Georgia Silvera Seamans is the co-founding director of Washington Square Park Eco Projects in New York City. She is an urban forester, independent researcher, and writer. Georgia has bylines with UrbanOmnibus.net, Audubon.org, and Audubon Magazine, and her research has been published in Urban Forestry & Urban Greening and the former Journal of Arboriculture. Georgia blogs about urban nature at localecologist.org. She holds degrees from Wesleyan University, the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and UC Berkeley.
Could you share about your NYC roots and your connection to Washington Square Park in particular?
Georgia Silvera Seamans: When my family emigrated to the U.S., the first place we landed was Washington Heights. I attended junior high and high school in NYC. I used to visit the Village as a teenager; the vintage shops on West 8th Street were fun to explore! I recall one visit to Washington Square Park during that time. The Park struck me as a dynamic and diverse place. As an adult I moved back to the City in 2009. I live a few blocks from the Park, within a 10-minute walk.
How did you come to urban forestry, and what have been some of your peak experiences along the way? Could you talk about your urban forestry research and writing?
GSS: I became an urban forester because of my job as a paid community forestry intern with the Urban Resources Initiative in New Haven, Connecticut. This practical experience more than any academic training set me on the urban forestry path. I was an intern in the organization’s Community Greenspace program where I provided technical resources to seven community groups in the Newhallville neighborhoods.
The projects undertaken by the groups I worked with ranged from planting street trees on a block to converting an abandoned house lot into a bird sanctuary. I can honestly say that but for this rigorous and fun experience I would not have applied to and been offered the job as urban forester for the City of Boston.
I returned to graduate school after working for the Boston Parks and Recreation Department for a few years. At UC Berkeley, my dissertation research was focused on how and why municipal agencies and nonprofits were reframing trees as ecological agents versus the conventional aesthetic narrative. I am proud of my first authored paper based on my dissertation which was published in 2013 in Urban Forestry & Urban Greening.
A few years ago I became incredibly interested in spontaneous vegetation—aka weeds in cities. On social media I began following artists and landscape designers who were weedy species advocates and delineating their values to urban ecosystems particularly in light of the changing ecological dynamics wrought by climate change. I wrote two papers on this topic. The first one was a case study of the grassroots community science of spontaneous plant research and activism. The second was a profile and interview with Ellie Irons and Anne Percoco, founders of the Next Epoch Seed Library.
I’ve fallen for birds, and have been fortunate to write about my budding birding experiences for Audubon and Popular Science. If I might recommend my favorite article: it is this article I wrote about patch birding published on audubon.org. I consider myself a patch birder of Washington Square Park. The Park is where I bird most often and is where I am honing my skills as a bird watcher.
Could you talk about how Washington Square Park Eco Projects was conceived and founded?
GSS: When I moved to Greenwich Village in 2009, I was immediately attracted to Washington Square Park. Obviously, it is a famous place. It is a historic park. It’s a NYC institution. The arch and fountain are attractive, but I was drawn to the trees! Makes sense, right?!
I looked for information about the trees in the Park and finding none, with the exception of urban myths about the English elm (Ulmus procera)—more about that later—I decided to create an online map of the Park’s trees. Around the same time I was also learning about the stream that used to flow aboveground in the neighborhood, and I wanted to include that information in the map.
I recruited a local acquaintance to co-run a fundraising campaign on the Ioby platform. We met our fundraising goal and I worked with a GIS developer to design the map. After we launched the map, I realized Washington Square Park Eco Projects (WSP EP)—known as WSP Ecology at the time—could do more. I renamed the initiative as WSP EP. My co-founder stepped down but was briefly involved as an advisor to the “new” organization.
WSP EP is not a 501c3—and that has presented a significant challenge for the work—but through partnerships, EP has kept going. One of the components I wanted to add to the initiative was longitudinal wildlife observation—in particular, bird surveys. I would not have called myself a birder in 2016 so I reached out to a friend, Loyan Beausoleil, who is an excellent birder and asked if she would like to partner with me on developing the Park’s bird program. Thankfully she said yes, and off we went. We are now a staff of two.
Another essential partner has been Street Lab (formerly the Uni Project) with whom we developed EXPLORE BIRDS, our mobile education program. We piloted the program with a co-written grant from the Blake-Nuttall Fund. I’ve staffed Street Lab’s more comprehensive EXPLORE NYC pop-up science exhibit. WSP EP has also provided programming for New York University and Green Below 14, and I received a Creative Engagement grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council to support EXPLORE BIRDS in 2020.
Could you talk about the Eco Map of the WSP trees? In prepping that, were there any surprises as you became more intimate with the tree collection?
GSS: I had considered a field survey to gather data for the map but a couple of factors dissuaded me. First, I could not find an inventory platform that would work well given the budget and technology available to the initiative. Second, some of the trees in the Park are underplanted or are located in difficult-to-access areas, so it was not possible to measure the DBH of every tree.
I turned to existing data. At first, I unsuccessfully tried to source digital data, specifically tree maps that would have been created as part of the major reconstruction project that was completed in 2014. Next, I turned to old-fashioned paper. The data for the tree layer was derived from construction drawings kept in the map room in the Olmsted Center building in Flushing, Queens. I worked with the map room manager to select and copy maps that covered the longest time span. The earliest map we found is dated 1969. However, there could be older maps with tree information that we did not uncover.
Readers might be surprised to learn that until 2019, there was a 30-inch (76 cm) diameter tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) growing in the lawn across from the WSP administration building! As I became more acquainted with the trees in the park, I was also surprised to see mulberries (Morus sp.) and a black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia).
What are some of the trees in WSP that you’d like to single out?
GSS: Of course I have to write about the English elm in the northwestern corner of the Park. It is WSP’s most (in)famous tree and one of the oldest trees in NYC. English elm is native to Southern and Eastern Europe, so the tree was most likely introduced to its location by humans. The WSP English elm is an estimated 340 years old and is at least 67 inches (170 cm) in diameter and 131 feet (40 m) tall.
The elm’s first year may have occurred in 1679, after the British gained control of New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664 but before the first record of a British landowner of this area in 1790. There is an urban myth surrounding this WSP tree, known as the “Hangman’s Elm.” While there were hangings in the Park, executions took place in its eastern portion. (The last official hanging in WSP took place in 1819.) The western portion of the Park on which the English elm grows was privately held until 1826. The symbolism of elms might be another contributing factor to the “Hangman’s Elm” myth. In Britain, elm wood was used to build coffins, and live elm stems were used in other Christian ceremonies.
I’d also like to call out the crabapple (Malus floribunda) slightly west of the Washington Arch. The trees are almost alive with birds eating the ripe fruit in the fall. You’ll find starling of course, but also American robin, gray catbird, and hermit thrush. There are a few other groves of crabapples that also attract birds in the fall. The only cedar waxwing I have observed in WSP was foraging in the crabapple grove across from the “big kid” playground.
When you are able to give in-person tree tours, what trees or ideas are people most drawn to?
GSS: Eco Projects has organized and co-sponsored tree tours in the Park, and I have led a few of those. People are drawn to the English elm—its size and age represent longevity and history. The only osage orange (Maclura pomifera) in WSP has a remarkable burl. The showy spring flowers of the cherries and magnolias in particular and the overall dramatic fall color in autumn also draw people to the Park.
On your blog you wrote about the death of the WSP linden that may have been due to excessive fill.
GSS: I am still emotional about the death of the linden. It was an American linden (Tilia americana) over 30 inches (76 cm) in diameter. Of all the trees in the area where fill was added for the lawn restoration project, I was most concerned about the linden because this is a genus known to be intolerant of excess fill. I expressed my concern directly to the agency staff person responsible for the project but the project proceeded as planned.
While I cannot definitely say that excessive fill killed the linden, it appeared to be in good health immediately prior to the fill project, and was dead the following year. This situation highlights the need for a tree management plan for WSP, something Eco Projects—and I, on a personal level—would like to see developed. On behalf of Eco Projects, I have reached out to the NYC Parks Department to begin a conversation about a succession plan for the park. There are many large trees in the Park, and a management plan would include guidelines for construction around mature trees.
Can you talk about EXPLORE BIRDS?
GSS: EXPLORE BIRDS is our mobile education and exhibit program. Three threads came together to launch this program. One thread was our wildlife survey. We wanted to offer an opportunity for people to safely interact with the bird species we were observing during our bird counts. The second thread was our collaboration with Street Lab (formerly the Uni Project). The organization’s READ program, a pop-up reading library, hosted our collection of nature-based picture books when they offered programs in WSP.
The third thread was when my children and I found a dead white-throated sparrow. When we found the bird, I knew we could not keep the body because the species is a regulated bird. Loyan suggested I contact the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) for advice. My outreach to the museum introduced me to Paul Sweet, the ornithology collections manager. I can’t remember what happened with the white-throated sparrow, honestly, but when I met with Paul he gave me three European starlings to exhibit with our nature books and introduced me to Peter Capainolo who prepares many of the museum’s specimens and also teaches graduate students in the science and art of taxidermy and study skin preparation. The starlings and the book collection were the catalyst for EXPLORE BIRDS.
As a 501c3, Street Lab submitted a proposal to the Blake-Nuttall Fund on our behalf. We used the funding to pilot EXPLORE BIRDS in 2017. Simultaneously with the pilot, I was observing Pete and graduate students at AMNH prepare bird study skins. During one of my visits, Pete encouraged me to prepare a skin! He and Paul also encouraged me to apply for state and federal permits to build a collection for Eco Projects. Once I received permits to collect or possess birds for education/exhibit purposes, the museum provided salvaged birds for me to prepare as study skins.
The original iteration of EXPLORE BIRDS was a small shelf on the Street Lab READ cart with starlings, several books, and a magnifying glass. The program expanded as I created additional study skins and it was incorporated into Street Lab’s EXPLORE NYC cart. In addition to WSP, the exhibit has traveled with Street Lab to other NYC parks and plazas. Eco Projects also offers EXPLORE BIRDS independent of Street Lab as a table-top exhibit.
EXPLORE BIRDS has been presented at the Pelham Bay Park Nature Day, World Science Festival, March for Science NYC, the American Association for the Advancement of Science Citizen Science Expo, and Biodiversity Day at the 6B Garden in the East Village. The bird specimen collection has been exhibited at the East Village Arts Festival at Tompkins Square Library and we have hosted biological art open studios in NYC and in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
We have 36 specimens which include entire study skins and wing specimens. The collection also contains preserved eyes and an American robin’s nest. We would like to add tree bark that more closely matches the wing pattern of the brown creeper in the collection as well as a trunk section bearing the sap wells of a yellow-bellied sapsucker, a species also in the collection.
What other aspects of the WSP bird programs would you like to highlight? What are the urban forest/bird connections you find most interesting?
GSS: New Yorkers have bird stories. People who participate in the EXPLORE BIRDS program spontaneously share their experiences with wild birds in the City and beyond. Initially I would quickly jot down these stories once the storytellers moved on. I thought I might share these bird tales in some way, but part of what drew me to people’s stories were their voices and the emotions conveyed in their storytelling.
We have been working on a podcast to broadcast the stories people share with us. The pandemic has changed how we’ve been collecting the stories. Instead of in-person, on-the-spot recordings, we have been speaking with people via Zoom. The podcast is titled Your Bird Story, and we hope to launch it by the time this article comes out.
Even as New York State continues to open up, it remains challenging to offer in-person, public programs. I received a 2020 Creative Engagement grant to offer EXPLORE BIRDS with a heavy emphasis on art-making. I am planning to offer this program virtually in partnership with teaching artists from KoKo NYC, an arts education program for children based in Brooklyn.
What is your biggest vision for WSP Eco Projects?
GSS: I have two big goals for Washington Square Park Eco Projects. One goal is the development of a tree management plan. Without trees, the Park would look and feel radically different. And significantly, without the many large trees that the Park currently hosts, the Park and the neighborhood would be hotter. As these trees age or succumb to diseases and pests or natural occurrences such as hurricanes, there needs to a proactive strategy to underplant the next cohort of canopy trees. Species and structural diversity need to be considered in order to maintain a park that is healthy for humans and non-human species.
Another goal is to use the work we are doing in Washington Square Park as a model for similar parks. The ecology of small parks is often overlooked, but parks like WSP offer a lot ecologically, not only to the human and non-human users of the park, but also to the surrounding landscape. I haven’t formally calculated this measure but I estimate that WSP has at least 60% tree cover. As your readers know, the benefits of urban tree cover are numerous and the impacts of canopy on mitigating the urban heat island effect, reducing combined sewer overflows, and improving human health and wellbeing have been quantified extensively.
The Park provides habitat for trees, shrubs, and herbaceous perennials which in turn support birds and other wild animal species either year-round or during migration stopovers. Based on eBird data, 111 species of birds have been observed in the Park. Small parks are part of the nearby nature of our cities, the green with which many residents frequently interact and derive benefits from. If we can make these green spaces more ecologically robust, we can improve well-being across the board.🌳