Reinventing Public Place in NYC: Brooklyn Bridge Park

Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) hosted a symposium at the unlikely location of the open-air Tobacco Warehouse under the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, part of the 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA. The half-day affair was organized to celebrate the completion of the first phase of the park through a series of lectures and discussions, and despite some uncooperative spring weather, gave participants an opportunity to tour the park with Van Valkenburgh and the core members of his team. Convened by GSD dean Mohsen Mostafavi along with Charles Waldheim, Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture, the symposium was not just an opening for the park and a celebration of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates‘ work, but served as an inauguration of Van Valkenburgh into the canon of great American landscape architects. For the Brooklyn Bridge Park is the crown jewel of a 25-year academic and professional career in which Van Valkenburgh has earned every honor and accolade available to the profession, and has cemented his position as, in the words of Charles Waldheim, “the dean of American landscape architects.”

In addition to landing the commission to design the Brooklyn Bridge Park, MVVA has recently won two of the most important competitions for large urban parks in North America: the Lower Don Lands in Toronto and the park at the foot of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The work of landscape architects in the context of these large urban parks is evidence of what Waldheim claims is “a renaissance in landscape architecture.” The Brooklyn Bridge Park is not only important as one of the largest new urban parks being built in North America, but as the epitome of the evolution of landscape architecture practice over the course of the last 100 years. As Van Valkenburgh described it in his opening lecture, the Brooklyn Bridge Park is neither one of the large-scale romantic garden and parks of the 19th century, later accused by some as being “anti-urban,” nor one of the self-contained art-pieces and urban baubles that resulted from the 70’s and 80’s era of public space-making. Rather, the Brooklyn Bridge Park can be considered to be as an urban project as much as it can be considered a park, and in this sense it represents the promise of a transformation in landscape architecture practice that began in the 1990’s, and which is epitomized in the career and practice of Van Valkenburgh himself. 

Dean Moshen Mostafavi remarked that 20 years ago it was difficult to find landscape projects that operated on the urban scale and had such a direct impact on cities and citizens. Now, however, landscape architects have taken up this charge, especially in how landscape deals with urbanization and the creation of public space. Projects like the Brooklyn Bridge Park speak to the way in which this urban consciousness dates back to the origins of the discipline in the 19th century at Harvard, when, as Waldheim said: “landscape architecture practice was conceived as both a professional activity but also an academic discipline that could directly address the social and environmental challenges of the urban age.” Now, when the focus of that urban age has turned to our transition to a post-industrial city, landscape architects are positioned to address the particular changes to urban form that this transition has created. This is evident in these large urban parks where landscape strategies are deployed not merely for the purposes of scenography or a picturesque escape, but as a way of engaging the large-scale and horizontal spread of these post-industrial sites, as Mostafavi pointed out, “reclaiming the post-industrial landscape for the city.”

Van Valkenburgh characterized the origins of the Brooklyn Bridge Park. The size and shape of the piers that make up the majority of the park resulted from changes in the shipping industry around the middle of the 20th century, but the containerization revolution just a few decades later resulted in their abandonment. The original proposal by the New York Port Authority for a massive housing development was rejected and a period of full-press local advocacy later resulted in the subsequent master plan for a park on this site. The City and State of New York formed a partnership to finance the construction of the park, but political changes in the recent era of park management required a new public-private model to be adopted to finance its ongoing operations and maintenance. 

Van Valkenburgh put the changing paradigm of park building within the history of landscape architecture in the United States. As the Robert Moses era came to a close, it became obvious that the massive expansion of parkland under his reign could not be sustained without matching expansions in maintenance budgets, resulting in the neglected and dangerous condition of the city’s parks in the 1970’s. In the subsequent era of austerity and downsizing, landscape architecture practice shifted to the creation of “contained” parks and public spaces driven by a more patronage-oriented model. The result was more “boutique” and art-driven practices that MVVA was both a product and a part of. Recently, landscape architecture has returned to the larger scale, as the overall landscape of the city has been re-discovered, and as parks are seen not so much as an “escape from the city” but as an “escape in the city.” This return is marked by a shift in the way that the new parks seek to engage the urban landscape, embracing the waterfronts and urban fragments that surround them, rather than framing them in a picturesque distance. 

Anita Berrizbeitia, a current GSD professor and editor of “Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates: Reconstructing Urban Landscapes,” a recent retrospective of MVVA’s work, noted that Van Valkenburgh’s own practice has followed pace with these changes in the discipline, but has not lost its ability to work across multiple scales and project types. In fact, part of the success of the Brooklyn Bridge Park is its incorporation of small-scale elements and intimate moments within the larger landscapes along its 1.3 mile long spread. 

Van Valkenburgh framed the design of the project itself largely in terms of the urban problems that large parks of this kind often face. Planning a park that touches many neighborhoods and tries to stitch together the fragmented pattern of the city requires the involvement of many stakeholders. In this case, that resulted in an expansion of the project scope to include Pier 6, as well as in the phased project schedule. In addition, the problem of locating a park in a post-industrial landscape with few points of entry resulted in the incorporation of smaller “neighborhood parks” at these entries as focused moments of intensity. Finally, the necessity of using a public-private development model and the need to create a revenue stream to fund the operations resulted in parts of site being sectioned off for development. The navigation of the approvals process through multiple regulatory agencies required compromise and constant revision, a process more typical of large urban projects, but in this case landscape became a medium to reconcile these multiple scales and audiences.

The post-industrial landscape, featuring often difficult and complex conditions, requires the landscape architect to create a new aesthetic that can engage old and new across multiple scales. At the Brooklyn Bridge Park, the problem of dealing with microclimates unique to the waterfront site and noise from the BQE resulted in the utilization of large earthworks to shield the park and create protected pockets of calm. In addition, the rectilinear shape of the piers and potential monotony of the larger scale drove the design of the meandering path that unites the entire park as well as the strategy of carefully choreographing the edge conditions along the waterfront. These all became the drivers of a landscape strategy that is somehow appropriate to the genre, rather than relying on traditional methods of scenography or attempts to achieve conventional notions of beauty. Finally, the question of what is “natural” in the post-industrial landscape of the Brooklyn waterfront, where the land itself is completely artificial (constructed on either piles or fill), urges the landscape architect to embrace the artifice of their practice and reveal its instrumentality, while simultaneously engaging new ecological processes to mitigate the existing conditions.

The aesthetics of sustainability becomes critical in an era when parks are asked to do more than just act as decoration for the city or as a refuge from its ills, but rather must engage with the urban condition and mitigate its impacts. This imperative for the park to embrace sustainable design strategies also asks the landscape architect to be innovative in their use of materials and methods (using recycled timber, reusing granite slabs, rainwater harvesting), but also to find an aesthetic expression for them. This resulted in a planting strategy where the embrace of “non-native” species and the creation of microclimates were inspired by ecology’s shift from a “climax / equilibrium” model to a “succession” model. This is evidence of an emerging ecological aesthetic, where the landscape architect must work with the given conditions and base their design on the availability of materials and appropriateness of processes to achieve a more beautiful and sustainable whole. 

Van Valkenburgh’s presentation and the panel discussion that followed continued to touch on many aspects of how his practice and this project are representative of the state of contemporary landscape practice today. But the central lesson of this study of Brooklyn Bridge Park is that any new large urban park is expected to do more work than parks in the past. More and more, these urban parks are seen as instruments of change rather than mere acts of beautification or means to escape their object: the city.

This guest post is by Chris Roach, recent Master’s of Urban Planning and Design (MAUD) graduate, Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD).

Image credits: (1) Etienne Frossard, copyright 2010, (2) Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), (3) Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), (4) Julienne Schaer, copyright 2010.

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