Reviews of Green Metropolis

Wall Street Journal

As one flies into New York City, or rides its subways, or dashes down its hectic streets, it may seem that all its canyons are concrete, all its flora rootbound. Yet, as Elizabeth Barlow Rogers gently reminds us, “nature is not the antithesis of urban.” Even in New York, the quintessential city, the natural world “is everywhere-underfoot, overhead, and all around us.”

In “Green Metropolis,” Ms. Rogers explores seven of the city’s diverse landscapes, examining each locale’s geologic underpinnings, its animal and plant life, and the changes wrought by humans, from Native Americans to European colonists to 21st century developers. Whether mushroom-hunting on Staten Island or bird-watching in Queens or admiring outcrops of schist in Manhattan, she turns her knowing and loving eye on what she calls the “palimpsest” of the city. Like a parchment scroll or a clay tablet that has been imperfectly erased and then used again, New York was shaped – and is still being shaped, she shows – by a dynamic partnership between the natural and the human-built.

A heartening example of this collaboration between people and nature is the High Line, a 7-acre linear park whose creation Ms. Rogers calls “one of the most impressive chapters in recent New York City history.” Running south from West 34th Street to Gansevoort Street, the High Line started as a 1.5-mile elevated freight railway serving the industries and warehouses on Manhattan’s far West Side. By 1980, with the rise of long-haul trucking, the tracks were no longer needed. Forgotten but not gone, they began a long period of decay, becoming an ever-deepening blight on the neighborhood.

But as soon as the trains stopped rolling, nature began to reclaim the rusting tracks with colonies of native grasses and wildflowers. Two visionary New Yorkers, an Internet marketing consultant named Robert Hammond and a freelance writer named Joshua David, were touched by the raw beauty of the High Line’s landscape. In 1999, as the city was finally about to demolish the tracks, Messrs. Hammond and David launched a scheme to turn them into an elevated park that would retain, in Ms. Rogers’s words, “a semblance of the abandoned High Line’s nature-taking-its-astonishing-course character, while at the same time capturing its potential as a free-flowing recreational space.” Forming a nonprofit group called Friends of the High Line, the pair attracted residents, business owners and government officials to the effort.

It would be a decade before the park began opening in stages, from 2009 to 2014. But today the High Line attracts nearly five million visitors a year with its naturalistic plantings and spectacular views of the city and the Hudson River. Far from a blight, it is credited with revitalizing that portion of Manhattan. And so a string of luxury condos now overlook the High Line, including a futuristic 11-story project by the late Iraqi British architect Zaha Hadid where the units begin at $5 million.

Ms. Rogers is best known as the first administrator of Central Park, a position created in 1979, and the founding president of the Central Park Conservancy, a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to spearhead the park’s renaissance after two decades of decline. So it’s not surprising that the park takes up her most detailed and impassioned chapter, nestling in the center of the book just as the park itself occupies the “Green Heart” of the city.

Although Central Park may seem one of the few places in Manhattan where nature can be seen in its undisturbed state, Ms. Rogers reminds us that the park’s 843 acres are “entirely man-made – a brilliant overlay of nineteenth-century engineering technology with pastoral and picturesque scenery.” Construction began in 1858, with Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux deploying an army of 20,000 workers to blast rocks, dig lakes, plant more than a quarter million trees and shrubs, and move nearly five million cubic yards of earth – enough to fill some 10 million horse carts, which, lined end to end, would have more than circled the Earth.

Whereas most of Central Park was planned as recreational greensward, the 36 acres known as the Ramble (undulating northeast from the Lake to the 79th Street Transverse) was conceived as a miniature forest, with rock formations and twisting trails meant to evoke the wild landscapes of the Catskills and the Adirondacks. But like the rest of the park, it is meticulously designed, including the stands of maples and beeches, the swaths of wildflowers and the stream known as the Gill, whose water comes not from a local spring but via a pipe from the city reservoir.

The park’s artificial origins don’t deter the 300 species of birds that have been spotted there or the myriad other creatures that have taken up residence, including bats, opossums and snapping turtles – not to mention the more than 40 million Homo sapiens who come every year. As she strolls its grounds, Ms. Rogers says, it is the “entirety that never ceases to delight me, and within it, the Ramble – this wholly contrived little woodland – is where I feel most amazed by nature’s omnipresence throughout the green metropolis that is New York City.”

Besides the High Line and Central Park, Ms. Rogers’s wanderings take her to untouched woods on Staten Island, 500-million-year-old geological formations in Manhattan, a wildlife refuge and a landfill-cum-meadow in Queens, and a state park on Roosevelt Island, in the middle of the East River. Wherever she visits, she brings her particular point of view toward urban environments, seeing them not as alternatives to nature’s story but as new texts traced over the older natural narrative, which remains visible to those who know how to read it.

— Gerard Helferich

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The Urban Audubon

Wouldn’t it be great to take walking tours of some of New York City’s public parks guided by experts in urban planning, architecture, history, horticulture, geology, and ornithology? Betsy Barlow Rogers obviously thinks so too, and has penned a delightful volume exploring seven green spaces of particular distinction. After an overview of our region’s natural underpinnings, Rogers takes us through parks on Staten Island, boats us around Jamaica Bay, and walks us through Inwood Hill Park, Central Park’s Ramble, Roosevelt Island, and the High Line.

As the author of six previous books, Rogers writes fluidly and knowledgably about subjects such as plants, social history, and urban design. And she turns over long passages to others whose own voices provide vital information or context. Her carefully curated contributors run the gamut from Joshua David and Robert Hammond, the two men who created the High Line, to Nancy Mirandoli Brown, a woman who has spent her whole life on Roosevelt Island, beginning when she was a child disabled by polio and an inmate in one of the public hospitals. Brown describes what it was like then and takes us through her mainstreaming into the utopian housing that we find there today. We also hear from well-known local bird-people like Don Riepe (in the Jamaica Bay chapter) and Joe DiCostanzo (Central Park’s Ramble).

You’ll learn a lot and come to regard your favorite places in a deeper way. Bird-lovers will enjoy reading how our advocacy helped shape the horticultural program in the Ramble, but like any good walking tour, it’s the side paths that matter. The history of garbage-collecting is fascinating, as is the conversion of landfills into public parks. While on these apparent detours, much of the pleasure in the book is seeing our city as Rogers herself sees it. Her own history, as a founder of the Central Park Conservancy and pioneer in the public private partnerships that have saved our city, is in the background. She draws upon these experiences indirectly, and operates rather as someone full of curiosity and appreciation of both the natural and human-made. These are skills that not every guide has, and we’re lucky she’s chosen to share what she knows with us.

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