When environmentalist Sarah Aucoin announced that she and her husband, Brian, were leaving their converted chicken coop home next to Arizona’s Coconino National Forest and moving to New York City, friends thought she was crazy. Aucoin had previously worked as a park ranger among active volcanoes in Hawaii and in the forests of Colorado. What could the city atmosphere possibly offer the accomplished environmentalist?
But New York had a whole career of opportunities awaiting her. Though more renowned for its skyscrapers than its parks, NYC is actually home to 29,000 acres of parklands, 10,000 acres of which are completely undeveloped, natural lands. “[Two parks in the Bronx] host thriving populations of breeding coyotes,” Aucoin says. “We live in such an urban metropolis but we have the landscape that can support such a rich, natural ecological habitat [and] ecosystem.”
As the director of the Urban Park Rangers, a division of the New York City Parks and Recreation Department, it’s Aucoin’s job to share this information with the public and help New Yorkers enjoy and connect with the natural world around them. The Urban Park Rangers work from Nature Centers located in parks in every borough, offering programs for schools and camps as well as free drop-in classes which anyone can join to explore the outdoors. “We do kayaking, canoeing, and archery [programs] in every borough,” Aucoin says. “We run a lot of the kinds of programs that you wouldn’t really think would happen in the city.” They also travel outside of the parks and into neighborhoods to share their nature lessons.
Aucoin develops the curricula for the Urban Park Rangers’ programs, working with staff from National Geographic, Columbia University, and the New York City Department of Education. She’s also responsible for fundraising and writing grants for those programs. In 2002, as deputy director, she even persuaded the city to approve a permit to raise bald eagles in Inwood Hill Park.
Aucoin has a long, impassioned list of reasons why her job is important to the community. Studies show that kids who spend more time outdoors in their neighborhoods are better able to retain information and that teenage girls who are active have higher self-esteem. Plus, neighborhoods with more trees have lower hospitalization rates for childhood asthma. “It’s a human right to be able to reap the benefits of connecting to nature,” Aucoin says.
Though she never planned to raise children in the city, the mom of two couldn’t be more pleased that her boys have grown up in the Bronx. “Some of the smartest, best, most interesting people I’ve met in my life were raised in New York City,” she says. “Hopefully, I’m raising two of those [people] myself.” Her sons share her passion for the outdoors; they’ve only recently discovered that parks are places children go to shoot hoops and play baseball, not just raise bald eagles and plant trees, she admits, laughing. Participating in tree plantings and other park events has given her boys a sense of purpose and value, and those are gifts she works to share with every New Yorker.