Rutgers professor wins ‘restoration ecology’ award


Rutgers professor wins ‘restoration ecology’ award

Steven N. Handel, professor of ecology and evolution at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences has been selected for the Theodore Sperry Award by the Society for Ecological Restoration International.

Posted 01 August 2011, by Gene Racz, My Central Jersey (Gannett),

RUTGERS UNIVERSITY — Steven Handel’s first large-scale project to restore an urban area entailed making the old Kearny landfill look nicer for passing motorists near Exit 15W on the New Jersey Turnpike.

With the help of the Meadowlands Commission, the professor of ecology and evolution at Rutgers helped spearhead an effort in the early 1980s to plant patches of trees and shrubs on top of the dump covered with trash and weeds.

“We turned it solid woodland where birds live, it’s beautiful,” said Handel. “Now, in this whole 20 acres of solid woodland, there’s habitat, it helps clean the water that goes into the Newark bay. It helps the environment of the Meadowlands and it was done cheaply.

Since then, Handel’s taken his pioneering work in “restoration ecology” to new heights with ecological projects in urban areas including: Fresh Kills landfill site on Staten Island; Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York; Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Cal. and the areas surrounding Beijing’s 2008 Olympic sites.

In honor of his work, he has been selected for the Theodore Sperry Award by the Society for Ecological Restoration International. The Sperry Award is given only every other year to an individual who has made significant advancements to the science or techniques of restoration practice.

It is the highest research award for ecological restoration in the world.

“Most people in the United States and the in the world, live in cities now — we’ve become an urban nation,” said Handel. “In the past, people thought that to enjoy nature you had to go out to some park for your two week vacation. We feel that that nature should be where you live and work, not just where we go on our holiday.

“Nature is more than beautiful, nature is also important,” he added. “It helps us and gives us what we call “ecological services” — clean air, clean groundwater, healthy city environment, healthy suburbs.”

Handel says ecological restoration is, at once, health promoting and cost efficient. The more trees and shrubs clean and cool the air, the less money society spends on air conditioning. To maximize sustainability, Handel says he works to create parks that don’t need a lot of maintenance and fertilization by using native plants which grow well without much care.

“They keep going for a long time without a lot of tax money,” said Handel who grew up in far Rockaway New York and now resides in Bridgewater. He will pick up his ward next month at the next World Conference for Ecological Restoration, to be held in Merida, Mexico.

“I was very touched (by the award), it’s not something you apply for, it’s a big deal,” said Handel. “I think I’m being honored because we’re trying to show that nature is important, it’s not just beautiful.

“We want to have nature where people live so it can be part of the culture and urban life.”

Gene Racz can be reached at 


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