Park as Process: Brooklyn Bridge Park

Late last year, Michael Van Valkenburgh, principal of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates(MVVA), showed us around the massive construction site that stretched along Brooklyn’s waterfront from the Brooklyn Bridge to Atlantic Avenue. It was a cold day in early December and the hum of hydraulic excavators and tractors evoked the site’s industrial past more than its recreational future. But even so, with the undulating topography of Pier 1 in place and almost ready to open to the public, Van Valkenburgh conjured an image of just how much use he expected the park to see in its first open summer. The six months since Pier 1 and the four months since Pier 6 opened have certainly borne out Van Valkenburgh’s prediction that Brooklyn Bridge Park will give “Brooklyners a park that they desperately need.” Listen to more of what Van Valkenburgh has to say about the twelve year (and counting) planning and design process in the video below. The word “process” is key, especially for a landscape of this complexity. Construction continues on the remaining phases of the project, scheduled to open over the next two to three years. But even after construction is complete, the park’s role in the public life of the city will only have just begun to emerge.

Like any new urban park, particularly in a place like New York where the supply of available land is so constricted, this park is about more than open space. It’s about infrastructure, industry, environment, government and (of course) real estate. According to Gullivar Shepard, an architect at MVVA who has been with the project from its initial planning stages through the design and construction, the site is “a bundle of amazing complexity: years and years of leftover right-of-ways, infrastructure claims on the site, pieces of actual working infrastructure that have to be maintained. So we can’t just change the program of the land to accommodate park users, [the park] has to… hold up the functioning of the city.” In The New York TimesNicolai Ourousoff writes that “Much as Central Park embodied Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision of American democracy on the eve of the Civil War, Brooklyn Bridge Park… is an attempt to come to terms with the best and worst of our era: on the one hand, concern for the environment and an appreciation for the beauty of urban life and infrastructure; on the other, the relentless encroachment of private interests on the public realm.”

As for the former — the mutual reinforcing of environmentalism and urbanism — the design of Brooklyn Bridge Park demonstrates what Andrew Blum has described as a “a concern for ecological processes that is not merely illustrative, treating nature as if it were a museum exhibit, but rather that is necessarily rooted in a holistic understanding of site ecology.” For Blum, this approach “suggest[s] that nature could be legible as an integrated part of urban experience — a perspective crucial to reimagining cities as the keystone of a more sustainable way of life.” Sustainability, it seems, encompasses more than materials or environmental performance, it becomes a way to reorient the public perception of the city and how it works. That said, plenty in this park takes a literal understanding of sustainability to a new level: the park benches are made from wood salvaged from demolished shipping terminal buildings on the site; the “Granite Prospect” is made of stones recycled from the Roosevelt Island Bridge; stormwater-based micro-environments support diverse ecosystems.

As for the latter — the increasing reliance on private monies to provide public goods — the planning of Brooklyn Bridge Park explicitly acknowledges that the maintenance costs over time will far outweigh the construction costs. The proposed solution — up to 20% of the park land can be developed to generate revenue — led to fierce debate (and a court case that argued a violation of the public trust doctrine). In 2002, four years after the masterplanning process began, Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki signed an agreement to provide the land and to create the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation (BBPDC) as a subsidiary of Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC). As the park’s developer (and MVVA’s client) the BBPDC would also develop commercial properties to fund maintenance and operational needs. Twelve days before Pier 1 opened, the nature of this city-state partnership changed dramatically. Governor Paterson relinquished the State’s stake in the project, effectively handing control of the process to the City. Reporting in the Architect’s Newspaper, Matt Chaban refers to this event, rather than the park’s opening, as the “real occasion for celebration.” The announcement of the new deal re-affirms the need for the park to be financially self-sustaining and requires looking for alternative revenue sources beyond the site’s residential developments.

Parks are designed to evolve, to change and grow over time. In this case, that evolution will be marked by the growth of trees and plants, by the increase in New Yorkers’ awareness of their relationship to the water and our city’s industrial past, and, perhaps, by the shifting demands of the market. Most commentators, including Blum and Ourousoff, invoke Frederic Law Olmsted and Central Park when they talk about Brooklyn Bridge Park. We’ve had 143 years to watch that park evolve and respond to the changing circumstances of the city that has alternately celebrated and neglected it. But yet when it comes to new parks, we still tend to talk about them primarily on opening day. In an effort to keep the critical conversation about public space active, Urban Omnibus likes to check in on projects at different stages in their life spans, when the buzz has quieted, when the beauty and richness of experience has begin to inscribe itself into public consciousness, and when questions still remain.

All images courtesy of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.