Gateway: Visions for an Urban National Park

“In its mixture of opportunity and indeterminacy, the Envisioning Gateway process is emblematic of the current state of landscape architecture and landscape urbanism—full of rich potential and minefields, conceptual and practical, at virtually every turn.” – Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic, The Los Angeles Times

The National Park Service (NPS) faces a challenge of identity. If the image of NPS is the pristine, remote, and practically untouched landscapes of the west, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, what are urban national parks? NPS currently has almost 400 national parks.

Gateway: Visions for an Urban National Park takes its readers through the process of reimagining the 39-year old, 26,000 acre national park that spans New York Harbor. It has been the dumping group for Central Park’s construction, a proposed world-class megaport, and the potential location of an airport. Many people who visit don’t know it’s a national park. While honoring the site’s complex conditions, the book acknowledges that “the Envisioning Gateway competition did not result in a single tidy solution to Gateway’s many challenges; instead it revealed the most pressing issues at hand and the multiple ways in which these issues might be addressed,” writes Jamie Hand.

The book begins with writings by Fernanda Kellogg of the Tiffany & Co. Foundation; Alexander Brash, Northeast regional director of the National Park Conservation Association; Jamie Hand, Program Director at Van Alen Institute; and Kate Orff, ASLA, a landscape architect who is associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and principal of SCAPE. These essays, along with the photo essay by Laura McPhee, use the site to highlight themes running through six of the 97 competition entries. Lastly, three essays of reflection leave the reader with meaningful questions.

Kate Orff, in her essay “Cosmopolitan Ecologies,” argues, “If Central Park is a landscape about democracy, Gateway is about cosmopolitanism.” Following the history of the site, Orff demonstrates that urban national parks can become celebrated if they properly address the contemporary ecological and psychological needs of city dwellers. “Rather than the postcard-perfect iconic image of sublime rocky wilderness that affirms our country’s past mythology, nature at the edges of towns and cities offer direct experience of natural processes and their reciprocal role in sustaining urban life. [These parks] are crucial to evolving our national ideology in response to environmental realities and in generating a joint approach to urban and natural systems,” writes Orff.

Alexander Brash, the Northeast Regional Director of National Park Conservation Association, contributed the essay “The Unique Values of Our National Parks.” He writes, “In working with a site in the National Park System, a great design must not only improve access, aesthetics, interpretation, and all of the other critical issues associated with a park, it must also illuminate and highlight the values, or attributes, for which the park was created by Congress.” The re-design of the Gateway could illuminate the meaning of the space, both ecologically and culturally, for a diverse pool of visitors who aren’t being served.

“Two Gateways: The First U.S. Urban National Parks” by Ethan Carr juxtaposes the Golden Gate Park and the Gateway National Recreation Area, which were established together in 1972. While the Golden Gate came about because of local advocacy, the Gateway became part of the NPS because the city aimed to transfer responsibility to the federal government, effectively subsidizing New York’s parks during the economic downturn. Carr’s research uncovers that there has been long-standing deficit in maintenance and program investments. He also recounts the history of major players, including New York Mayor John V. Lindsay, who demanded that there be significant transportation funding.

The competition remained conceptual, which allowed the designers to work without political and financial constraints and seek out broader creative options. The result is unexpected alternatives. The major themes the panelists saw in the competition entries were visitor experience, accessibility, the changing ecological conditions of the site, the use of the estuarine landscape as dumping grounds, and the accentuation of the site’s cultural history. For each theme, the entry that best addressed the issue at hand is featured.

A few reflections tie the specific visions together while stepping back and looking at the greater meaning of the competition. As Rolf Diamant writes in “The Urban Park as Cultural Catalyst,” parks could cross “America’s social divide in the nation’s urban communities” by respecting traditions but not being limited by them. As the park system has diversified, so too should its image, narrative, and design. Diamant points to the Presidio Trust, which is an “unprecedented broad and complex experiment in urban park design and management, on a scale not seen before in this country.”

Christopher Hawthorne, in the essay “Coping with Complexity,” writes about the complexity of the site conditions and the web of stakeholders. The site demands the opposite of top-down, one-note design solution, he argues, because there is a “collection of public and private interests who have come together to […] expand and clarify the ways in which the public considers the site and its future.” Likewise, Adi Shamir writes about the philosophy of landscape, covering ideas from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Walt Whitman to Lewis Mumford and on to Fredrick Law Olmsted, and how this “phantom” of a space has the promise to re-create civic life.

As the finale, Stephanie Toothman chronicles the six principles that can guide innovative future park planning and design, focusing on the need for an transparent and inclusive design and planning process.

The accumulation of ideas presented through the book may feed hope and determination among landscape architects. As Christopher Hawthorne writes, “the task of turning an abused brownfield site or a stretch of forsaken waterfront into a striking piece of landscape architecture seems endlessly trickier, richer, and more revealing” than the regimented and ritualized design process of the architects’ world.

Read the book

This guest post is by Amanda Rosenberg, 2010 ASLA intern

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