At Urban Omnibus, our love for urban exploration — especially for under-reported or repurposed sites that recall an overlooked chapter of our city’s history — goes hand in hand with our appreciation for well-considered open space. Central to that appreciation is the recognition that the successful design of public space has as much to do with how it’s used as it does with how it looks. The activities that FASLANYC, a landscape architect and writer, observes at Floyd Bennett Field, on the western shore of Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, reference the park’s past life as an airfield and demonstrate the changing nature of recreation. –C.S.
Most parks in New York City bear the mark of those two great progenitors of public space: Frederick Law Olmsted and Robert Moses. Thanks largely to their influence, City parks tend to be either a “pleasure ground” or a “recreational facility,” according to theorist Galen Cranz. Gateway National Recreation Area, it offers an unmatched variety of recreational activities to New Yorkers and a valuable glimpse into future possibilities for our city parks.Floyd Bennett Field is neither. Situated at the edge of the city on a former airfield constructed on marshland claimed from Jamaica Bay, Floyd Bennett Field looks more like TS Eliot’s Wasteland than a typical park. And yet, as part of the
The codification of public recreational space in New York City famously began with Central Park and the Greensward Plan of Olmsted and Vaux. As a democratic interpretation of the European aristocratic pleasure ground, this new park typology was necessarily large in scale and naturalistic in style, meant to offer aesthetic, sanitary, and psychological contrast to the filthy and cramped industrial city. In The Park and the People, Rosenzweig and Blackmar describe how the design of the park allowed visitors to “admire the artistically composed scenery, enjoy the spectacle of the crowd on the promenade, and engage in the wholesome exercise of driving, riding, walking, skating, or – for those who played cricket – competitive sports” .
Robert Moses began the next great period of park building when he was appointed commissioner of the City’s Park Department in 1930. Park design efforts emphasized providing sports facilities and were extended into every corner of the city and its suburbs concurrently with new transportation infrastructure. With this focus, the standardization of park elements and operating methods became paramount and a new aesthetic characterized the parks: expansive parking, asphalt ball courts, and extensive playing fields. Often these parks were built on reclaimed or filled land and were located in the outer boroughs. While certain areas of the city still lacked open space, this effort succeeded in making parks accessible to most New Yorkers.
During this same period, Floyd Bennett Field served the city and nation as a technologically advanced civilian and military airport. Opened in 1931 and intended to compete with the Newark airport as the regional hub of commercial aviation, it offered electric lights and concrete runways at a time when most airports were dirt strips in the dark. The Field, named for Brooklyn resident and Naval aviator Floyd Bennett, hosted many of early aviation’s spectacular flights and notable names including Amelia Earhart, John Hughes, and John Glenn. Commercial aviation, however, never flourished here. As a result, hangars were leased to the NYPD and the Naval Air Reserve Force and a 10-acre parcel along Jamaica Bay was leased to the US Coast Guard in 1936. Commercial operations completely ceased during World War II and the air field was conveyed to the US Navy.
In 1971 Floyd Bennett Field was turned over to the National Parks Service and became a part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. Due to its unique historical provenance, location, and maintenance operations the Field now exists as a mashup of the historic New York City parks. It is expansive and primarily open green space like the historical pleasure ground, but the phragmites wetlands and ruined runways evoke a dystopian nature, not “artistically composed scenery.” Like the recreation facility, the Field provides areas for organized sports and parking and much of it is fill reclaimed from Jamaica Bay, itself a huge piece of infrastructure. But here it is an obsolete version; beautiful ruins of old airport hangars and intersecting runways with sports fields and parking areas scattered about.
Recreation, instead of relying exclusively on the consumption of images and experiences, becomes process. At Floyd Bennett Field one can find space to enjoy the activities envisioned by Olmsted and Moses – strolling, cycling, and picnicking as well as organized sports. Two of the airplane hangars were refurbished as a concession in 2006 and house indoor facilities for basketball, soccer, rock climbing, and ice skating. But, there is also a different kind of recreation flourishing here. In this forgotten expanse, New Yorkers find space for their most creative and idiosyncratic of recreational pursuits.
Arriving at the Field, one is immediately impressed with the old American Airlines hangars. Two of these now house the recreation facilities. The control tower houses the National Park Service offices and a small museum about the history of aviation and Floyd Bennett Field. Two of the old hangars still stand dormant. Ruined and beautiful with cavernous insides, they connote a rich past yet offer no current prescribed use. Immediately behind these vacant hangars is Brooklyn’s largest community garden. The garden is more a miniature ramshackle city, with structures, pathways and circulation all derived from the particular tastes of its growers and builders. In addition to gardening, a rich array of activities — including birding, building, and picnicking — are supported by two twenty foot shipping containers that house materials and equipment and form the social hub of the garden. Here, everything from generators to lawn chairs, loppers, and power tools belonging to the garden are stored to be lent to members, who have devised a system for sharing the responsibility and keeping them open according to an agreed-upon schedule.
Moving further into the Field the expansive runways are mostly quiet, their long vistas merely pointing quietly toward the sea, the city, or out to Long Island. Here, people practice driving and riding motorcycles and come to fly their radio-controlled airplanes. In keeping with national park programming, a campground and hiking trail along the northern edge enables visitors to camp by permit, and there are small boat access areas for boating and fishing in Jamaica Bay.
On the eastern edge of Floyd Bennett Field the Historical Aircraft Recreation Project (HARP; see also William Maloney‘s informative site about HARP) is housed in Hangar B. Aficionados and volunteers have full run of a giant hangar housing drill presses, metal routers and welding stations. They work to restore old aircraft that have flown at Floyd Bennett Field and the fueling trucks and maintenance vehicles that kept them flying. The effort is a part of the National Parks Service Volunteer in Parks program. It recognizes the latent desire for people to engage in meaningful, educational, and productive activity as a form of recreation, a desire not usually met in today’s urban parks. The same can be said for the building and growing efforts of the community in the garden at the other end of the runway.
At Floyd Bennett Field the recreational possibilities open to New Yorkers have expanded beyond the traditions of the pleasure ground and the recreation facility. While including traditional forms of active and passive recreation, the Field also allows for the pursuit of recreational work through the provision of facilities including storage, power, water, materials, equipment, and programmable space. Recreation, instead of relying exclusively on the consumption of images and experiences in a commoditized environment, becomes process: the cultivation of a garden plot, the construction of new birdhouses or fencing for a garden, or the restoration of an historic airplane. This layering of work-recreation and traditional forms of recreation is a diversification in the possible, accepted programmatic activities in parks. And it offers a tantalizing glimpse at how our future parks might better serve the urban public.
Providing for more possibilities, specifically allowing for the joys of leisure-work, promises to create more livable cities. It allows for the fulfillment of a basic human desire for meaningful, enjoyable work, and this may help more people to accept urban living at a time when professional consensus urges just that. Community gardens are the most publicized example of integrating work-as-recreation into public parks and can serve as an established model. However, the desire exists for other forms of work in urban parks. Floyd Bennett Field offers a glimpse into what such a park might look like with its diversity of activities and the invested visitors who come here every week.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.
These terms come from Galen Cranz and her 1982 landmark study of public park typologies The Politics of Park Design: A History of Urban Parks in America. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.)
TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, published in 1922, deals with the devastation and historical mashup of cultural mythologies giving rise to a dystopian society post WWI (see Nick Mount’s lecture at Big Ideas for further discussion)
The stated design intent for the Greensward Plan by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, as summarized in The Park and The People, p. 136.
Brooklyn resident Floyd Bennett was the first person to successfully fly over the North Pole in 1925 in an expedition from Greenland. He was later seriously injured when planning a flight over the Atlantic Ocean, an occasion which opened the door to Charles Lindbergh. He died in 1928 and was buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.
The work of Robert Grese (Restoring Nature: Perspectives from the Social Sciences and Humanities, p. 17. 2000, Island Press, Washington, D.C.) at the University of Michigan and Janette Kim’s “Beyond Recreation” study at the Columbia University Urban Landscape Lab are indicative of this desire, documenting new ways that park users are working and engaging with the landscape in public parks.