Looking out the window of a descending airplane can give the impression (in the United States at least) that the approaching airport has been carved out of abundant wilderness, a preview of the topography characteristic to the region. Tall conifers surround Seattle, Washington, while Ashville, North Carolina is nestled into densely wooded mountains. Arriving in New York, however, is always a surprising reminder that the five borough city is a vast wetland made up of islands, creeks, and sandy beaches. And unless you take a long subway ride to Coney Island or Jones Beach, you may never make the connection between what you see from the air and your experience on the ground.
In New York City, there are brownfield sites that have been consciously re-landscaped into parks, such as Freshkills Park, a former landfill area on Staten Island. Others have quietly settled back into obscurity, their usefulness expended. Fort Tilden on the Rockaway peninsula in Queens is one of the latter—lightly maintained and gently steered by interested parties. It’s a haven for rare birds and supports a thriving ecosystem in a landscape that is far from pristine.
Photography by Valery Rizzo for Gardenista.
Fort Tilden is part of a network of parks spread around Jamaica Bay and Rockaway. They are maintained by the National Park Service, with litter-clearing drives and park improvement organized by the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy (JBRPC). Rockaway and Jamaica have a high-density population, yet the undeveloped salt marsh islands that make up the urban estuary of Jamaica Bay cover 18,000 acres, with the Atlantic-facing barrier peninsula of Rockaway stretching across 12 miles.
Expect to find re-planted dunes, a maritime forest, salt marshes, freshwater ponds, as well as an un-signposted network of semi-derelict buildings. In amongst this, a slowly disintegrating military base decommissioned in the 1970s lends some Cold War atmosphere. For residents of Queens and the outer reaches of Brooklyn, Fort Tilden is easy to get to; for those closer to the center of town, NYC Ferry runs from Wall Street to Rockaway, a very scenic journey of just under an hour.
Dunes are increasingly valued for the job that they have been carrying out for millennia as a natural (as opposed to industrial or military) coastal defense network. Seaside goldenrod withstands salty winds and has a strong root system, reaching at least 14 inches in depth at maturity, that stabilizes sand—with the help of American beachgrass. Like prairie plants further into the interior of this continent, these grasslands are also highly effective at storing carbon underground.
Invasive plants such as Asian bittersweet and multiflora rose are a fact of life in America’s public spaces. Clearing these smothering plants as part of a group effort can feel cathartic; at Fort Tilden and Jamaica Bay, volunteers add beneficial natives to plants that are already there, while tackling invasives during the summer months. A further kind of clearance is that of trash, much of which comes in from the ocean, having been swept out via tidal rivers. Members of the JBRPC pick up about 10 tons of trash from these beaches and waterways per year. Another key actor is the American Littoral Society, which organizes dune grass plantings up and down the East Coast. It is an effective organizer, reeling in corporations, private groups, and school groups “to protect life, limb and property” from the effect of storms.
Across the Marine Parkway bridge at Floyd Bennet Field, a 3.25 acre nursery was set up by the JBRPC specifically to grow native beachgrass. Plugs are planted with a view to stabilizing the dunes that form a buffer along the Rockaway coastline, helping to mitigate the effect of storms and rises in sea level. The nursery describes American beachgrass thus: “Specially adapted for its harsh environment, this grass has the ability to shift with ever-changing dunes. Even as beach grass gets buried by blown sand, it migrates upward and continues to grow.”
Fort Tilden is an important nesting site for New York’s shoreline birds, including piping plovers, American oystercatchers and least terns. Plovers’ eggs, laid directly on the sand, are so effectively camouflaged that they are easily stepped on. During the nesting season, areas of public beach are fenced off and monitored, and the status of piping plovers has been improved to “near threatened” thanks to efforts by the New York City Plover Project, established in 2021.
Landscapes that have been used and abused by humans and then left more or less alone, can be amazingly beneficial for wildlife, without conforming to a familiar beauty standard. A building like the abandoned machine shop shown above provides shelter and nesting places for birds and ground-hugging animals.
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