New York City is blessed with magnificent open spaces that accommodate many different types of traditional recreation: you can fly a kite, play ball, picnic, stroll. But the best way to determine what kinds of uses should go where, to design and plan our landscapes of play, might not always be from the top down. After all, the wide-ranging interests of New York’s diverse population don’t always quite fit into our parks’ permitted uses. As landscape architect Brian Davis previously explored here on UO, other forms of recreation — the building of birdhouses and habitats along the Gowanus Canal or the restoration of historic airplanes in Floyd Bennett Field — require different spaces that encourage a more hands-on, generative form of leisure.
Daniel Campo, an urban planner and professor of planning at Morgan State University, is particularly interested in those recreational spaces that aren’t planned or designed, but are appropriated by residents for their own purposes. In the late 1990s, he became enthralled by the ecosystem of the Williamsburg waterfront, at the time largely abandoned, and the ways in which people had created an informal playground outside the realm of “Park Rules Prohibit” signs. His 2013 book The Accidental Playground documents this story. In 2007, some of the informal spaces Campo has examined re-opened as East River State Park, followed in 2010 with the opening of the first phase of Bushwick Inlet Park. Dylan Gauthier, a public artist, educator, and writer based in North Brooklyn, walked around these parks with Campo to discuss the benefits of unplanned spaces for recreation, the evolution of the North Brooklyn waterfront, and examples of formal and informal parks that provide opportunities for adventure, discovery, and creation. –J.T.
Tell me about how you became interested in the site where we are now: East River State Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
I first came to know the site in 1995 when I was a student at Hunter College in a city planning studio. We were working with the local community board on what would eventually become a 197a plan — a community-based plan for the neighborhood — that passed in 2001. Between 1995 and 2000, I would come here occasionally to relax and drink a beer with friends. I was intuitively drawn to the space, and in 2000 I brought some photos I took back to Penn, where I was a Ph.D. student. Ray Gastil, the director of the Van Alen Institute at the time, was teaching a landscape architecture course, and we were talking about various plans for the waterfront. He encouraged me to explore the current state of the space rather than struggle with what might happen there in the future. And he was right: there was something here that was worth exploring. I immersed myself in the place, taking more photographs and walking up and down the waterfront observing.
It wasn’t immediately clear why what I was looking at was important, but I knew it was compelling. I have a strong idea that cities need places where people can get involved in the urban landscape, where they can move the dirt around. That’s what this area had become: as local residents were fighting a Giuliani administration plan to site a massive waste-carting facility here, some began to reclaim it on their own terms and do things they couldn’t do in Central Park. The area was an unclaimed ground that allowed for interesting and insurgent activities. Piles and piles of construction debris, bags of garbage, people’s possessions, and discarded objects became the raw materials of possibility. Renegade sculptures dotted the landscape with no permanence or sense of authorship, much of which had an intricate relationship with the landscape around it. Skateboarders built what came to be a renowned skate park. A 25-piece public marching band performed there, as did a fire performance troupe. And the site provided waterfront access in an area with very little of it. The fact that the bulkhead had completely eroded to create an accidental beach allowed people to touch the water. People wanted to be in the water. They could fish; they could sunbathe.
None of what we normally think is necessary for good “placemaking” was here: no planning, no design, no park, no investment. There was garbage, trash, rodents, and “questionable people.” But, people were here. There had been no meetings. Everyone came down here to do their own thing. I wanted to understand why people came and what the potential of places like this was for urban design, architecture, planning, New York City, and the culture of cities.
What happened to this space since you began studying it? How has it formalized?
In our age of global capital, these spaces were not going to be left fallow for long. Eventually, the market rediscovered this waterfront. Now the ‘90s looks like a magical hiccup in the history of the city. After the Giuliani garbage plan didn’t happen, there was an NYU partnership plan that would have created some sports fields and a little bit of public waterfront access space. That also failed. The 2005 rezoning did happen, so now we’re looking south at all those condominium towers built where we used to sort garbage. The East River State Park space was saved from development, ironically, because the state had gone ahead and purchased the site in 2000 before opening the park in 2007. What was here before wasn’t an Eden, but I think many people wish we could pull a little piece of that back from the more formal spaces we have now.
As you were engaging with and thinking about this area, was there other work or research that was especially important to guiding your investigation?
My methodological and observational approach had many diverse influences. Camilo José Vergara’s photo-ethnography and city explorations documented in American Ruins describe how to approach and understand vacant or decaying places and show the value of serial visits. You can’t do this kind of research in a few afternoons or even in a semester. I read Reyner Banham’s A Concrete Atlantis at the onset of my serious research: his wanderings through vacant industrial sites show he’s really having fun out there and embracing unpredictability as a research condition. I was drawn to the legitimization of marginal characters, their narratives and the places they create, in Diana Balmori and Margaret Morton’s documentation of the gardens of the homeless on the Lower East Side in Transitory Gardens Uprooted Lives. I also view my work in the tradition of great urbanists like Jane Jacobs, William H. Whyte, and Kevin Lynch, particularly in respect to Lynch’s last book, Wasting Away, which explores the value of waste and waste places.
Another touchstone that I looked at was the adventure playground movement that started in post-war Europe. In the US, we got a little bit of a watered down version of it, which acknowledges that play is messy, disorderly, and unpredictable. It’s about discovery, adventure, and failure, and construction, demolition, and reconstruction. Those ideas are making a small comeback despite the great amount of attention paid to liability and risk reduction. And I don’t think they should be limited to kids. Adults need that same sort of interaction with their environment and their peers; that’s what creativity is about. What I like to call recreation as re-creation is very important: we spend our leisure time re-creating self, rebuilding self, and part of that rebuilding is destruction. I think it’s essential for our wellbeing to do that in some form or another.
Is there a way of creating sites that could continuously vacillate between formal and informal, that could continue to simply express themselves as “becoming spaces”? How could the idea of “unplanning” be adopted by urban planners and designers?
In a way it is a contradiction: how do you control the uncontrolled? By making those decisions, you are imposing an order. I’m interested in that contradiction, and I’m not sure how a planned unplanned space might be brought under the aegis of government in the US. There is always going to be this impulse to formalize practices. And it’s a struggle to reconcile the designed with the undesigned.
In Europe, however, ideas about parks tend to be a little more playful. The old Berlin Airport, Tempelhof, is a giant vacant site where you can walk, bike, hang out, or make little art experiments. There’s a very informal beer garden, and then there are some more formal areas, like basketball courts. And even some of Germany’s formal parks have more possibilities and sense of interaction. The North Duisburg Landscape Park, where they’ve done some incredible things with former industrial sites, shows a great combination of the designed and undesigned. They’ve allowed areas to be wild, and they allow for more wild social behavior. But if you send a whole bunch of architects to look at these sites to learn from the principles that work, people get hung up on form and lose the fact that part of what makes those sites special is a more permissible social environment.
One of the takeaways of this ongoing experience is that the marginal exists in many different forms. Maybe the marginal moment for this waterfront was from the 1980s to the mid–2000s, but the robust “people’s park” period of this place really only happened at the end of the ‘90s, and that was because of benign neglect. Maybe we need to embrace marginality when we’ve got it, especially when coupled with density, and pull back from our constant thought of reclamation for improvement. So much of planning and architecture is about looking forward, and I try to teach my planning students not to always think, “maybe we’ll get a couple of million dollars and we can build this park.” That can cause us to lose sight of the foreground, which needs to be explored and appreciated. What we had here was pretty good, and we should work in many cases to exploit opportunities in the short term.
One interesting thing about this site is the controversy over its current use. It attracts a lot of commercial uses in the summer — concerts, food markets — and we’re surrounded by kids and strollers, which are not the same activities or people that were here in the ‘90s. So how do the urban planners define their target audience? And is there a way that these places could be evaluated that would allow for more experimentation?
We have this idea that we can design for everyone, that there is a place for everyone in every park. It’s a good idea, this universality, and to try to succeed we have to get everybody around the table to find out what their interests are. In reality, there’s no way you can please everyone. That beat-up, anarchic waterfront was not everyone’s idea of an ideal place to spend the afternoon. Now this particular park isn’t ideal for a lot of people who found it so 15 years ago. It’s very difficult to keep people satisfied once you have a set program. Maybe we need to be more frank about the fact that we can do some things and we can’t do others, that not all needs will be met here. Nobody actually talks like that, but I think we’d be better off if they would.
When I was two years into this research, I went back to my old office at the Department of City Planning and showed my colleagues some of the slides I had made of the site. One of them pushed back and said, “That’s great, but there’s just a few dozen people there — think about how many hundreds of people would use a ball field in that space if you opened it up and made it safer.” That’s a really compelling way to look at it, but it can’t all be absolute numbers. When you start to look at the constellation of spaces across Brooklyn and New York that work in concert with one another, you can say there’s lots of places where you can play ball, but where can you legally do land art, practice really loud music, or build a fire? I don’t think there’s one off-the-shelf way that works for the evaluation of spaces, and unfortunately here in New York aesthetics and safety have ruled the day at the cost of almost everything else. Throw in global investment and you have the holy trinity of New York public space.
Are there other spaces in the city or the US that speak to this need for playful spaces? Floyd Bennett Field on Jamaica Bay comes to mind, with people flying their model planes and driving remote-controlled cars on the runway.
Floyd Bennett Field is an interesting place. Maybe because it’s further from the core there are fewer constituencies vying for it all the time. There are only one or two access points, so people can do a lot of things that stay under the radar.
I have found other such spaces, to an extent, in the Rust Belt. You don’t have the overwhelming population density there, which was part of the recipe for this space, but you do have benign neglect, freedom, and the interaction with the deindustrialized landscape in places like Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit. The greatest collection of concrete grain elevators ever built exists along a very small stretch of the Buffalo River, and only about a quarter of them are actually used for grain anymore. Most are vacant, and there are some very interesting cultural practices happening around them.
Decline is not pretty. And it’s not an optimistic story when you look at the numbers and see that Buffalo’s population in 1950 was 580,000 people and now it’s under 260,000 and shrinking. But with sites like these iconic grain elevators, where the owner of the Silo City culture park is hosting educational programs and staging festivals, there is a genuine, tactile love of place that you don’t get when you go to a highly curated house museum. I think that’s partly due to this vacillation between the designed and the undesigned.
Another place I’m looking is the Buffalo Central Terminal, an incredible train station that Amtrak stopped using in the late 1970s. It’s been reclaimed by locals, who eventually forced the city to take the property from the owner who hadn’t been paying taxes or maintaining the building. These local folks, some but not all of them train buffs, formed a not-for-profit to manage the terminal and they have events as they continue to restore the building a little bit at a time. They’re exploiting possibilities in the short term: there’s no economic rationale for that building within the conventional sense of real property development and valuation, so why not invite people over there and have a party. That, to me, is very much connected to the ideas that I learned while sitting right here 14 years ago.