River Talk

The Mannahatta Project: Ecological Science Presented in New Ways

There is a (too) common trope in many discussions of restoration ecology that posits some kind of desired "pre-contact" ecological system that would serve, then, as a desirable future condition. "If only we could get back to the North American landscape before Columbus," these arguments seem to imply, "we'd be able to live happily and sustainably on the planet."

There are many problems with this supposition, of course, among the most obvious being that it completely disregards the indigenous people as agents of change both before and after the appearance of Europeans. 

More recent and sophisticated understandings have suggested that instead of some kind of "turning back the clock" people interested in restoration might want to consider what the critical landscape functions and processes are, and work toward restoration of some of those key connections and dynamics.

I'm certainly no expert on the science of restoration ecology, but a recent project that has garnered a lot of press attention appears to have developed a subtle approach to the subject, as well as a dynamic interaction and communication/education program. The Mannahatta Project takes as its starting point the question of what Manhattan Island was like before the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609. The interactive map is really a cool way to show that Times Square formerly was an area where streams crossed (Crossroads of the World, on a different scale!) and the like.

But Eric Sanderson and the other scientists and staff at the Wildlife Conservation Society who have developed this project have a bigger goal in mind than just a cool web site and education materials. In a TED talk last summer, Sanderson posed the question of how Manhattan can still be habitat for 12 million people 400 years from now. What can be learned from the earlier biological and physical systems that will let the same number of people, say, live there, using a much smaller amount of space, and leaving the rest for growing food and managing clean water supplies.

I wish the project had more evidently talked to descendents of the Lenape people who inhabited the island when Hudson showed up, but that may still be in the works. In the meantime, the innovative use of technology to convey new scientific insights is only the most obvious reason to spend some time exploring this impressive effort to build a smarter future based on detailed knowledge of the past.

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.