-square-mile tract could, however, be planted with species native to the surrounding area, creating habitats for various animals, birds, and insects, and creating a viable ecosystem. In time it will become a public park.

Fresh Kills is just one of many restoration sites that have become parks. The professor believes that intelligently designed parks – encompassing meadows, woodlands, and other natural areas – are essential for reuniting people with nature, restoring those important environmental “services,” and reducing the stresses of urban living.

Other projects have provided Handel and his colleagues with opportunities to re-create the ecosystems that existed before human habitation.
One of these was a 90-acre site near Long Island’s Great South Bay. The property, formerly home to commercial duck farms, was acquired by the county and designated as parkland. The restoration process included transforming a former duck pond into a freshwater habitat and a cornfield into a wildflower meadow.