Randall’s Island Park is surrounded by the Harlem River to the west, the East River to the east, and the Bronx Kill to the north. The Park offers visitors a remarkable variety of natural areas to explore – including freshwater wetlands and a tidal marsh, an urban forest, and nearly five miles of coastal upland habitat.
The Randall’s Island Park Alliance (RIPA) has worked to restore, maintain and program these valuable environmental, educational and recreational resources, and the Island is increasingly visited by neighbors from the surrounding communities. The Park’s stunning city vistas, wetlands and upland sites are accessible via miles of bicycle and pedestrian pathways. Our restored waterfront areas offer natural flood and erosion control, actively clean air and water, provide nurseries for fish, and are sources of food for resident and migrating birds. As a public park that is also an island in the middle of New York City, the Island has enormous potential as a resource for research into issues such as water quality and the success of restoration work in urban environments.
RIPA’s Waterfront Stewardship Program was created to take advantage of this unique resource for local engagement and environmental education. RIPA’s experienced Natural Areas Manager and Crew guide RIPA in providing extensive volunteer opportunities, public events, guided tours, research partnerships and educational programming for local public schools and groups – enabling RIPA responsibly to care for the Island’s shoreline while forming strong relationships with a range of local stewards.
Whether you like to fish, bird watch, study urban ecology or just sit quietly on a bench, looking out over the surrounding waters, the vibrant ecology of Randall’s Island Park offers a slice of paradise right in your backyard.
History of Randall’s Island Park Restoration
Since 2006, RIPA has worked to raise and implement more than $16 million in support toward restoring and developing the wetlands, waterfront and natural areas of Randall’s Island Park. The first phase of environmental restoration at the Park began with a salt marsh and a freshwater wetland, in and near the Little Hell Gate Inlet on the west side of the Island.
Randall’s Island Park Habitats
Randall’s Island Park offers a wide range of waterfront habitat as well as resources for public recreation and education. The Island’s nearly five miles of shoreline is surrounded by old pilings and stone, which provide unique habitat in the New York Harbor, where many other areas have been dredged. The materials along the shoreline are the foundation for dynamic littoral ecosystems, providing invaluable protection and substrate for many marine species such as oysters, grass shrimp, mud worms, and various seaweeds. The riprap and seawall edges of the Island, accessible via a new waterfront pathway system, provide exceptional locations for running, cycling and quiet reflection, as well as for fishing; the converging currents and tidal systems, debris and pilings, and restored estuarine habitat on the Island provide a mix of conditions ideal for a wide range of fish species throughout the year. Anglers at the Park have recently brought in striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, blackfish, porgy and striped sea robin. RIPA also partners with the NY/NJ Baykeeper to support, monitor and study oysters, which serve to filter pollutants from surrounding waterways.
Randall’s Island Park hosts restored tidal salt marshes at the Little Hell Gate Inlet, midway along its western edge, and at the Bronx Kill, along the Island’s northern shore. A salt marsh is a type of wetland found next to salty or brackish water bodies. Salt marshes are among the most productive ecological systems on earth, with very rapid rates of photosynthesis. They are usually tidal, which means that the water comes in and flows out of the wetland twice a day. The tide flows into and out of the Randall’s Island salt marshes from the Harlem River, which feeds into the New York Harbor and the Long Island Sound, which in turn connect to the Atlantic Ocean.
You will not find many types of plants growing in salt marshes, because they have to be able to live in the salty water; on Randall’s Island, most are tall marsh grasses, as well as shrubs and grasses planted on adjacent slopes to provide different kinds of wildlife habitat. The marsh grasses soak up heavy metals and petroleum byproducts, improving water quality and reducing nonpoint source pollution and nitrogen inputs into surrounding waters.
As habitats for a wide array of resident and migratory wildlife, the marshes offer a remarkable resource for environmental education and appreciation. Shore birds, song birds, and predatory birds, crustaceans, mollusks, and juvenile and adult fish forage, nest, and seek refuge in the marshes. Common fall and winter marsh visitors include Carolina chickadees, buffleheads, Eastern phoebes, belted kingfishers, and white throated sparrows. Particularly dramatic visitors include great and snowy egrets, great blue herons, double-crested cormorants, and yellow-crowned and black-crowned night herons that come to the Island’s marshes in search of food.
Water for freshwater wetlands comes from rain, stormwater runoff and/or groundwater. The freshwater wetland at Randall’s Island gets water from all three of these sources. However, its main source of water comes from drains specifically installed by RIPA that lead from roads and sports fields just south of the site, and bring water from those areas. The plants in the wetland serve to absorb and filter nonpoint source pollution before runoff reaches the surrounding waterways. Many different types of plants can grow in freshwater wetlands; our site at Randall’s Island is an “emergent wetland,” where water is shallow and many plants are small and low to the ground. As the wetland changes over time, trees may grow, making the area a forested wetland, which is sometimes referred to as a swamp.
The Randall’s Island freshwater wetland provides critical breeding areas for butterflies and several species of dragonflies and damselflies that require slow-moving water to complete their breeding cycle. It is also an excellent breeding and migratory habitat for birds such as red-winged blackbirds, marsh wrens, common yellow throats, swamp sparrows, and green herons.
RIPA has planted a diverse assortment of native flowering plants to beautify the Park and to encourage pollinator species. Pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, are vital in creating and maintaining the habitats and ecosystems that many animals rely on for food and shelter. The worldwide decline of pollinators due to pesticides and habitat loss makes it important to plant native species that encourage pollinators to join the flourishing ecosystem of Randall’s Island Park.
To promote ecological connectivity, RIPA has worked to foster an urban forest at the Park, by clearing invasive species and replanting with native trees and understory to recreate a secondary forest succession. This urban forest will help clean the air and keep our soil from eroding into our waterways.
Did you see the muskrat family that lives at the Park? Or perhaps one of the 150+ migrant birds that call the Island home? Share your observations with us: