A majority of Earth’s population now live in metropolitan areas, many of which contain ecologically depleted tracts that can’t support the plants, wildlife, and insects that provide what Handel calls “environmental services” – cleaning air and water, pollinating crops, cooling overheated cities, preventing erosion, and improving the quality of human life.
A renewed public awareness of environmental issues has caused many urban planners, scientists, and even city dwellers themselves to recognize the high cost of neglecting land stewardship.
This awareness has also provided Handel and his team with opportunities to restore sites ranging from a former Air Force base in southern California to the area surrounding picturesque Great Falls in Paterson, N.J.
Handel is “one of the real pioneers of exploring the urban environment,” says Edward Toth, director of the New York City Parks and Recreation Department’s Greenbelt Native Plant Center. He adds that the urban ecologist is known for having “brought rigor and intuitive questioning” to his urban environmental work.
It’s only fitting, Handel believes, that the northeastern United States, the first American region to become urbanized, has become home to the Center for Urban Restoration Ecology (CURE), a joint venture between Rutgers and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York. Handel, a professor of ecology, evolution, and natural resources at Rutgers, is also director of CURE. The nine-year-old organization describes itself as “the first scientific initiative in the US established specifically to advance the study and practice of ecological restoration on human-dominated lands."