Brooklyn Bridge Park, which spans 85 acres and 1.3 miles along the East River waterfront in Brooklyn, New York, beat out 10 other projects around the world to win the 2021 Rosa Barba International Landscape Prize at the 11th International Landscape Architecture Biennial in Barcelona, Spain. Designed over twenty years by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), a New York-based landscape architecture firm, the project has “transformed an industrial site of abandoned warehouses, obsolete piers, and decaying bulkheads into a vibrant public space,” the prize jury said.
Brooklyn Bridge Park, which pre-Covid boasted 5 million visitors a year, was the first major park to be created in Brooklyn since Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s Prospect Park in the late 19th century. Five flat, concrete piers were re-imagined as sports fields, gardens, and playgrounds, all connected through interwoven green spaces and paths. A new berm reduced noise from the nearby Brooklyn Queens Expressway, an elevated highway that once produced a deafening “roar,” so much so that it was difficult to talk.
The first public meeting for the master plan of the park was way back in 1998. In just a few months, the final segment — Emily Warren Roebling Plaza — will open. A video with Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, from 2009, as construction begins, offers a sense of his enduring passion for this transformative, two-decade-long project:
MVVA explains that the original “idea for the park came from Brooklynites, who live in the NYC borough with the least amount of park space.” Communities around the site couldn’t access the waterfront when it was a shipping terminal owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. More than a decade of advocacy by local community groups finally convinced elected leaders to stop the Port Authority’s plans to transform the defunct terminal into a profit-generating mixed-use development and instead created a city and state-financed public park.
Over the course of more than 400 public meetings while planning and designing the project, MVVA heard a few key messages: the park should “feel democratic,” and in order to accomplish that, should offer “many programs within its whole,” including desperately-needed space for recreation. The park should also feel friendly and accessible — “a space for everyday life, a place to relax.”
Brooklynites also wanted more than just views; they wanted to feel immersed in a restored natural environment along the East River – “to step into the water, smell the breeze, and feel surrounded by the landscape.” To bring those benefits to multiple surrounding neighborhoods, MVVA created a plan that “stretched both ends of the park” beyond its originally conceived boundaries.
The park itself is a model of urban reuse. Instead of tearing down the pier infrastructure, MVVA found ways to reuse both the stronger and weaker parts of it, arranging park uses on the surface based on the piers’ structural capacity. Some piers had piles that would only support limited weight so any programs on the surface had to be “light and relatively thin.” Pier 1 had the strongest supports, so it became possible to build up new land forms.
Within the park itself, yellow pine wood from a demolished factory was reused as site furniture; piles and pier structures became playground and park elements; granite was broken up and became rip rap; and bulk fill from a subway tunnel extraction was used to build up land. A shed found on Pier 2 shed was also reimagined as a shade structure for basketball courts, and a pile field at Pier 1 was kept to protect a new salt marsh.
MVVA carved out land forms within the site, creating sweeping lawns and gardens down to the waterfront that also act as a resilient flood basin during storm surges. More than 3,000 trees were planted along with a rich understory of native plants, all guided by an ecological approach. As in nature, the trees and plants compete for resources and adapt over time, instead of being isolated specimens like in a typical urban park. Plants were also selected to “support human comfort, wind shelter, and shade.”
“If you ask a hundred different people why they come to Brooklyn Bridge Park, you could easily get a hundred different answers. Sports are interspersed with epic views, social spaces, natural beauty, and quiet moments,” Van Valkenburgh explains.
The Rose Barba prize jury also honored another innovative space: Parques del Río Medellín in Medellín, Colombia, designed by Sebastian Monsalve Gomez and Juan David Hoyos Taborda. The park, also decades in the making, creates new access to the Medellín River and partly de-channelizes the river and restores its ecosystem.
The Rosa Barba International Landscape Prize included an award of €15,000 ($17,439). The prize jury included Esteban Leon, UN-Habitat; Cristina Castelbranco, a landscape architect and professor at the University of Lisbon; Kongjian Yu, FASLA, a leading Chinese landscape architect and founder of Turenscape; James Hayter, a landscape architect and president of the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA); and Julie Bargmann, a landscape architect, professor at the University of Virginia, and winner of the first Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize.