George Trakas at the Water’s Edge: Newtown Creek

Newtown Creek’s notoriety as one of the most polluted waterways in the country belies its peculiar beauty and uncommon potential to provide vistas of New York’s industrial history and the scale of the city’s waste management machine. It’s also a wicked cool place to impress a date with a surprise picnic.

Artist George Trakas saw the potential of this canalized estuary as he navigated the waterways of New York over the past forty-five years. When the City’s Department of Environmental Protection launched a $3 billion upgrade of the wastewater treatment facility in the late 1980s, Trakas was able to seize the opportunity – through the City’s Percent for Art program – to go beyond the brief and to provide public access to the water for treatment facility employees and local residents. And by access, he means access: visitors won’t merely see the water from above, behind a fence. Rather, you can descend staged granite steps to the water’s edge and sit (or dock your boat) on a series of getdowns perforating the bulkhead along the Whale Creek tributary. It’s part amphitheatre and part shore, with horticultural and sculptural references to local history, geology, and geography. But it’s also a model of a successful community engagement process. Trakas participated in meetings with the Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee every month for the past ten years, incorporating community feedback and priorities into his design. Instead of using art to conceal environmental hazards with decorative band-aids, Trakas has created a Nature Walk that provides an interpretive frame on its surroundings and invites visitors to share his delight in water, industry and the urban beauty of the overlooked.

Clearly, I’m a fan. Are you? I’m curious to hear people’s notions of how public funds for design and construction should incorporate or accommodate art. Is public access to New York’s waterfronts a citizen’s right or a passing fetish? Does the scale of environmental degradation (the Greenpoint oil spill dwarfed the Exxon Valdez and is the subject of constant litigation) on Newtown Creek render the artistic response to the wastewater treatment facility upgrade seem too-little-too-late? And, from those of you who have visited the Nature Walk, send in any stories (run-ins with the swamp thing? a marriage proposal? extreme urban golf? )

The Nature Walk is just one part of a 53-acre project. The environmental engineering team includes Hazen & Sawyer, Malcolm Pirnie and Greeley and Hansen. Polshek Partnership Architects served as masterplanners and architects, led by James Polshek and Richard Olcott. Phase One of the Nature Walk was begun in 1997, completed and opened to the public in 2007. Phase Two will continue over the water and Phase Three – to be completed in 2016 – will bring the Nature Walk all the way to Kingsland Avenue. Check out a rough plan of Phase One below.

This pamphlet overview by NYC DEP outlines the Nature Walk and its design elements.

Get involved: keep up to date with work of the stewards who advocate for Newtown Creek’s revitalization and environmental remediation.

Newtown Creek was an early case study site for the development of an innovative collaborative mapping project on environmental justice issues. Check out habitatmap.

Keith Rodan has been documenting the site on video for years, and we thank him for the use of his 1998 footage in the video above. Check out his site, filled with lots of other NY-waterfront related gems.

Architecturally, the treatment facility itself is something to behold. And, the Nature Walk wasn’t the only aspect of the plant’s upgrade that employed artistic practice: the lighting accentuates this new landmark in the Brooklyn-Queens skyline, and an indoor/outdoor fountain on the southern side of the plant by Vito Acconci will welcome passersby to the visitor’s center and administrative building.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Laura Hofmann March 18, 2009

Nice film! I love the Nature Walk & am proud to be part of the Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee that worked with George Trakas & DEP on this project. George’s design is everything I hoped it would be. It’s historic, interesting and educational. The Nature Walk has so much to offer the community. It allows us to be right there at the industrial Creek to keep a watchful eye on environmental offenders while enjoying a different type of recreational waterfront use. Even though the Creek has plenty of environmental challenges there’s a beauty about it. During the warm months there are wonderful plantings flourishing here that are drawing more and more small birds. The algae at the bottom of the Creek steps is collecting along with the barnicles, drawing small creatures and waterbirds. My grandkids just love playing with their toys by the rocks and plantings, where there imaginations go wild and those things become jungles and mountains. It’s lots of fun for the kids to see boats, industrial stuff and honking geese all in one visit. The NCWPCP is very cool to see at night. The digester eggs are really cool looking lit up in blue. And there are alot of other cool lighting features to see. In the future when the Nature Walk begins having programming, I’m hoping to see an evening event happen at least once a year to show off the cool lighting and evening water views. My husband & I went to the Nature Walk the first time we had a snow storm. It was crazy weather but well worth the visit. The walk looked awesome.

Michael Heimbinder March 20, 2009

New York City is surrounded by water but our shores are often inaccessible – fenced off by industry and underutilized or abandoned properties. The Newtown Creek Nature Walk sets a new precedent for waterfront development, clearly illustrating that industrial and recreational uses can share an important and historic waterway to the benefit of both. In addition, by providing safe access to the Creek, the Nature Walk raises the profile of a long suffering waterway which is a vital first step towards restoring what was once a vibrant tidal estuary teeming with life.

Deborah Marton March 20, 2009

To answer your questions:
“Clearly, I’m a fan. Are you?”
“I’m curious to hear people’s notions of how public funds for design and construction should incorporate or accommodate art.”
“Is public access to New York’s waterfronts a citizen’s right or a passing fetish?”
“Does the scale of environmental degradation on Newtown Creek render the artistic response to the wastewater treatment facility upgrade seem too-little-too-late?”

Brian Goblik April 17, 2009

Hurray for George Trakas’s inspiration!
I love water and it’s all around this city, it’s wonderful.
Thank you George, I hope this kind of inspiration catches on with other big city percent for art projects!

Leslie McBeth April 22, 2009

The site is really compelling (almost bizarre) and it’s great to see that it’s receiving some attention.

I live in Greenpoint and I came across it last summer when I was out for a run on an atmospheric rainy day. It was quite an unexpected and adventure-like experience. Running through the ‘vessel’, not knowing where I was going to end up, I was surprised when I found a beautifully landscape path, seating area, little bits of historical information, and steps to access the water at the end. It totally reframed the way that I looked at Newtown Creek, and made me contemplate the idea of the waterway’s potential for recreation and not solely as a polluted industrial site. After running to the end of the trail, I exited through an (unlocked) gate, and ended up inside the sewage treatment plant — I felt like I was not supposed to be there, so I turned and ran back thru the park to the entrance, where upon exiting the site I caught a gorgeous view of the city skyline through the breaking rain clouds. The whole experience was a little surreal, and I made a point to go back.

I didn’t realize that it was actually created through the percent of art program and not a Parks initiative, that makes it all the more interesting. A huge success!

Jean-marc Dufour June 9, 2009

I’m very happy to have news about Trakas’s works, the last time I saw him was in Spring 2000 in south of France near Perpignan during an exhibition (
I like his works in the town, where the place isn’t great at first and became a new point of view in the town, great work.

Hilary Callahan October 11, 2009

I went yesterday during Open House New York. The Nature Walk is fantastic. In September I visited the much less enjoyable High Line, and it left a bad taste in my mouth until yesterday when I finally saw some good urban landscape design. What really made my day were my interactions with a gentleman who works at nearby Time-Warner, who loves the place and happily serves as citizen-ambassador for the park. He claims that he goes there every day and was so happy when I mentioned how much I want my son’s school to visit and study the place. I cannot wait for programming there, and I am jealous of those who have visited during snowstorms, etc. Along with the Socrates Sculpture Garden, this is now in my pantheon of Queens greatness.

Rob Cummings January 10, 2010

I finally located the path/park yesterday by walking around the poo plant, which is itself an impressive piece of urban infrastructure. There, at the end of Paidge Avenue, was this other-wordly portal glowing in the winter dusk.

I followed the path around the plant, past the cement mixer and rusting backhoes to the water. It was like being transported to the city’s industrial past. The first view of the creek is incredible — the car-crushing yard across water, traffic coursing across the bridges and that silent, dead water.

The next thing I discovered were the steps leading into the water. Amazing to find ghats here in the heart of New York! Further around, in Whale Creek, I was thrilled to find a beautifully landscaped public dock big enough for six or eight cruising vessels.

As a sailor, I’ve lamented the lack of public piers and slips in this harbor town. In years past, you could always find a few intrepid sailors who had tied their boats to the crumbling bulkheads in Newtown Creek, braving the barge traffic and curious pedestrians. So, to find this intentional space for itinerant sailors is marvelous.

So thank you to George Trakas and the DEP for laying out the welcome mat to the world’s sailors. New York may yet regain her reputation as one of the greatest port cities in the world.