Wetlands of NYC: Van Cortlandt Park

Wetlands of NYC: Van Cortlandt Park

Wetlands of NYC: Van Cortlandt Park

View of Golf Clubhouse at Van Cortlandt Park Lake. Linda Wasson ©2017

Earth Documentary Resistance’s new project entails documenting the wetlands of New York City. As a coastal city, New York is extremely vulnerable to climate change. This has already been proven with the catastrophic damage, including loss of life, which happened in 2012 with SuperStorm Sandy. Infrastructure, including subways, roads and streets were flooded and many were impassable. Businesses and homes were flooded or destroyed. Power outages were extensive and prolonged. Some people drowned or otherwise lost their lives because of the storm. Of course this wasn’t just in New York City, as New Jersey and all along the northeast corridor people were impacted.

Van Cortlandt Park. Linda Wasson ©2017

New York City has a much-deserved reputation as a concrete jungle – which it definitely is – but it also has some wonderful green spaces and abundant wetlands. However, swamps, marshes, ponds and streams all need to be protected as well as appreciated to keep them beautiful and thriving for future generations.

Geese on Van Cortlandt Lake. Linda Wasson ©2017

These wetlands are also places abundant with wildlife such as turtles, frogs, rabbits, raccoons, fish, ducks and other birds. Migratory birds especially need and utilize New York City wetlands as stopovers during their long transcontinental journeys made twice a year. Wetlands are diverse and active ecosystems which thrive because of their diversity and water sources.

Cardinal, Van Cortland Park Linda Wasson ©2018

Wetlands also serve as critical barriers during storms, collecting massive amounts of water and allowing for floods to be absorbed into the ground, filtering into underground aquifers (or sewers, as in New York City) as well as draining into streams and rivers which flow into bays and eventually to the ocean. Draining wetlands only to pave over them greatly contributes to flooded homes and infrastructure. While one can temporarily block wetlands with concrete, rain will still fall, storm surge will still rise, and the water will always have to have a place to go. Concrete, asphalt and other pavement materials block water from being absorbed naturally, as well as blocking trees and other plant life which aids in the absorption of runoff, especially after storms. In fact, many wetland plants – including trees – have evolved in ways that often block storms from doing more damage than they would otherwise do, such as in areas where they have been removed.


Wetland Trees. Van Cortland Park Linda Wasson ©2018

Sewers are ubiquitous in metropolitan areas for this reason and are even found in ancient ruins.  Controlling water flow, as well as waste, has always been a fundamental necessity for all societies.

Drain Maintenance. Van Cortlandt Park. Linda Wasson ©2017

Perhaps because of the devastating nature of floodwaters, many people fear standing water and seek to drain, or otherwise block it. Certainly in New York City, land has proven to be a valuable commodity and real estate developers have long held that draining wetlands was not just doable, but a necessity in order to “reclaim” the land that was previously underwater much, if not all of the year. Unfortunately it is this distorted mindset that has overtaken much of the population’s attitude towards wetlands.

Wetlands. Van Cortlandt Park. Linda Wasson ©2018

In turn, this misinterpretation and false sense of security that wetlands could and should be paved has led to the extremely detrimental policies which have placed so many people, as well as wildlife, in jeopardy. Consequently, urban areas in coastal flood zones have expanded far beyond the capacity of what could be reasonably expected to be built and not be flooded at some point. Moreover, many underground aquifers people rely on for their drinking water have been overly drained from encroaching populations or even contaminated from industrial waste.

Van Cortlandt Lake. Linda Wasson ©2018

Now, with climate change upon us as more fierce and frequent unpredictable storms bear down, that much more property and lives have been placed at risk. Documenting these wetlands in New York City serves as a marker for where we are in 2018 as climate change literally transforms our lives. Creating a documentary record is always important but even more so as coastal regions are at such a critical point where some, if not all, may actually be permanently obliterated. In fact, legal battles have already begun over who exactly retains ownership of permanently flooded property.

Earth Documentary Resistance is based in the Bronx, not that far from Van Cortlandt Park which also happens to be my favorite park in New York City. Van Cortlandt Park is the 2nd largest park in the Bronx (Pelham Bay Park being the largest) and the 4th largest in New York City (Central Park being #5). With over 1000 acres, Van Cortlandt Park has a lake, golf course, hiking trails and numerous other amenities.

Van Cortlandt Park Golfer. Linda Wasson ©2017

It also has a large area of wetlands which offer numerous opportunities to view wildlife and a great abundance of variety of plant life, including my favorite, cattails (typha).  Cattails are an incredibly adaptable species, ranging through various climate zones but always at home in wetlands.


Cattails. Van Cortlandt Park. Linda Wasson ©2018

Tara Prindle, a friend and respected expert on indigenous people’s use of plants such as cattails, provided her expertise on these fascinating plants:

The brown fuzzy tips are what give this plant the name of ‘cattails.’

Those are last year’s flower heads at the top of the plant stalk, with last season’s long slender cattail leaves turned brown, fallen over and withered like the grass in the fields. The shoots of the new leaves will be visible soon, and the tender white inner parts at the base of the shoots are edible raw or cooked.

What remains of the cattails in the wetlands now are the fluff with its tiny seeds popping from the flower head, where hopefully they get carried by wind and germinate somewhere in the wetland, similar to a fluffy dandelion head with its seeds. While they can and do spread by seeds, they propagate much more easily by their underground rhizomes/root systems.

When the female flower head was younger it would have been bright green. You can eat this female flower head when it is green; simply steam or boil it and eat it like corn on the cob.

The slender stalk sticking up above the female flower head is the male part of the cattail flower, which would have been colored with bright yellow pollen in the late spring. The pollen is dispersed by wind and rain to fertilize the seeds below. This pollen is also edible, is a great flour extender and imparts a pretty yellow color to pancakes and baked goods. Just about all parts of the cattail are edible at some point during the year. The roots of the cattail are also edible and full of starch, making a great thickener for soups and stews.

Cattail. Van Cortlandt Park. Linda Wasson ©2018

In addition to its edible uses, cattails also have many traditional uses by Native Americans. Leaves can be used for insulating house coverings, mats, floating duck decoys and even children’s toys. The fluff is tinder for fire-starting or absorbent padding for cradleboards and ‘moss bags’. Many parts of the cattail, including the pollen and starches, also have medicinal applications.

The Ojibwe around the Great Lakes used cattail mats to cover their wigwams, as did the Kickapoo in Mexico which testifies to their broad range and use across the continent and different climates.

While cattails like swamps and other wetlands, they also like roadside and drainage areas. However, the ones close to roads should never be eaten as they are contaminated with runoff from the pavement.

There are also a few varieties of cattails (narrowleaf, broadleaf, and possibly others), which tend to grown in different regions. Cattails are exclusively a fresh water plant, and won’t be found near beaches or brackish water.

Unfortunately, cattails are often overtaken by non-native species.

Phragmites. Van Cortlandt Park. Linda Wasson ©2018

Phragmite reeds (the wetland plant with the feathery plume on top) enjoy the same environment as cattails. While there is a native variety of Phragmites, there is also a more aggressive introduced variety which is choking out cattail communities in many areas.”

Again, for more information on cattails, please see NativeTech.org.

The wetlands and lake of Van Cortlandt Park drain into the Broadway sewer which drains to Ward Island where one of the New York City Water Filtration Plants is based. Looking at the map, one can see a considerable amount of infrastructure draining into this sewer, including road waste and whatever happens to find its way into the drain holes along the way.

Van Cortlandt Drainage to Ward’s Island.

Essentially this means that clean fresh rainwater and snowmelt captured by the wetlands in Van Cortlandt Park and filters into the soil will be mixed in with not-so-fresh and not-so-clean water, all to eventually be treated and released. Of course that is not that much water in comparison to all that is being added from runoff but the point is, wetland drainage is being diverted from its natural continuity into a manmade one. Even when the surfaces of wetlands appear to be undisturbed, their actual filtration production is still being disrupted and diverted in an urban environment.

Spillway. Van Cortlandt Park. Linda Wasson ©2018

The conclusion is that humans’ tendency to disrupt naturally evolved ecosystems which have been in place for millenia throws an otherwise symbiotic system into disarray. Chaos results and eventually spreads no matter how good the original intention. Humans also sometime try to correct such chaos with huge expenditures of money and labor.  But rather than restoring balance, this often only delays the ultimate destruction of what was originally a perfect design. Testiment to this is evident in the huge water treatment facilities that are being built not just in New York City but globally.

Over the coming months (years?!) as each and every New York City wetland is examined and documented, just how intricate these ecosystems are and the roles they play will hopefully bring a new awareness and appreciation for the natural world that exists even within such an established urban environment. The goal is always to encourage public knowledge of how perfection actually does exist in nature and how completely illogical it is to disrupt these ecologically balanced places. Essentially we should be doing our best to protect our wetlands which, thankfully, are increasingly being recognized for their unique and irreplaceable value.

Swan, Van Cortlandt Lake. Linda Wasson ©2018

For more general information on Van Cortlandt Park please see New York City Parks and Preservation.

See here for historical information about the history of Van Cortlandt Park.

For more information on how you can contribute time, funds, or just become involved with Earth Documentary Resistance, please contact us directly on our website or post a message on our Facebook page.

This article has been presented as a part of the mission of Earth Documentary Resistance, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to documentary storytelling: Because Humanity is Changing Our Planet.

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