Species Threat Made Real Through NY Native Plant Sculpture

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The most recent international report on climate change says it all. “The rate of species extinctions is accelerating.” “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history.” “Grave impacts on people around the world are now likely.” “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life worldwide.”

Is anyone listening to these cries for awakening to the climate crisis around us, as voiced by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in May, 2019? Or maybe listening isn’t the key to increasing awareness of the imminent effects of climate change.

One artist is trying to make the links between human actions and species extinction threat transparent by offering a chance for people to see and touch nature. In Manhattan’s Sara D. Roosevelt Park, artist Anina Gerchick has unveiled her latest BIRDLINK installation: a living, native-plant sculpture that provides habitat for resident and migrating birds and alerts people to the challenges faced by wildlife who share the neighborhood. The Manhattan installation responds to the recent IPBES report, which details the extinction threat facing nearly 1 million plants and animals, with an innovative network of habitat replacement interventions. The plants support birds traversing the major migratory corridor, Atlantic Flyway, that crosses the city.

In an exclusive comment for CleanTechnica, Gerlick examines how audiences can come to understand species decline better through the Manhattan BIRDLINK installation.

“BIRDLINK’s design clusters together and identifies distinct native plant species. From its informational display, viewers learn about the supportive relationship between the plants and birds. For example, black raspberry attracts cardinals, grosbeaks, chickadees, and titmice.

The informational signage also indicates the species within New York’s migratory pathway that are thriving and those in decline. BIRDLINK’s message is that, by creating supportive habitat, people can expect to see local and migrating birds. This public installation encourages people to follow its example and protect biodiversity by adding bird-friendly native plants to their own backyards, balconies, and window boxes.”  

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BIRDLINK Installations as Eco-Design Systems

A freestanding green-wall of native plants, with window-like openings that frame views of space around it, the BIRDLINK installation can sit on top of pavement, grass, or any supporting surface without support from neighboring walls. The spiraling grid of wire is filled with soil and native plants specific to both local and migratory birds of the region it inhabits.

The interactive habitat sculptures support migratory birds by inserting native plant systems throughout the urban and suburban corridors through which they travel. There, people can learn about the challenges facing bird populations. With its vertical garden beds, reflective of the city’s towering architecture, BIRDLINK inspires visitors to appreciate what’s at stake and signals how viewers can take action locally.

The Manhattan installation is New York City’s third BIRDLINK: a prototype was installed on Governor’s Island in July 2018, and in October a 9- by 16-foot bamboo and wire mesh, plant-filled sculpture was installed in Williamsburg’s East River State Park. Facing the Manhattan skyline and the East River’s battering winds, it weathered its first winter and sprung back to life, proving its concept and delighting park-goers, birds, and pollinators.

Each BIRDLINK installation is unique and adapted to a specific site.

“Many New Yorkers head upstate to find nature. But it’s also right here in the city,” said Gerchick. “By creating planted spaces across an urban ecosystem, BIRDLINK helps birds and other wildlife move between feeding grounds. And it gives New Yorkers more opportunities to see nature in action.”

The new Manhattan Lower East Side installation is partially funded by an Audubon grant, which will offer educational programming during the summer and fall. At the same time, at East River State Park’s BIRDLINK, EPA grant funding is enabling a long-term study of plant competition and survival within this novel ecosystem, monitoring its effect on birds and insects.

In addition to the three New York City public sculptures, BIRDLINK installations are being considered for botanical gardens and nature museums in Georgia and Indiana. Private BIRDLINK installations have begun to dot balconies, rooftops, and backyards across the US and will help to expand the network of wildlife corridors.

BIRDLINK at Williamsburg’s East River State Park

Final Thoughts

Since 1980, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have doubled, raising average global temperatures by at least 0.7 degrees Celsius. GHG emissions result from humans who burn fossil fuels, from industrial agriculture practices, and from land-use and other activities that drive climate change. Greenhouse gases are at the highest levels they have ever been over the last 800,000 years. This rapid rise is a problem because it’s changing our climate at a rate that is too fast for the natural world to adapt and survive.

With climate change already impacting nature from the level of ecosystems to that of genetics, effects are expected to increase over the coming decades, in some cases surpassing the consequence of land and sea use change and other drivers. The IPBES report also advises that there is still time to make a difference. It would take transformative change at every level, from local to global.

“Nature can still be conserved, restored, and used sustainably,” IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson argues. But he also says it would take “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic, and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values. We care about nature, but we care about human well-being,” Watson said. “We need to link it to human well-being; that’s the crucial thing.”

A creation like BIRDLINK may be the start that Watson is suggesting. Whenever humans experience something personally, we grow and change in unexpected ways. Opening up urban interactions with nature through BIRDLINK brings together art and ecology to create environmental, aesthetic, and political impact. It coalesces individuals and community, creating a place hospitable to people and wildlife, offering an answer to the often inscrutable “what can I do about climate change?” question.

By building upon current work designing for ecological challenges to maintain biodiversity, BIRDLINK is proving to be a successful experiment in restoring wildlife habitat. Its strategy is to build a landscape network that connects isolated habitat across scales to make communities and wildlife more resilient to climate and other changes.

In any setting, whether inner city or garden landscape, BIRDLINK attracts new people, channeling the universal popularity of birds to interest viewers in issues of habitat conservation and creation. Instead of hearing an abstract concept like “75% percent of the land environment and well more than half the marine environment have been altered by humans,” up-close-and-personal experiences like BIRDLINK can prompt viewers to consider how they can take steps locally to support resident birds. And then who knows what other individual climate protection actions could then become transparent?

Photos and graphics courtesy of artist Anina Gerchick and BIRDLINK.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

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