At 478 acres, Green-Wood Cemetery is one of the largest green spaces in all of New York City. It’s been that way since 1838, when the enormous popularity of Green-Wood Cemetery, with its winding paths and glacial ponds, became an inspiration for the creation of Central Park in Manhattan. Noted landscape designer and writer Andrew Jackson Downing wrote in 1848, “Judging from the crowds of people in carriages and on foot which I find constantly thronging Green-Wood and Mount Auburn I think it is plain enough how much our citizens of all classes would enjoy public parks on a similar scale.”
Embracing its legacy, Green-Wood’s horticulture department is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the natural environment of this landmarked space. In 2017, the cemetery took on an important new responsibility: guiding the public to understand and appreciate – interpreting – the biodiversity of this massive urban greenspace. That meant creating an interpretive master plan. Staff and a team of outside experts tackled the job and entitled the plan, “Alive at Green-Wood.” Twelve vibrant and engaging sign panels were placed on the grounds; each pointing out an aspect of the natural environment. A corresponding photo-rich map, is also available free to all. For Brooklynites, the health and wellness benefits of having the Green-Wood in their backyards are extraordinary: a massive arboretum of over 8,000 trees and shrubs, thousands of pollinators, and a complex ecosystem right in their midst.
To oversee an arboretum as large as Green-Wood, the horticulture department needs management software that can handle the job. An innovative solution was rolled out in 2017: an interactive digital map of every tree at Green-Wood with information on the species, age of the tree, and when and what work was done on the tree over time. The software is a first-of-its-kind collaboration between Green-Wood, the Alliance for Public Gardens and a specialized GIS (geographic information systems) analytics firm. The map is available to the grounds crew on smart phones and tablets, so that they can receive and send information to management in real time. The software has the added bonus of enabling staff to quickly identify and diagnose critical issues – harmful diseases, for example – within the tree collection.
How can visitors to the cemetery identify any of its thousands of trees? Green-Wood premiered Tree Finder (Green-Wood.com/trees) in 2017, using the data from digital mapping software. Standing anywhere within Green-Wood, anyone with a smartphone can use Tree Finder to identify any tree on the grounds. The information provided includes each tree’s unique tag number within the collection, its scientific name, common name, and taxonomic family. Since Tree Finder is connected to the digital mapping software, it is updated in real time, immediately showing newly planted trees or any other changes made to the collection.
Of course, the effects of climate change on all greenspaces in New York City are of great interest to Green-Wood. To support the study of its impact, Green-Wood joined the New York Phenology Project in 2017 to report data on its plants and pollinators throughout the year. The data from all reporting sites are made available to students, teachers, citizens, and science professionals who are also studying these phenomena.
Green-Wood is especially interested in finding ways to make its landscape practices sustainable, less dependent on fossil fuels, and better for the environment. Toward that end, the cemetery was delighted to complete the first phase of the installation of a native meadow, designed by Larry Weaner Landscape Associates. The mix of native grasses, flowering plants and woody colonizing shrubs, covers an entire hillside (about an acre) that was previously covered in traditional lawn grass. Now, with no herbicides and no need for gas-guzzling lawnmowers, this area is now a thriving habitat for wildlife.
Our dedication to preserving and enhancing our living collection did not go unnoticed: the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation awarded the cemetery three grants totaling $200K for projects set to begin in 2018. “Give Trees a Chance,” a project funded by the Office of Environmental Justice, is a partnership with urban tree advocates Trees New York. The program engages the diverse Sunset Park community in learning about the environmental benefits of street trees. Participants will acquire the skills of pruning and tree care, in order to steward the trees in their community.