Brooklyn’s Evolving Riverfront

I had the privilege of attending a tour of Brooklyn Bridge Park as part of the Greater & Greener: Reimagining Parks for 21st Century Cities conference. The tour was led by Regina Myer, President of Brooklyn Bridge Park, and Matthew Urbanski, a principal of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and a lead designer of the park. Brooklyn Bridge Park is being built on the site of former shipping terminal. Containing a series of massive piers, the terminal went vacant in the 1980s with the advent of container shipping. Planning efforts for the site began in the late 1990s, the design process took place from 2003 – 2008, and construction began in 2008. Braving the sweltering heat, Urbanski and Myer led a group of intrepid parks officials, landscape architects, and community activists through the site’s six formerly industrial piers, providing insight into its design and construction.

The tour began at Pier 6, the southernmost section of the park. Located at the terminus of Atlantic Avenue, Pier 6 represents one of the significant entrances to the park. Because of its connection to the adjacent Brooklyn Heights neighborhood, the entrance to Pier Six is dedicated to children’s play areas. These take the form of themed playgrounds, including “Slide Mountain” and “Sandbox Village.” During our tour these playgrounds were full of neighborhood children. As Urbanski noted, a good park “must be a good neighborhood park.”

The areas of the park built on top of shipping piers are ringed by lighting attached to metal frames. These metal frames are remnants of the old pier warehouses. Urbanski described that the issue of “what to keep and what to change” was central to the design of Brooklyn Bridge Park. Faced with the difficult task of creating a park on a site not originally designed as public space, certain areas of the site had to be completely changed. Other elements, such as the metal frames or several of the piers themselves, were preserved and allowed to “come through as a unique expression” of the site’s industrial past.

Many elements of the park relate to the site’s location within New York City. Regina Myer described how numerous features of the park have been built using salvaged materials: The Granite Prospect on Pier 1 is built out of granite salvaged from the reconstruction of Theodore Roosevelt Bridge and the wood for the concession stand on Pier 6 was salvaged from the pre-existing warehouse buildings.

The post-industrial site of the park presented several interesting design challenges. Urbanski described how areas of the park built on piles had to be designed as thin landscapes in order to not exceed capacity, while heavier landscapes could be built on land composed of fill. Another challenge was the Brooklyn-Queens expressway, which forms the eastern edge of the park. In order to overcome noise from the expressway, an artificial hill will be constructed along the edge of the park. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates worked closely with sound engineers to design the form of the hill, using audio modeling software to determine how to most effectively reduce the sound level of the freeway.

Brooklyn Bridge Park explores different ways of engaging the East River’s edge. In addition to traditional “hard” edges formed by piers and industrial infrastructure, certain edges have been “softened” to allow people to more closely experience the water. For instance, the spiral Tidal Pool can be used as a boat launch. Additionally, its shallow slope causes it to be submerged to varying degrees depending on tidal variation. Urbanski described this aspect of the Tidal Pool as a “poetic registration of the tide.”

Still in a much earlier stage of construction, Piers 5 through 2 provided a glimpse of the pre-park site. The tour ended up on Pier 1, the most complete section of the park (construction of the park started on the northern and southern ends of the site and is working its way to meet up in the middle). Unlike the other piers, Pier 1 is built entirely on fill and can therefore support a heavier landscape. Cut into the fill on the southern end of Pier 1 is a restored salt marsh, providing wildlife habitat as well as an interesting counterpoint to the heavily constructed piers. Other plantings throughout the park are also designed to engage both site ecology and the surrounding neighborhood. Stormwater is filtered through a series of water garden cells and then stored for irrigation; this system should eventually provide for around 80 percent of the park’s water demands. Urbanski was careful to point out that these water gardens are not just there for water filtration; they also provide an intimate experience for people.

Brooklyn Bridge Park is a fascinating example of designing around extreme constraints, from the abandoned industrial waterfront to the highway bording the site (beyond the highway, Brooklyn Heights looms 60 feet above the park). So far the park seems to be a success: despite the scorching heat and being only partially built, many people were using the park during our tour. It will be exciting to see how it transforms in the coming years.

This guest post is by Benjamin Wellington, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Louisiana State University, and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credits: Brooklyn Bridge Park / (1-4) Elizabeth Felicella, (5) Alex Maclean, copyright 2012, (6-7) Elizabeth Felicella

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