GREAT EASTERN CARVES OUT SUCCESSFUL NICHE IN
RESTORING URBAN ECOLOGY
NOT EVERYBODY on this crowded planet can live out a Wendell Berry-inspired dream of reconnecting
with the land through the ownership of 20 acres of cropland, forest and wetland, much as the great sage of
the conservation movement would like us to pursue such a dream. As populations grow, urban areas will
have to absorb growing numbers of people and will have to be made more livable than they are. Cities are
And they're not just for people. As more and more suburban, ex-urban and rural areas succumb to
development, parkland restoration and preservation in these areas and the cities have become critical to
protecting wildlife habitat and bird migration corridors. The decline of warbler populations is not just a
source of grief for the bird-watching community; it is an indicator of the loss of biodiversity and the
potentially significant and negative consequences associated with that loss. The restoration of urban
stopovers for these birds and others will be critical.
Not all of the restoration work conducted by Great Eastern Ecology, Inc. (New York, N.Y.;
www.greateasternecology.com) has been in urban areas, but the company believes that it has
distinguished itself in that niche -- and has taken great joy and pride in doing so. "We're trying to position
ourselves to be the ones you call when you're trying to figure out what to do in an urban area," said Mark
Laska, founder and owner of th six-year-old firm. "That doesn't mean we don't do work in rural areas, but
we've been able to expand in this niche pretty well." He added, "we think of ourselves as the only ecology
shop in New York City. That's opened up some doors for us, to be brought in as the ecologists in some
very, very large projects."
Taking impaired habitat and restoring its basic functions can take many different forms in cities, "from
creating natural features in urban parks to restoring marshes," Laska continued. For these jobs, Great
Eastern provides a range of services, from design and construction oversight to permitting, monitoring,
and even the public communication thats often necessary to push these projects through to
Large engineering firms lacking adequate resources in this market space are a major source of work for
Great Eastern Ecology. "There are a lot of engineers in the world, and there are few ecologists, but there
are not a lot of people who know how to translate ecological insights and scientific knowledge into
buildable construction projects," Laska explained. "What we're doing is putting that knowledge into practice
with guidelines, drawings, images and technical specifications that are designed to be buildable and
approachable by the people who are going to experience them -- as well as the animals."
It's a niche in which the company has enjoyed excellent growth over the last three years. With just Laska
and a couple of associates in 2004, Great Eastern generated about $250,000 in revenues that year. In
2005, the firm doubled in staff and sales to about $500,000, and then hit the $1-million revenue mark in
2006 with eight people on board. For 2007, Great Eastern will generate about $2 million in revenues and
should finish the year with a staff of about 15 people, Laska predicted when contacted in early October. "I
doubt that we'll double again in 2008, but we will increase staff and revenues," he said. The slowdown will
be less a function of any market slump and "more based on what kind of growth we can handle."
Laska estimated that about 60 to 65% of Great Eastern's revenues currently come from work for the
private sector directly, while the remainder is derived from public-sector projects, often much larger efforts
led by larger engineering firms. The private-sector projects typically involve restoration work at industrial
sites, and Laska claims to find this work more immediately satisfying than the major public projects,
because the industrial work tends to involve "pure restoration" and lacks the challenge of having to
balance all of the different public demands -- for example, "worrying about where the playground is going
Still, working on large urban parks "is tremendously exciting and a great honor to us," Laska remarked.
The private-sector project is more driven by ecology, while the public-sector project is more restoration. In
New York City, Great Eastern is part of s team, led by the landscape architecture firm Michael Van
Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. (www.mvvainc.com), that's developing the Brooklyn Bridge Park, an
85-acre park that will stretch about 1.5 miles along the East River and under the Brooklyn Bridge.
Brooklyn Bridge Park "will be the largest new park created in New York City since Prospect Park was
created about 135 years ago," according to Laska. Serving as the ecologists on the team, Great Eastern
is designing salt marshes and an elevated freshwater marsh as key parts of a set of built works.
Construction was set to begin in the autumn of 2007.
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