Computer Generated Image (top) by Markley Boyer, Photograph by Robert Clark

The dawn gently drapes itself over this vast and bountiful landscape. Each lushly overgrown valley, each palatial peak and rolling river – the silver sunlight awakens even the farthest corners of the island. Sparrows flutter between tree branches as a peckish black bear plods through the old growth forest.

Here, the air is clean, the water unpolluted. There are no angry car horns or black suits bustling to get to work. Civilization is a long way off from this place, in space and in time.

This is Manhattan in the year 1609.

Four centuries later, Eric W. Sanderson is rifling through the shelves of The Strand bookstore in downtown New York City. The year is 2000, and Sanderson has recently relocated from sunny Davis, California to work for the Wildlife Conservation Society. His job is to help the environmental organization build a computer mapping system (GIS) to assist in its conservation.

He pauses on a book called Manhattan in Maps 1527-1995. A lover of history, Sanderson thumbs through the collection, amazed by the former landscape. One map, the British Headquarters Map of 1792, specifically draws his attention because of its depth of detail.

In the dusky, narrow aisles of the independent bookstore, Sanderson wonders if he can georeference the map. Georeferencing refers to fitting a flat, two-dimensional map to the 3D latitudes and longitudes of real life.

He buys the book, cuts it open along the spine and digitizes the map – a decision that would spark the publication of two bestselling books; a cover on National Geographic Magazine; profiles by The New York Times, CNN, NPR and The New Yorker; and even a Ted Talk.


Today in the handsome glass building that houses the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo (it’s LEED certified, of course), Sanderson and five fresh faced analysts are furiously clicking away at their computers. It’s a pleasant 60 degrees on this Earth Day, but there are no special events planned. The relaunch of the Welikia Project website is fast approaching in June, and there is still much to be completed.

“It was really cool because it allowed us to see where all the streams and hills were,” Sanderson says about that first map he georeferenced. “It made me want to know more about the historical landscapes and to see if we could reconstruct those ecosystems.”

Sanderson’s own book Mannahatta, based on the next nine years of research, was published to coincide with the quadricentennial of Henry Hudson’s voyage in 2009. It quickly gained popularity by providing a visual representation of how the landscape looked in 1609 (the year that Hudson sailed into the harbor) versus modern-day: the change in coastline, the types of animals that occupied the island before humans did, etc.

“Before we did the book, people didn’t have a good sense of what was there before,” Sanderson says. “Now they have a specific sense. I think that was the most powerful part of the book.”

Sanderson has a gentle demeanor that could put even the grizzly bears right outside his glass office at ease. While there is considerably more white in his beard than that day back in 2000, he still cracks a grin and chuckles as he speaks about his work. “The point wasn’t to say that the past was really beautiful, and this [present] isn’t,” he says, reflecting on the success of Mannahatta. “The point is that both were beautiful, and maybe we can adopt some of the past to help us now.”

The initial excitement for his groundbreaking work has tapered off. Today, Sanderson and his small team of researchers are attempting to once again make headlines. They are about to launch a website that will show website users exactly how they have altered the land and contributed to climate change in the past 400 years.

Using the power of the Internet, Sanderson is bringing city planning and future environmental design to the general public. New Yorkers will be able to pinpoint their exact place of residence or work to see how it changed from past and present. Then, with just a click of a button, they can see the amount of carbon pollution and water that would be conserved if more environmentally friendly initiatives are built. For example, vertical farms could be added to the exteriors of buildings. Rooftops could be covered with growing space and solar panels.


The Welikia Project is essentially Mannahatta 2.0, or the web version of the book. Welika is the Lenape word for “welcome to my home,” an homage to the Native Americans who used to occupy the land that today comprises the five boroughs. During the past few years, the team has been working to expand Sanderson’s original mapping concept that had previously been limited only to Manhattan for the entire metropolitan area. When it finally goes live in June, this rebranded website will show visitors what the city looked like in 1609, and then let them design what they want New York City to look like in 2409. Using aerial images from Google Maps, visitors to the website will use the Map Explorer to toggle between a virtual depiction of the city before it was settled by Europeans to what it looks like today. The Visionmaker explorer will then allow users to design their future city and see how it would stand up against climate change factors.


Eric W. Sanderson, Conservation Biologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society

The website launch is especially exciting for the team in the wake of Mayor de Blasio’s unveiling of OneNYC in April. The Mayor’s ambitious plan calls to aggressively reduce the city’s environmental impact. In a statement to The Associated Press, de Blasio explained that, “the average New Yorker throws out nearly 15 pounds of waste a week, adding up to millions upon millions of tons a year.”

Sanderson is currently trying to entice the Mayor’s office to partner with the Welikia Project. A major part of the OneNYC plan is waste reduction, which Sanderson says is already a feature in the Welikia Visionmaker tool.

“We simulate garbage in Visionmaker!” Sanderson says. OneNYC’s website poses the question, What does your #OneNYC look like? Sanderson says that Welikia already has the maps and tools to bring that answer to life.

Researcher Chris Spagnoli sips from a Nalgene water bottle covered in environmentally- friendly stickers while he analyzes the sea level measurement of a 200-year-old map. Nature Writings by John Muir sits on the desk alongside a mousepad of an indie-band’s album cover.

When Spagnoli is finished, Visionmaker users will be able to raise and lower the sea level surrounding the city. Knowing precisely where the historical marshes and streams were located helps predict what areas are at risk of flooding today, increasingly important for future superstorms.

Following Hurricane Sandy, FEMA (Federal Emergency Response Agency) released new flood maps that expanded the previous 1983 maps from which the city was working. These new maps added approximately 32,000 more buildings to the floodplain, which is a 91 percent increase from the former maps.

Just in the city alone, Sandy inflicted 19 billion in damages and 48 human fatalities. Residents were forced to rebuild their lives after the storm tore through New York City in October 2012. Governor Andrew Cuomo joked directly following the storm that New York “has a 100-year flood every two years now,” but the truth of his words are serious. With climate change, New York City is facing more severe and more frequent weather events.

One of Sanderson’s objectives with the Welikia Project is to educate the public about how sea level rise will impact the city in the future. The total area of New York’s flood zone is directly related to how high sea level is expected to be, which (in turn) is directly related to climate change by melting ice caps.

Current sea level rise projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimate that the water surrounding New York City will rise 11 to 21 inches by the middle of the century and up to 6 feet by 2100. This rise in the water level surrounding the city means that, when large storms come ashore, there will be higher, more powerful water surges that are capable of much more damage. Low-lying neighborhoods such as Alphabet City, Battery Park, DUMBO and Red Hook are all at risk of being underwater. During Sandy, Battery Park recorded a 13.88 feet storm surge.

“More New Yorkers are now considered at risk for flooding,” said Daniel Yawitz, an external affairs coordinator for the NYC Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency. About 141,000 people are living within flood zones since the maps were updated. Globally, that number is 177 million, or about 2.6 percent of the world’s population.

The prospect of a climate event affecting so much of the population is terrifying enough to have inspired countless Hollywood films about the scenario. One well-known movie The Day After Tomorrow (2004) depicts a New York City in which climate change has ushered in a catastrophic ice age.

“Although The Day After Tomorrow had really awful science, it did more to move the needle of public opinion on climate change more than any other single work,” said Jeff Masters, the director of meteorology at Weather Underground, who gives credit to these Hollywood eco-disaster films for their ability to influence viewers more than other scare tactics. “Documentaries are not vivid enough to make a big impression on people. One really needs to connect on an emotional level with storytelling to really make a big shift in people’s views,” he said.

Back in the light-filled offices of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Sanderson suddenly looks solemn. He has many hopes for the project, which has become the center of his life for the last 15 years. This is not a Hollywood film, and the stakes are high. For him, failing now may mean a grim future for New York City and for all future cities. Still, even Mother Nature’s pallbearer has his doubts about whether or not he will succeed. “We’re still looking for that big win, and I’m not sure if we’ll get it in New York, actually,” he admits.


In the middle of writing Mannahatta in 2007, Sanderson was profiled by writer Nick Paumgarten for the New Yorker. The night before the story ran, Paumgarten called up Sanderson to ask if he was ready for his entire life to change. “I was like, this isn’t going to change my life. This is going to change everybody else’s lives,” Sanderson recalls.

Then, National Geographic came knocking – nearly knocking the door off its very hinges. Sanderson’s project was featured on the cover of the magazine along with a feature story. The cover photo: two side-by-side images of Manhattan before and after humans. Sanderson says he never imagined so many people around the world would form a connection to that photo, pointing to a Hebrew-language version of the issue that sits on his office shelf.

“After that, I think there was this kind of Mannahatta meme. Everyone had heard of it,” he says. That is when the idea of bringing the book to the web was born.

The Welikia Project’s mission has always been to engage more New Yorkers in the environmental conversation, but Sanderson (despite the project’s past fame) says that its difficult to predict if it will make any lasting impact in the Big Apple. He is already planning the next city to take his research: San Francisco, where there is already a lot of vested interest in the project by planners and city officials. San Franciscans recycle about 75% of their garbage, the highest in the nation, and the city is trying to become the first zero waste city in the world by 2020.

Perhaps, New York just is not ready to address climate change as a city. After all, New York’s recycling rate was only 15 percent last year, which is less than half the U.S. average of 34 percent and far less than San Francisco.

Sonali McDermid, an associate professor of Environmental Studies at NYU, disagrees. She believes that New Yorkers are very receptive to the topic of climate change and points to the fact that the average New Yorker uses far less electricity and gasoline than the average American. Because of its high population, the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that New York’s per capita energy consumption is among the lowest in the nation.

“New York has been a very open venue for discussion issues related to environmental sustainability,” McDermid said. “Although we face some difficult decisions for the future, I think we’re ready to have those discussions here.” With a new mayor, that conversation has already begun. During the first year of his term, Mayor De Blasio announced an initiative to decrease New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 from the 2005 levels.

The case for urban ecology has been steadily growing for the past fifty years. It’s a discipline with its roots in Ebenezer Howard’s late 19th Century “garden city movement.” Howard’s method of city planning incorporated more of the country into towns to create something of a hybrid alternative to what he considered the overcrowded, unhealthy metropolis. In 1961, Lewis Mumford’s “The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects,” traced the evolution of the city from medieval times to modern day. Mumford was an architecture critic for The New Yorker who thought that modern cities should incorporate more of the natural environment by localizing neighborhoods, using renewable energy and getting rid of cars.

Yet, most of Howard’s and Mumford’s visions failed to ever come to fruition, until now. In the last decade, New York City built The High Line and implemented the City Bike. And, if the proposal can get enough backers, the Lowline in the Lower East Side may become the world’s first underground park. The Welikia Project is funded from the Wildlife Conservation Society, which receives most of its funding from private donors and whatever additional grants that the team can get.

The implications for climate change are global and far reaching, but here in New York, the Welikia Project gives residents a way to think about their role on a more personal level. “We can show people what the land was like before,” says Spagnoli, explaining what keeps the project going for him. “They can say, ‘That’s my house, that’s where I live!’ You can really get that sense of place and connection.”

Some 400-years from now, New York City will look very different than it does today. That will be 800 years after Henry Hudson first settled Manhattan Island. Perhaps there will be vertical farms growing on the sides of all buildings, with public gardens and greenspaces on every roof and block. Maybe children in the South Bronx will no longer have some of the highest asthma rates in the U.S. Whether that future landscape is hospitable to humans or not is what people like Sanderson are trying to determine now.

“We’re a part of nature, and we’re a part of the impact. It’s about knowing what was there and knowing where we’re going,” Spagnoli says.