Learning a Love of Nature in the City: A Q&A with Sara Hobel

Open Voices is taking the opportunity to get to know some of the different team members from our National Awards grantee projects. You can find previous interviews with other team members here.

Building on her previous experiences as an advocate for the benefits of nature, such as leading up the Urban Park Rangers in New York, Sara Hobel continues to help New Yorkers find the wilder and greener side of the city as the executive director of the Horticultural Society of New York.

Sara Hobel at the Urban Agricultural Conference this year.

Her latest efforts involve partnering with Milton Puryear and the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative in planning and executing the Naval Cemetery Landscape project, one of our National Award grantees. Hobel took the time to speak with us on the ongoing plans for the project and her work to educate city-folk on the restorative qualities of nature.

Open Voices: Can you give us some context on the partnership between the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative and the Horticultural Society of New York?

Sara Hobel: We have worked with the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative for many years, helping them do remove invasive plants along the Greenway. The Hort’s GreenTeam, a transitional employment program that provides horticultural vocational training to ex-offenders, provided free and low-cost services to help improve the landscape. Milton Puryear and I have actively looked for ways we can collaborate.  Our organizations have such a similar goal, to provide equitable and easy access to green space in our city. We believe that many inner-city residents are suffering from stress-related disorders that could be helped by regular immersive experiences in nature.

Open Voices: What role do you envision the Horticultural Society of New York and yourself playing in the development of the Naval Cemetery Landscape project?

Hobel: Our role is to provide programs to engage two distinct populations in the development and use of the Naval Cemetery Landscape.  We will be working with teachers and students from The Green School, a high school, and also counselors and residents from BCHANDS, a supportive housing organization. Both are near the site we are turning into a native plant landscape.  We also will help to engage policymakers from the city in the outcomes of our project.

We will be hosting conferences that showcase not only our work at the Naval Cemetery Landscape, but also we hope to also showcase the other TKF grantee projects.  Together, these projects should help to demonstrate the many benefits of restorative landscapes.  Of course, as a horticultural organization, we are also helping with the plantings!  We are currently raising 300 native plants at our GreenHouse program, which provides horticultural therapy to incarcerated individuals at the Rikers Island Correctional Facilty.  We will supervise the students and supportive housing residents as they plant these natives on site in the upcoming year.

For myself, I hope to continue playing the role of advocate for nature in our city.  Since my earlier days as Director of the Urban Park Rangers, then head of education for the Wildlife Conservation Society, I have worked collaboratively with many wonderful organizations and city agencies to ensure that all New Yorkers connect with the natural world.

Open Voices: What key lessons from The Hort’s work do you plan on applying to this new project?

Hobel: The Hort has worked for decades at schools, libraries supportive housing organizations, community gardens, prisons, streetscapes, parks, substance abuse centers, and public housing.  We build gardens and teach people to cultivate plants for many purposes, including creative expression, food, fun, exercise, mental health, and even just plain beauty.  In every setting, with every population, we see the profound benefits working with plants in the soil brings.  We are pleased to know that an organization such as TKF is interested in quantitatively documenting what we know by experience.  Humans need to cultivate plants and to be be immersed in nature.

Open Voices: Working in New York, how do you feel or see interaction with nature, or a lack thereof, affecting people’s daily lives?

Hobel: I am very concerned about the increasing disconnection with the natural world.  What I see all day are people, including young teens, connected to a 4 square inch screen…their cellphone.  I see them looking down at that tiny screen while the outside world passes them by. I understand that the cacophony of the city can be something to tune out.  That is why we need more nature in our city, at regular intervals, so that people can find relief from the built environment and be reminded that if we look out, up and around, we can be amazed, by a redtailed hawk, by a tiny bee gathering honey, by a warbler, or a beautiful budding flower on a plant. I do believe that most people, especially our teenagers and children, are suffering from nature deficit disorder.  They have missed out on one of the essential elements of being human…experiencing our partnership with the natural world that truly does sustain us.

At this point, we have to teach this and the next generation to understand nature and its essential place in a healthy world and in healthy lives.  People are so detached that they fear dirt, insects, and even wild animals as non-aggressive as chipmunks.  We have a generational problem to fix, and we have to start now.

Open Voices: What do you foresee as the most visible outcomes for the people of New York from the Naval Cemetery Landscape project?

Hobel: The research results of this four year project should contribute significantly to the evidence that argues for the addition of greenspaces in our city. In addition, the day-to-day positive experiences of the groups involved in the development of the space – the high school students and the supportive housing residents – should influence policymakers.  Our project will demonstrate that our city’s residents need nature, and our city planning and budget going forward should ensure that every New Yorker have a nearby park or natural area to visit regularly.

Open Voices: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Hobel: We are looking forward to working with all of the different grantee teams.  We all bring a different perspective, but we share common beliefs. Thank you, TKF. It is rare to find a foundation that is willing to fund the research and design and construction and programs. This is a tremendous opportunity for all of us. You have selected amazing projects, and their outcomes can advance the understanding of why nature matters to us all.


Our newsletter shares the latest on our work to cultivate the creation of meaningful greenspaces in every community.