Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are

Earlier this month at the opening the Safari 7 Reading Room at Columbia University’s Studio X, a cross section of the city’s architecture, landscape, design, and urbanist ecosystem sipped from red plastic cups and milled around an oversized table map listening to podcasts. Meanwhile, from Midtown, Manhattan to Flushing, Queens other animal habitats were teeming with life: snakefish, squirrels, and worms twitching and writhing within the urban environment. Launched over the summer, Safari 7 is a self-guided podcast tour that narrates the wildlife and habitats along the No. 7 subway line.

The project brings together infrastructure, communications, ecology, and participatory design. Produced as a collaboration between Janette Kim and Kate Orff of The Urban Landscape Lab research group at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, and Glen Cummings of graphic design studio MTWTF, the reading room is not a library in the traditional sense, but a spot where you can take the time to read the nature around the 7 line, listen to a narrative, pick up a map, and plan your own eco-commute. AN spoke with Orff, Kim, and Cummings about Safari 7.

How did you first conceive of the project?

Janette Kim: Safari 7 started when the three of us—Kate, Glen, and I—started collecting our research on the National Parks Service. The parks provide rangers, maps, and even self-guided cell phone tours that provide access and interpretation of parklands. We began to discuss what would happen if we could provide ranger tours of New York City as a layered urban ecosystem, and started to imagine that this tour could be more hands-on, more exploratory, and follow the notion of a citizen scientist—someone who doesn’t just take in information from an authoritative source, but produces it through the process of exploration.

Was the 7 subway line a natural fit? Does Queens County lend itself to ecological study more than the other Boroughs?

Glen Cummings: The 7 line wasn’t just a good fit, it was the inspiration. The 30-minute ride from Times Square to Flushing or visa versa is the perfect time to connect to the micro events that are happening right outside the train windows.

JK: We’ve received suggestions already to do the G and 6 lines, but the 7 train is especially fascinating. We like the fact that it traverses so many different types of neighborhoods and people, and runs through neighborhoods that offer a fascinating history of combined natural and social influences.

Bryant Park is a product of varying interpretations of public investment, from its stint as the Croton Reservoir to the home of the New York Public Library. Jackson Heights is one of our nation’s only examples of the Garden City movement and Sunnyside Gardens is one of the nation’s first planned communities after World War I. Flushing Meadows is famously the result mass dumping of tons of ash from the city’s garbage incineration, the transformation by Robert Moses into a major transportation corridor and the site of two world’s fairs, and the ever-encroaching return of a neglected wetlands.

GC: Diversity is a defining characteristic of the borough of Queens: More types of people from more countries, living in more types of places, with an eclectic grouping of creatures and plants around them, than anywhere else in the U.S. The 7 line helped us narrow down this discussion by acting as a natural transect, that is, a line along which you can examine differences.

In addition to urban explorations, what more about our built environment can Safari 7 participants take away from the project?

GC: We are definitely interested in connecting a wide range of people with the urban nature in their own backyards by using mass transportation the means of travel, and by offering up a model for how people can connect to the environment in an active rather than passive way.

Our hope is that viewers and participants become interested and therefore more attuned to the world around them. Most city infrastructure is constructed in a brutal way because government didn’t really understand how interconnected environment, health, and commerce were and are. It is the overlaps and intersections between these infrastructures, housing fabrics, human animal and plant habitats that tell the story.

One example is U Thant Island, just south of Roosevelt Island. The construction of the Steinway Tunnel produced a pile of soil that was dumped at the closest high point in the East River floor. The pile emerged from the river as an impromptu island and now has a flock of cormorants nesting there.

We see the 7 line, as well as the whole MTA system, as a tool for urban exploration and a tool to connect with the built natural environment. Robert Moses’s view of connecting the city to nature is to connect the city with the parks and beach as recreation destinations, but we’re interested in the inter-connections and micro-environments all the way along the line, and how they are experienced in peoples daily life, not just at the end points.

Above ground trains offer you a spectrum of less-spectacular environments, whose range and impact are even more interesting, because these are the environments we live in. Understanding what lives there, what grows there, how they relate, is what it is all about.

Does a growing awareness of habitats and biodiversity dovetail with trends in sustainability and green building design?

Kate Orff: Sustainable development is inseparable from robust habitats and global biodiversity. Who could imagine living in a world of smooth, glassy, high-tech, supposedly “green” skyscrapers in a world with no bees or bats—surrounded by silent forests and empty seas? How would our crops be pollinated? What would we eat?

Growing awareness of habitats probably reflects a growing understanding of the less superficially technical and more emotional and compassionate side of the sustainability question. We’ve modified the globe to create human (and as the exhibit shows, deer and geese) habitat all over the world and people are beginning to expand the view and see that in some cases human habitat excludes animal life. In some cases, like we’ve pointed out in the exhibit, along the 7 line—they co-exist in surprising and unexpected ways.

What is your favorite stop?

KO: I like Bryant Park—the maze of tunnels from different periods of time disorients even the most jaded New Yorker—and I like thinking that just a couple of feet above me someone is reading the newspaper and sunning on this thin lawn carpet. Second choice would have to be Willets Point and the experience of riding through the treetops on my way to US Open tennis match.

GC: Downtown Flushing. My family is from Flushing and I’ve always loved the bustle of the train station area. The noise, the food, people come from every direction and going in every direction all at once. What a beautiful mess!