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CUNY Students Branch Out for Internship Mapping City Park Greenery

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CUNY students during their Natural Areas Conservancy internship

Even studying the great outdoors remained mostly indoors this year for CUNY students. Twelve young adults interested in ecology from the public university system participated in a virtual internship with The Natural Areas Conservancy this summer to create an ecological profile of parks across the city. Despite the pandemic, these students gained paid work experience during a widespread job drought and were able to develop their ecological skills and knowledge. Plus, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation received a detailed analysis of planted areas to inform its management in the future.

“The students this summer, we were only able to accomplish so much because they were so self-motivated and passionate and really took a lot of the work upon themselves and went above and beyond my expectations,” said Jessica Hoch, the head of the Natural Areas Conservancy intern program and a project manager in monitoring and assessment. “And I think they are especially connected to this work because although this was remote, they’re working in these areas that they’ve grown up with in their kind of backyard.”

The Natural Areas Conservancy, a nonprofit focused on the health of New York City’s forests, pushed the CUNY internship program into its fifth year, according to Executive Director and co-founder Sarah Charlop-Powers, but the coronavirus pandemic determined the organization’s first remote offering. For eight weeks from June 15 to August 7, young adults used data sets from previous interns and historical imagery from virtual city maps to examine about 30 planted areas controlled by the city Parks Department, the Natural Areas Conservancy partner for this project, Hoch said.

With a skyrocketing city youth unemployment rate, reported at 35 percent among 16-to-24 year-olds in May by the New York City Comptroller’s Office, up from 6 percent pre-pandemic in February, the Natural Areas Conservancy initiative allowed some specialized training for students this summer from one of the most diverse ‘ecosystems’ — the City University of New York (CUNY). Interns came from the College of Staten Island, Brooklyn College, Hunter College, Baruch College, City College, and Lehman College, according to Hoch. They worked 35 hours a week, she said, with regular “crew members” earning $17 an hour while intern-supervisors earned $22 an hour. Charlop-Powers said they shifted their programming to include CUNY a few years ago for the Natural Areas Conservancy to serve as a job-creator and invest in the local talent pool.

“I think it’s really kind of a deep belief of our organization that nobody sort of cares about New York City or kind of relates to New York City as well as the people who are growing up in our communities, spending time in our parks,” said Charlop-Powers. “And that if we have the opportunity to help be a stepping stone for folks in their professional development, people who are interested in pursuing environmental careers, that feels like a real way to sort of fulfill our mission of caring about natural spaces in New York City and caring about the way we use them.”

The Natural Areas Conservancy collaborated with the Parks Department to design a feasible, remote internship, according to Hoch. She said when they decided to conduct a virtual program in mid-April, they brainstormed ways to provide skill-building and training opportunities for young people while also supplying a valuable deliverable to the Parks Department.

This summer, the interns created an ecological profile of the past, present, and future of planted forests across five city parks: Forest Park in Queens, Riverside Park in Manhattan, Van Cortlandt Park in The Bronx, Prospect Park in Brooklyn and the Greenbelt on Staten Island. Hoch said the Parks Department had previously removed invasive species and sowed native plants to increase the ecological health of those areas. The students used data sets, especially from previous interns, to characterize the land use history of the sites from the 1920s to the present, analyze current forest conditions and predict the planted areas’ trajectory in the future, according to Hoch. 

To examine the past even further, said Hoch, they used historical imagery from the New York City Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications, or NYC DoITT, which provides city-wide GIS, or geographic information system, maps. They also looked at a list of species projected to maintain or increase their range with climate change versus what the Parks Department planted to capture what might survive better as the department plants in the future.

For each site, interns created charts and maps with the abundance of each planted species for every site, which the Natural Areas Conservancy turned over to the Parks Department along with their other analyses, according to Hoch. She said practitioners at each site, with this comprehensive look, can then adjust their management activities as needed to have a healthier park. Darius LaFond said this is his second year participating in this internship, and while the interns could interact with the actual sites last year, this time he gained different but useful abilities.

“Because this year it was mostly online, it kind of helped me with the data management and more computer skills,” said LaFond, a senior from Baruch College majoring in biology and minoring in environmental sciences. “And I think it would help me in the future because, well there are gonna be times where I wouldn’t be able to actually physically go out into the field and do research, so I would have to know how to use the data that I’ve been given to make a guess about what is going to happen.”

Interns mostly learned data and image analysis techniques to study the parks indoors for their eight-week experience, but the Natural Areas Conservancy found ways for them to engage with nature outdoors as well — in a socially distanced manner. As they surveyed how COVID-19 rates decreased across the city, Hoch, Charlop-Powers and the Natural Areas Conservancy organized a social assessment component of the internship, where interns, in pairs, would conduct interviews in parks with visitors on how they were now using the natural areas. They included those conversations in their analysis to observe how behavior and attitudes towards parks had changed during the pandemic.

Hoch also described how they would assign interns individual scavengers hunts in their neighborhoods or the closest natural space to them, and they would learn how to identify trees or other basic botany techniques. Carolina Salane, a master’s student from City College studying sustainability in the urban environment, said it was important to her to get some breaks outside.

“It wasn’t any scheduled time in the day. We were just equipped with these new plant IDing skills and we were able to set up activities with our own teams and say, ‘Okay, for three hours or two hours we’re going to go out and just ID trees,’” said Salane. “And that was great, because we got some time away from the screen and I got to see my neighborhood in a new way and now I know all the trees that are on the block.”

Salane served as an intern supervisor this summer. Along with her own work, she said she oversaw the work of two other interns. Hoch described a collaborative work environment amongst the interns where they would meet through video calls and check each other’s work to increase accuracy. Salane said if other interns were confused about any part of the process, other interns would jump in to demonstrate how to use certain programs or analysis techniques. 

“I walked away feeling like a much more confident ecologist even though I hadn’t spent that much time in the field,” said Salane. 

While the interns managed to work together in their respective homes, communicating came with challenges. Aldrin Ador, an intern supervised by Salane, said when he tried to explain his work to other interns, it felt difficult to gauge whether they understood.

“If they were with me in the room, I could show them how I’m doing this with a mapping software or with Excel,” said Ador, an undergraduate senior at Lehman College in a dual degree program for a bachelor’s in environmental sciences and a master’s in GIS. “There is a camera but I think it’s better for me to be in front of them to figure out if they’re confused or just read their general body language.”

Ador said the group’s collaborative spirit kicked in again as they brainstormed ways to explain processes more clearly to each other. He said Salane advised him to make an explainer document on how to create a map for the other interns.

Youth employment programs like the Natural Areas Conservancy internship serve as summer learning experiences for youth that research has shown lead to an increase in community engagement, social skills, job readiness skills, work habits, and college aspirations for young people. Ador said the internship let him apply the skills he learned in the classroom to “real-world conservation work.”

“This really gave me the context of, you know, you can take as many ecology classes as you can, but you’re not really gonna know what that perspective is like until you participate in this work,” said Ador. “I’d want to continue that work either with NAC, NYC Parks, the forestry service or any organization that’s focused on environmental issues. That’s generally what I want to do. I think it helped me solidify that.”

by Melissa Lent, Gotham Gazette

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