Combining Art and Science to Protect Urban Mangrove Forests


Fernando Bretos, Director of the Reclamation Project at Miami Science Museum, explains how mangroves defy common wisdom and thrive in saline, muddy and oxygen-poor environments, and stresses their importance in coastal areas where they protect coastlines from hurricanes and erosion, cleanse the air and water, provide and shelter for plants, animals, and organisms. In this article, he explains how Reclamation Project in South Florida is helping to “reclaim” urban ecosystems through the universal appeal of art, in this case, eco-art.

Located throughout the world in mostly tropical areas, mangroves aren’t very common in the United States. In fact, Red mangroves, the most salt tolerant of the three main mangrove species in the Western Hemisphere, grow only in southern Florida in the absence of prolonged cold snaps. In places like Miami, they thrive even in the most urbanized cityscapes. But what happens when we substitute these coastal habitats and the service they provide with asphalt and condominiums? In the hundred years since its founding, Greater Miami has developed faster than almost any other metropolitan area in the United States. As a result, South Florida’s canopy cover averages 10%, which is well below the national urban average of 30%.

Fortunately, as slow growing as they are, mangroves respond well to restoration efforts. However, effective restoration requires a large scale of volunteers to plant seedlings. From there, nature takes care of the rest. But how do you engage a transient metropolis with a multilingual and multicultural population, as well as millions of tourists to get involved in restoring these delicate habitats?

The Reclamation Project based at Miami Science Museum is a community based, participatory eco-art project that engages South Floridians to “reclaim” urban ecosystems through the universal appeal of art. The Project is the brainchild of local artist Xavier Cortada, who first painted mangrove seedlings along the columns of highway overpasses in 2004 as a metaphorical reclaiming of Miami by the mangrove seedlings that once thrived there. In 2006, a new iteration of this iconic art piece was born. Red mangrove propagules are collected by volunteers during their fruiting season every September. They are then exhibited inside clear plastic cups with tap water along a modernist grid on walls and windows of museums, retail stores and schools throughout South Florida. These conspicuous art installations help Miami residents imagine what the city looked like before the concrete was poured and inspire them to take action.

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For more on The Reclamation Project, see

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