Coastal wetlands could protect New York City from storms - and the Nature Conservancy is spreading the word

Coastal wetland Brooklyn Bridge Park, New York
© Manon Verchot || Coastal wetland Brooklyn Bridge Park, New York

Few would associate New York City, often dubbed the “concrete jungle,” with biodiversity, but New York is home to 26 distinct habitats, and 230 species of bees.

This Wednesday, the Nature Conservancy organized a tour of Brooklyn Bridge Park to teach New Yorkers about the importance of these ecosystems, particularly those along the coastline.

“By 2050, most of the world’s population will be living in cities,” said Emily Nobel Maxwell, director of urban conservation at the Nature Conservancy. “Urban biodiversity may be the first and it may be the only biodiversity that they are exposed to, so we love the opportunity to connect people to nature in any way that we can so they see nature as a strategy to improve urban life.”

The tour was led by Lauren Alleman, an urban scientist, who brought the group through freshwater wetlands, a mini-forest and a coastal wetland, pointing out textures and smells along the way. Alleman has been working at the Nature Conservancy for about a month and was excited to share her passion for wetlands.

“Coastal wetlands are really dynamic systems and are really hard working,” said Alleman. “When you look out at a coastal wetland, you may just see grass and water, and you may not understand the number of species it’s supporting and the amount of carbon it’s capturing and the capacity it has to absorb flood water and storm surge.”

Because wetlands act like sponges, they are great at preventing sewers from overflowing after a heavy rainfall. They are also great carbon sinks.

© Manon Verchot || Lauren Alleman explains freshwater wetlands to the group

The list of benefits that natural spaces bring to New York is endless, from shade to clean air, but the capacity of wetlands to buffer storms was of particular interest to some members of the group. Wetlands can absorb wave power so that the strength with which storms hit the land is diminished.

But there aren’t many wetlands left in New York City. As the city grew over the last century, wetlands were filled in, and now only 20-25 percent of the original amount of wetlands remain. That’s where other ecosystems and storm infrastructure comes in.

“The amount of wetlands required to protect us from another identical Sandy are miles and miles and miles,” said Alleman. “So wetlands aren’t the only solution to coastal resiliency, it’s a combination of grey and green infrastructure, but green infrastructure certainly facilitates flood protection.”

Beaches and sand dunes have been found to provide similar wave power absorption – so have oyster reefs. New York City has taken this seriously, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has laid out plans to protect 520 miles of coastland and coastal wetlands in an effort to mitigate future extreme weather events.

In the meantime, educating New Yorkers about the nature around them is an important way to build support for these crucial habitats.

© Manon Verchot || The Nature Conservancy brings New Yorkers through Brooklyn Bridge Park

Tags: Ecology | New York City | Urban Life | Urban Planning | Wave Power

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