On 400th anniversary of New York City’s discovery, WCS looks back—and into the future—of Manhattan’s natural heritage

Mannahatta book, Museum of the City of New York exhibition, interactive website, and walking tours are part of year-long celebration

New York (April 20, 2009) – The Wildlife Conservation Society announced today the official launch of Mannahatta, a project revealing Manhattan Island as it appeared on the fateful day explorer Henry Hudson arrived in 1609. WCS’s Mannahatta Project will celebrate the 400th anniversary of Hudson’s discovery throughout this Quadricentennial year with a book, an exhibition on view from May 20th through October 13th, 2009 at the Museum of the City of New York, an interactive website, and walking tours around the city.

By geographically matching 18th-century maps of Manhattan's landscape to the modern cityscape, combing through historical and archaeological records, and applying modern principles of ecology and computer modeling, WCS ecologist Dr. Eric W. Sanderson has re-created the forests of Times Square, the meadows of Harlem, and the wetlands of downtown. If Mannahatta were intact today, its natural wonders would rival Yellowstone, according to Sanderson.

“Imagine a virtual time machine that would allow you to see and hear the island’s wild nature, from chestnut forests to sandy beaches, before it was transformed by man’s increasing footprint,” said Sanderson. “The purpose of the Mannahatta Project is to foster an appreciation for the remnants of the natural world – even in this most urban of jungles – and inspire us to work harder to preserve wild places, here and across the globe.”

The Mannahatta Project is the most detailed scientific reconstruction of an ecological landscape ever attempted and offers a glimpse of “Mannahatta”—“the land of many hills” in the Lenape dialect—on the day that Henry Hudson first arrived. Hudson came to this part of the world looking for the Northwest Passage, but he found something infinitely more valuable. Mannahatta’s natural wealth—old growth forests, stately wetlands, glittering streams, teeming waters, rolling hills, abundant wildlife—was prodigious and deep. Wolves, mountain lion, elk, deer, and beaver, tens of thousands of birds, bountiful fisheries, and a thoughtful and resourceful people perfectly attuned to the environment all made Mannahatta their home.

“Mannahatta is a microcosm for wild places around the world and compels us to think long and hard about the role of cities, and by extension our suburbs, towns, and rural communities, in the brave new world of 21st Century nature,” said Wildlife Conservation Society President and CEO Steven E. Sanderson (no relation). “It is also a microcosm of what WCS does around the world – namely doing good science and educating people to live in greater harmony with the natural world.”

“It took 400 years for Mannahatta to become the Manhattan we know and love today,” said New York City Parks & Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe. “As stewards of its remaining open spaces, we are ensuring that the island thrives for at least another 400 years. While we are unlikely to make Manhattan as green as the days where only nature graced its landscape, Mayor Bloomberg’s MillionTreesNYC is a positive step towards the reforestation of our streets, parks and public and private properties.”

“The Mannahatta Project is not only a journey into our past but also a look forward to our future and how we can keep nature in our lives,” Eric Sanderson said, “And that’s not unique to New York. It is the decisions we make now, here and in all the Mannahattas of the world, which will shape our planet as well as our legacy.”

This project was prepared for the New York State Department of State Office of Coastal, Local Government & Community Sustainability with funds provided under Title II of the Environmental Protection Fund. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation was a municipal sponsor for funding under the state program.

Eric Sanderson was selected as a 2008-2009 New York Prize Fellow in Sustainable Cities and Social Science at Van Alen Institute, a New York based non-profit architectural organization dedicated to supporting innovative research and practice about design in the public realm. Sanderson is working with Van Alen Institute on a design competition, to be launched May 19, 2009, to envision an ecologically complete Manhattan 400 years in the future based on the island’s original ecology. His fellowship is supported in part by the Social Science Research Council.

This project has also been funded in part by grants from the New York State Environmental Protection Fund through the Hudson River Estuary Program of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and from the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission.

Generous funding has been received from the Prospect Hill Foundation, Inc.; Hudson River Foundation for Science and Environmental Research, Inc., a New York not-for-profit corporation with its office located in New York City; Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund; Nurture New York’s Nature; the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation at Columbia University; and individual donors. Scientists and scholars from a variety of institutions in New York and elsewhere have contributed time and expertise.

The ESRI Conservation Program provided in-kind donations of geographic information system software. The website mapping interface is based on the Google Maps API from Google.

Mannahatta Book
This month publisher Harry N. Abrams released Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City. Filled with breathtaking illustrations that show what Manhattan looked like 400 years ago, Mannahatta is a groundbreaking work that gives readers not only a window into the past, but inspiration for green cities and wild places of the future.

Museum of the City of New York Exhibition
On May 20th, the Museum of the City of New York exhibition Mannahatta/Manhattan will reveal the island of Manhattan at the time of Henry Hudson's arrival—a fresh, green new world at the moment of discovery. Through cutting edge multi-media and historical artifacts and maps, Mannahatta/Manhattan will re-imagine the quiet, wooded island at the mouth of a great river that was destined to become one of the greatest cities on Earth. Moreover, Mannahatta/Manhattan will challenge visitors to view the city of today as a place where the relationship between nature and people is at its most important and to understand that the principles of diversity, interdependence, and inter-relativity operate in a modern mega-city much as they do in nature. Mannahatta/Manhattan: A Natural History of New York City is presented by the Museum of the City of New York in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Interactive Website
On May 1st, a companion website www.themannahattaproject.org will offer an opportunity to see Mannahatta as it appeared to Henry Hudson in 1609 at a block scale. This interactive and educational microsite will reveal the hidden side of the world’s most urban jungle and allow users to explore the science behind Mannahatta.

Walking Tours
Dr. Eric Sanderson will be giving lectures and walking tours throughout the Quadricentennial year, leaving from the Museum of the City of New York on June 25 and 27; from the New York Botanical Garden on June 6; and on September 12—the actual anniversary of Hudson’s arrival—from the Central Park Zoo. Additional dates will be added. Find out more at www.themannahattaproject.org.

The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide. We do so through science, global conservation, education and the management of the world's largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo. Together these activities change attitudes towards nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in harmony. WCS is committed to this mission because it is essential to the integrity of life on Earth. Visit: www.wcs.org

Special Note to the Media: If you would like to guide your readers or viewers to a web link where they can make donations in support of helping save wildlife and wild places, please direct them to: www.wcs.org/donation

Stephen Sautner: (1-718-220-3682; ssautner@wcs.org)
John Delaney: (1-718-220-3275; jdelaney@wcs.org)