Eric Sanderson: Wildlife Conservation Society
It takes someone special to look at the island of Manhattan – possibly the most transformed, altered landscape on earth – and see the beaver dams, streams, marshes, and rolling hills that it once was... and want to bring that back to life. That someone special is Dr. Eric Sanderson, the originator of the Mannahatta project, now called the Welikia project. Discover how the project uses advanced technology and mapping to re-create the island of Manhattan, and subsequently the greater New York City area, prior to the arrival of Henry Hundson in 1609.
Wildlife Conservation Society
July 19, 2017
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It takes someone special to look at the island of Manhattan – possibly the most transformed, altered
landscape on earth – and see the beaver dams, streams, marshes and rolling hills that it once was…
and to want to bring that back to life. Dr. Eric Sanderson is with the Wildlife Conservation Society in
New York, and is also the originator of the Mannahatta project, now called the Welikia project,
which uses advanced technology and mapping to re-create a virtual reproduction of the island of
Manhattan, and subsequently the greater New York City area, prior to the arrival of Henry Hudson
in 1609. The virtual landscapes include scientific reproductions of the fauna and floral ecosystems.
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Eric Sanderson: I work for the Wildlife Conservation Society – I moved to New York
about 20 years ago to take this job doing international wildlife conservation. And I’m
flying all over the world to see these amazing places and help people think about saving
species, and then flying back to the big city of New York.
I was feeling a little bit confused about what I was doing here, in this big city. And,
when I get confused about a place I start to read about its history and its geography.
So I was reading about the really amazing history and geography of New York City, and
I found this map in a book that shows the original topography of Manhattan. This map’s
from 1782, from the American Revolution, made by the British Army when they were
occupying New York City for military planning purposes.
But what I realized is this map could tell us a lot about the landscape before the city. It
showed streams. It showed hills. It showed wetlands. It showed… the sort of bare bones
of the landscape before urbanization. And so I had this idea that we could take the
map and then geo-reference it to the modern city grid so that you could find where the
streams and the hills and the wetlands were in the geography of the city today. And
then I had the idea that, if we had that basis, then maybe we could reconstruct what
the landscape was like not just in 1782 but back in 1609, which is the moment when the
Europeans first came to New York City.
Eric, just describe for me the project as
it originated and then what it’s become.
And it’s sort of the quintessential moment. The origin story of New York is when Henry Hudson sails into
New York Harbor and sees this long, thin, wooded island of Mannahatta, Manhattan. And all of New York
City history starts from that point.
So, we used lexicology techniques, some things that are kind of standard, some other things that we had to
invent to reconstruct on a block-by-block basis the ecology of Manhattan. And, you know, it turns out that
Manhattan was a very bio-diverse place, had 54 different ecological communities and 1,000 species and a
people that had been living there for 8,000 years before Henry Hudson arrived. It’s also a place that’s really
trying to get back its nature, recover some of its nature and celebrate the wonderful nature of the place.
And so, the project really kind of fit in nicely to the way New Yorkers think about the city.
And so it was tremendously successful: the first part of the project, the Mannahatta Project, was about a
decade long, from 1999 to 2009, which was the 400-year anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival. And then
subsequently people liked the Manhattan version so much that we’ve been expanding over the rest of the
city, a project that we call the Welikia Project, that’s covering The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island
and all the waters in between.
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Sanderson: Well, you know, technology is one of those things that’s changing all the time.
And, I didn’t know this when I first saw this map. But it turns out that it was, you know,
a major technological achievement of the 18th century. The sort of modern mapping
techniques, the way we think of them - you know, latitude and longitude, grid system,
making measurements in the field, surveying – actually surveying with angles and chains
so you get the right lengths and distances – these were all techniques that were sort of
developed in the early 18th century and kind of were flowering in the 1750s and 1760s in
England. And then the American Revolution happened, so some of the best cartographers
in the world came here, to serve the British Army and serve the British Navy. They basically
had all the same modern tools of surveying that we have, except that they didn’t have GPS,
but it was all very new.
One of the pleasures of my life was when I actually got to go and see the original in
the National Archives in London. You know, I had just seen it reproduced in this one book
beforehand. But, the actual map is 10 feet long and 3.5 feet wide and six inches to a mile
scale. And it’s hand-done! It’s hand-drawn ink lines and then watercolors to give it the
colors but done in this sort of artistic way that’s also, as we found out, remarkably
accurate in its depiction of the historical landscape.
This series focuses on technology, but something you
said was really compelling: do you find it interesting
that the germination of this idea was a map that you
looked at, an actual paper map from the Revolution,
the kind of thing you can hold in your hands?
Technology is one of those things
that’s changing all the time. “
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Sanderson: But don’t you think that’s the way people in the future will look back on our
technology now? They’ll think, oh, that was… you know, they were really smart, and they did the
best they could with what they knew, but we’ve gotten so far beyond it that when somebody
200 years from now looks back on what we’re doing today, they may say, like, you know, that
was really nice. Maybe they won’t even think of it as technology as such, right? Maybe it will be
non-technological to them because it’ll just be so obvious given how much society’s evolved.
It’s funny, the intent of the question was to
contrast how this non-technological thing led to
this technology project, but in fact you’re drawing
an absolute link between the technology of the
time and the technology of today.
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Sanderson: I mean, I love to think that there’s this classical moment that I mentioned,
when Henry Hudson sailed in New York Harbor. And you know, if you could have
asked Henry Hudson what would New York City look like 400 years from now, I
don’t think he could have predicted what actually happened, right? You know, a city
of eight million people and these huge, tall skyscrapers, and that somebody would
invent this technology that could take you, you know, 100 stories high into the sky,
right? I mean, it would just be so hard for him to imagine that world that, in some
sense, he was creating.
And I think it’s the same way for us. In my work, because we have this historical
perspective, the future is really important to us. We’re always looking at the past
not as something to recreate but as something to help us understand the current
moment and actually start to think about the future.
Yeah. They’ll say, how quaint, right?
We’re always looking at the past not as
something to recreate but as something to
help us understand the current moment...“
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Sanderson: We have another technology called Visionmaker that’s all about giving people
an opportunity to imagine 400 years from now, actually imagine what it will be like. And
what’s so interesting about it is when you ask somebody to stretch their mind that far, what
they really start to address is where they are now. What are their dreams? What are their
ambitions? What are their fears for the future?
The idea with Visionmaker is to give everybody an opportunity to imagine and share their
idea of the future, to kind of democratize the way urban planning in the city works, because
right now it’s not a very… not typically a very democratic process. You know, it’s really about
the developer and the architect and the city, with an opportunity for the public to comment.
So, Visionmaker is a web platform that allows you to zoom to any block for any
neighborhood in New York City, to see the historical ecology of that area and then to see the
contemporary laid on top of it. And then, we have tools that you can basically repaint the
landscape. It’s kind of like Photoshop® tools. But instead of painting colors you’re painting
ecosystems – streets, buildings, sidewalks, park land, forests and wetlands, you know,
estuary… all the kinds of ecosystems that make up New York City today.
You have another project you’re working on
And then you can also choose climate scenarios. And you can choose lifestyle, the people that live in your
idea of the future. And it calculates models, quantitative scientific models, based on your vision and on that
same area 400 years ago and today. So, you get the comparison. Then it calculates the water cycle, the
carbon cycle, biodiversity and population.
So, you get these metrics. You can actually see, well, if I paint a green roof on top of all the buildings on my
block that would, you know, help. That would change the storm water this much. And it would change the
carbon emissions that much. And so, that might be improvement over the city today. But it still gives you this
reference of New York City as a wild place with all the parts of nature working.
And then, once you get a vision that you like, you can share it with everybody else. The whole point is to try
and give anybody with an internet connection an opportunity to share their vision of what they’d like to see
for their neighborhood.
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The idea behind this series is that there’s a lot
of discussion around how technology can be
dehumanizing, and we want to explore situations
where the opposite is true, where technology gives
people the means to add a dimension of humanity to
their lives. Do you see that reflected in your project?
Do you see yourself as giving people an opportunity
to access something that they normally wouldn’t be
able to access?
Sanderson: Well, you know, I think one of the things that’s been most gratifying about the project is how much other
people have sort of picked up the information and then done things with it to make it their own. You know, we have
artists that make art on top of the data that we’ve generated using this sort of scientific process.
In fact, just recently I was in Bed Stuy in Brooklyn. And, this artist had asked me what used to grow on this particular
block, what kind of forest it was. And she painted the side of a building with a 1:1 scale image of what it would have
been like to walk in the forest where that building is, you know, like American chestnut trees that are 15 feet across
and, you know, a flowering dogwood and flowers, that sort of thing. People have written music about Mannahatta.
Apparently, the new Kim Stanley Robinson novel, Manhattan 2140, has a callout to Mannahatta and the project.
So, you know, in conservation, a lot of what we’re trying to do is win the hearts and minds, right? And we use science
as part of that, but science sort of coupled with design and an artistic sensibility and a sort of… a sense of optimism
about the future and what human capacity is and what the capacity of the planet is if we just give it a chance.
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Sanderson: Absolutely. One of the things I spend a lot of time thinking about now is cities
and how urban life is transforming the human relationship to nature on a really broad scale.
There’s new evidence that when people live in cities, particularly if the cities are dense
enough, that the per-capita consumption rates go down. For example, the average New
Yorker uses only two-thirds as much electricity as an average American and about half the
amount of water as an average American.
And, the fact that people all over the world are moving to cities is also helping transform
economies and get people out of really desperate, extreme poverty. You know, the UN
thinks because of urbanization that there might not be extremely poor people in the world
by 2030, which would be a remarkable achievement. And also, when people come to cities,
they’re more able to find jobs and opportunities that fit better with them.
Do you have that sense of optimism?
Is that something that underpins your work?
So I really think if we can make cities work that they become the sort of transformative way that we,
you know, we shape the human footprint on Earth. And there are all these profound demographic
consequences. When people move to cities, the fertility rate tends to go down faster than it is in rural
areas. And, some demographers think that that will eventually lead to population stabilization, and not in
the super-distant future, but within the 21st century – within, you know, within maybe my lifetime or the
lifetime of people that might be reading this piece.
And that’s a remarkable thing, to think that there might be population stabilization on a worldwide scale.
In a world where, you know, 70, 80, 90% of the people are urbanized, and they have access to technology
and resources, these are kind of positive externalities in society. I kind of feel like if we can get through
the next 30 of 40 years without things really going downhill, because there’s going to be a lot of social
pressures as well as environmental pressures in the meantime, that we could really set society on a road
for hundreds of years of positive and affirmative development. It’ll be better for people, better for nature,
better for the planet.
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