Reforestation and habitat restoration will undoubtedly have large roles to play when it comes to removing carbon and greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. But ecosystems and healthy environments should have a larger role in our day-to-day lives. At the same time, there are many places where reforestation simply won’t work; and that’s when ecosystem services come into play. Take for example Newtown Creek in New York City. 

New York City’s Newtown Creek

The Newtown Creek is an industrial waterway between Brooklyn and Queens. For nearly 150 years, between 1850 and today, more than one hundred oil refineries have sat along its banks. The fossil fuel industry has taken a toll on the creek’s health, and it is hard to imagine what the Newtown Creek would even look like if it was restored because it is so polluted. 

Before colonisation, however, the creek was home to countless streams which fed into wetlands, and then transitioned into tidal saltwater marshes. These ecosystems protected surrounding lands from storm surge, and flooding, and provided indigenous Lenape people with rich fishing and hunting grounds. Some aspects of these ecosystem services can be restored to the creek, and we should seriously consider the roles that ecosystems can play in our daily lives, especially in urban areas like New York City. 

Using Ecosystem Services as an Alternative to Reforestation in New York City

One organisation that aims to reincorporate ecosystem services into the everyday lives of city dwellers is New York City-based Newtown Creek Alliance (NCA). The Alliance is working to restore saltwater marshlands along the Newtown Creek. They are also using modern design interventions, like green roofs and rain gardens to restore wetland, and wildflower meadow ecosystems along the creek. Their goal is to use these ecosystems to bolster the city’s infrastructure. These are all examples of ecosystem services. 

But what are ecosystem services? 

As the National Wildlife Federation explains, “An ecosystem service is any positive benefit that wildlife or ecosystems provide to people.” 

For example, wetlands and marshlands provide a multitude of ecosystem services to surrounding communities, both human and more-than-human. Wetlands are important flood mitigation structures that store excess water, while marshlands can buffer storm surges and prevent erosion by neutralising powerful wave forces from the ocean. At the same time, these two ecosystems are incredibly biodiverse and provide hatcheries for both fresh and saltwater fish species.

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When it comes to mitigating the impacts of climate change, wetlands can be important partners. Especially as cities like New York City experience more extreme weather, and are threatened by flooding due to sea level rise. One problem that NY in particular faces is the combined sewer overflow (CSO) runoff, especially in the Newtown Creek. 

The Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant is the city’s largest, it processes more than one million people’s sewage or one-eighth of the city’s population. It sits right next to the creek and discharges clean, treated water into it during normal times. However, because the city has a combined sewer system, stormwater is also cleaned at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. When rain falls onto the catchment area of the plant, it joins with sewage in the combined sewer, but too much rainfall creates a surge of sewage larger than the plant can handle.

In order to protect the treatment plant, when it rains too much in a short time, sewage bypasses the plant entirely and is dumped directly into the ocean, either in the East River, Jamaica Bay, the New York Harbor, or in the Newtown Creek. 

Rethinking the Newtown Creek as a Healthy Ecosystem

In an interview with Earth.Org, Lisa Bloodgood, the director of education and advocacy at the NCA, talked about the alliance’s goals and plans to restore the creek by securing mitigation and remediation of known environmental hazards and to prevent new pollution, as well as the NCA’s vision plan.

ecosystem services

This is a rendering of the vision plan, the full plan can be found here

In 2018, the NCA released a vision plan for the creek, which includes plans to create 14 hectares of park space, restore 8 hectares of saltwater marsh, as well as introduce countless native species, including oysters, which are excellent at filtering water. Interestingly, the Alliance emphasises working with industrial businesses.

“Our approach is centred around the idea of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer.”, Bloodgood said. “Industry has always been at odds with human health, ecological health, and environmental integrity. But we understand that industry isn’t going away. Industrial business is an integral part of our lifestyles now.” 

Instead of approaching industrial business as an enemy, the NCA wants to take a mediating position between environmental advocacy and industrial businesses so it can become a leader in shaping the future of industry as a whole along the creek, “some of it is about asking how we can change the way that these businesses are designed from the outside in.” 

“These are big spaces. Let’s put green roofs on all of them. How can we improve these buildings using ecosystem restoration so that they’re not emitters of greenhouse gases and so they’re clean and high-performance spaces that use ecosystem services? And then there’s planning for the future. Can we encourage the clean energy sector to move to the Newtown Creek? How can we encourage transitions?” – said Bloodgood.

One NCA project, called the Kingsland Wildflowers Green Roof, is a wonderful example of how industry can use ecosystem services to have an overall positive impact on their local environment. Green roofs help take the load off of sewage treatment plants during rainstorms by absorbing rainwater, so that less sewage is dumped into the Newtown Creek, at the same time, green roofs give workers access to green space, and mitigate the urban heat island effect.

Conclusion

The Newtown Creek as a whole encapsulates a larger problem within the environmental movement, many people believe that modern society exists ‘past’ or ‘beyond’ nature, yet this is simply not true. As climate change continues to impact our lives, we have to take a direct role in engaging with ecosystem health and resilience. 

We need to rethink our strategies and commitments when it comes to sequestering carbon via reforestation projects. Reforestation is important, and when it is done right, it can have a huge impact on solving the climate crisis. At the same time, we need to consider every ecosystem’s role when it comes to carbon sequestration, and we need to recognise every ecosystem’s ability to have positive impacts on our everyday lives. Assisted ecosystem restoration and implementing ecosystem services are two practices that we can use to make our society more sustainable and resilient.

This is the second part of an article about reforestation and ecosystem services, you can read the first part here

Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons

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