A Crazy PR Stunt for Nature
Time Square is known as the urban epicenter of the world. What happens when a conservation biologist decides to install a forest in the middle of it? Naturalist Marielle Anzelone hopes to transform Time Square by planting vegetation and animal noises to create a realistic natural habitat. This project, called PopUp Forest, or "a crazy PR Stunt for nature" by Grist magazine aims on spreading the idea that New York City is more connected to nature than we think. Marielle’s goal is to get New Yorkers excited about nature and hope to conserve and protect the forests and wildlife in the city.
Meenakshi Parashar: What is the message of the PopUP Forest?
Marielle Anzelone: Our tagline for is it that if a forest can make in Time Square, it can make it anywhere. This is a cutesy saying to say that people overlook cities as places where nature exists.
We think about the Pop-UP in different ways. In one way we look at it is to say that “what’s the most urban place we can think of in the world? Times Square is obviously an iconically urban place.” If you can put nature in that place, we think people will stop and think ‘what the heck’ then also think here’s this forest which seemingly doesn’t belong here and yet it does because New York City is filled with real forests. However, no one thinks about them. I can’t tell you how many native New Yorkers I know who don’t know forests exist in the city. I’m from New Jersey and knowing that New York City had nature wasn’t something I knew when I was growing up either. It shocks me to know that people don’t know that this is here.
M.P.: What reaction do you aim to get from New Yorkers?
M.A.: We want to make the forest a spectacle to get people to stop and think, even if it’s for a minute. We want to spark the conversation that New York City has nature. Part of the message is that a forest can make it anywhere if it makes it in Times Square. Beyond that, we want to help people think about cities differently. A lot of these tropes around how we define cities has gotten old. We need to retire the stereotype of the city. Cities are so much more than concrete jungles. Cities are also nature. We want people to think more expansively to think about cities.
M.B.: Could you tell me about the existing nature in New York City?
M.A.: Kurt Vonnegat once said that New York City is the skyscraper national park and it’s true! However, did you know that Northern Manhattan has forests? This forest has tulip trees over a hundred years old and rare beatles. It’s another narrative of New York City and it’s one that no one ever hears about. It’s this kind of hidden story about the city. So we’re trying to celebrate it. When Superstorm Sandy happened, everyone cheered for New York’s resiliency but no one’s talking about greenery as its resiliency.
When we think about climate change, we never see how it ties into nature and biodiversity and There are studies that show that systems like forests and marshes that have higher levels of native biodiversity and less invasive plants function better at a higher level at a job that we need them to do. For salt marshes, the job is to act as a buffer against storm surges and flooding. We don’t think that these things do it for us and we give no attention to it until we have an extreme event like Superstorm Sandy. We have salt marshes in the city, but no real evaluation for them. Why not? Why is it that New York City doesn’t appreciate its marshes or biodiversity? Its rare wildflowers? Other cities in the world have biodiversity in the books and we don’t. We’re in the biodiversity dark ages.
M.P.: What is the importance of the project both on the city and its residents?
M.A: We want people excited about nature and create a big fun exciting event around nature and nature needing a makeover. Nature can be sexy and modern. People think of it as hippie but even urbanites need nature. We evolved in nature. We respond to nature on a biochemical level. Even seeing green lowers cortisol levels in our bodies and being around trees raises our white blood cell count and helps our bodies fight off different diseases. As urbanites we aren’t post nature at all. We need nature more than ever, so why don’t we talk about it? Why is nature overlooked? Let’s talk about it! Let’s talk about how we’re losing this nature! We need nature advocates because if people don’t talk about it and have a love for it, then we lose it.
Nature in New York City is being lost. In parkland, paved trailed are removing nature. Recreational activists advocate for mountain bike trails which will be put in sensitive areas and result in a loss of populations of plants. We don’t see conversely a group of people who want to protect the sensitive area. It’s just helping people to see that this exists. If they see this, people will want to save the nature and protect it and become a part of it.
M.P: Have you met with any opposition yet?
M.A.: Honestly, none really. We’ve gotten the usual snarky comments from people but mostly there’s been no opposition. We previously worked with a landscape architect firm but there were conflicts of interest. The other group we work with is the Time Square Alliance and we’re raising funds to have a concept design, a series of drawings illustrating exactly what we would be doing such as how big it is, how we’ll secure it, and how we’ll maintain it. We need to raise funds so we can be formal partners with Time Square Alliance. They’ve been very supportive and enthusiastic.
There’s not been any pushback from anyone. I’m sure there will be in the future, but there hasn’t been anyone that’s said we don’t think this is a good idea.
M.P: What’re some challenges the project has faced?
M.A.: While we haven’t had people saying no, our challenges are innumerable. No one has ever done this so there’s no blueprint. We’re figuring it out as we go. Because we have so much enthusiastic support, I feel confident that we’ll figure it out. We’re trying to determine how to move this forward. Our biggest obstacle is raising funds. They’ll be substantial: right now we’re saying 1.7 million.
We’re trying to be as cheap and smart as possible. We also need to figure out the logistics. How do you set this up in such a way that the plants are well taken care of? How can we make it safe to walk through at any given time? Safety will be a big concern. We’ll address this issue with multiple different experts.
There will obviously be more stakeholders in addition to Time Square Alliance once we are approved. I think that the logistics will be complicated as anything done in Times Square is. We definitely expect complications along the line and we’ll have issues that we haven’t thought of yet. I don’t expect this to be easy or simple. I do know that we can do it. Especially working with Time Square Alliance. Time Square has the BallDrop and other big spectacles so they are capable of making Pop-UP happen.
M.P.: How will this forest change Time Square and New York? What are some long term effects you want to see?
M.A.: I don’t think it’ll change Time Square any way. The project is meant to be this big glossy shiny bobble, much like what already fills Time Square. However, Pop-UP is coming from a different vantage point.
We want it to be as beautiful and gorgeous a forest that anyone has ever seen. We wanna have sound engineers plant animal noises. And we’ll have LED screens to project the night sky from Northern Manhattan’s forest. Live.
Unlike an average New York City forest, however, it’ll disappear. It might not have a legacy, but it’ll still be part of the “Time Square legacy” that is that people have bold, grand ideas that come to live there. I think for the city, the long term effects we want are grounded and meaningful. The legacy is twofold. There is a public policy agenda where we want to to have a biodiversity policy in New York City. The city has thoughtfully planned lots of things in regards to carbon sequestration and food migration in and out of city but no spot has been given to biodiversity. We need to see nature as a resource, not something that we overlook. We shouldn’t see nature as undeveloped land that needs to be built on. The second long term goal is to design mini Pop-UP cities throughout New York City after the one in Time Square is taken down. If you’re a city kid and you look out the window, you don’t see much green. Seeing green is good for people and positively affects psychological health. Areas with greenery report greater instances of being happier, score higher in cognitive function tests, and report less domestic violence rates. These “mini Pop-Up cities,” located on different parts of New York, will also create places for birds and butterflies to find sources of food helping return nature to the city. There’s this rich circle of life around us that we don’t support in any way. We don’t support people in the way that we don’t support the nature around us. These small blocks of mini forests are a way to surround nature in New Yorkers’ lives. We reached our Kickstarter goal in 2 weeks which is very exciting and we’re doing this new goal of 40,000 dollars. We’re also doing a Pop-UP in Gowanas, Brooklyn this summer.
Our target date is June 2016 for the POP-Up Forest, 15 months from now. That’s our hope that it’ll be in June during the latter half in spring when people are excited to be outside.
–Meena is a student at NYU who’s on a mission to find nature in the city. She digs jungles, both concrete and forested, and spends her free time hunting for good food.