If cities are a framework for sustainable living, then New York City is a playground for learning. Dr. Eric Sanderson, Associate Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Living Landscape program founded The Mannahatta Project to do just that. In a new exhibit at The Museum of the City of New York, the project uses digital recreation through computer simulations and visualization to show what Manhattan island looked like when it was first discovered back in 1609.
Dr. Sanderson is a landscape ecologist who studies how different ecosystems (e.g. forests, wetlands, streams, etc.) combine together to create habitat for plants and animals. Inspired by paintings and maps of New York when it was first discovered by Dutch and then British settlers, Dr. Sanderson began researching what New York looked like centuries ago. Based on a system called Muir Webs, after his hero, naturalist John Muir, Manhattan was mapped out, literally from the ground up.
The mapping starts at the bottom with geology, soils, topography, then streams, springs, ponts, wetlands, species, plants and animals. Data was collected from maps, soil surveys, tree rings, and descriptions from historical accounts, letters, and field surveys. All of the data was “georeferenced” to a single base map, the 1782 British Headquarters map, to create a geographic information system (GIS) database, in this case, the most complete description of a landscape ever attempted.
By looking back at Mannahatta, Dr. Sanderson believes we can learn how to set much-needed standards for sustainability and environmental protection for the present day. “Manhattan takes resources [now rapidly dwindling] from the whole world, whereas Mannahatta was dynamic and provided for itself off the local environment, and it was able to withstand for thousands of years on its own. So let's look at what we can incorporate from Mannahatta and see how we might develop a real standard … real criteria for having cities last forever," Dr. Sanderson says.