Waterfront Parks in New York City
Waterfront parks are important reminders about how cities rely on water for manufacturing and transport of goods and how ports can facilitate economic development. While I was in New York I visited two waterfront parks, Brooklyn Bridge Park and the Hudson River Park. Both of these parks are mixed-use spaces, like the Ruston Way waterfront, that include public walkways, large recreation facilities, restaurants and snack shacks, and private developments.
As I walked along these waterfront parks I was struck by the expansive city views, the pilings that are reminders of the waterfronts’ industrial past, the passing cargo ships and water taxis that are evidence of our continued reliance on water transport routes, and the designed features, like landscaping and art, to enhance visitor engagement.
Brooklyn Bridge Park stretches along 1.3 miles of the Brooklyn side of the East River. I visited this park at the suggestion of a Brooklyn resident who noted that it is an important gathering place. She explained that after the events of September 11, 2001, many New Yorkers worried that residents with young children would leave the city fearing it was no longer safe. She explained that making investments in parks and public places was a focus for urban redevelopment in New York after 9/11. This approach is consistent with waterfront redevelopment efforts that prioritize public access to the waterfront and historic preservation (Gordon, 1996) and “that seek to create a sense of place and sites of social engagement for people who live and work in the city” (Hurley, 2006, p. 22).
Brooklyn Bridge Park visitors experience expansive views of the East River, the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan. The contrast of water and cityscape supports reflection about how “nature” and “culture” are in dynamic relationship. The Brooklyn Historical Society, in collaboration with Brooklyn Bridge Park, has created interpretative signage and a website (accessible to visitors with mobile devices) to make visible the industrial history of the waterfront.
One of things I appreciated about Brooklyn Bridge Park was the inviting picnic area on Pier 5 that features hibachi grills, table seating made from salvaged wood, and colorful umbrellas. This area invites visitors to enjoy a meal, conversation, and the views.
Hudson River Park in Manhattan stretches along the Hudson River from Battery Park City to Clinton. This park runs parallel to the High Line. Visitors to Hudson River Park enjoy expansive views of the Hudson River and New Jersey. Creating a continuous park, like this one, that stretches across many neighborhoods helps to build a coalition from competing interests (Bluestone, 1987). For example, real estate developers, environmental advocates, and sports enthusiasts can see their interests reflected in the park design. Mixed-use developments like the Hudson River Park engage the tension of honoring natural scenery and fostering urban development.
As I walked along the waterfront in this park I thought about the City of Tacoma’s efforts to create a continuous waterfront access pathway from downtown Tacoma to Pt. Defiance Park. Hudson River Park is a good example of working to create continuous public waterfront access. The walkway and sunbathing lawn at Pier 45 was full of people on a sunny April afternoon.
One of the things I appreciated about Hudson River Park is how public art is incorporated along the walkway. One of my favorite pieces is Two Too Large Tables by Allen and Ellen Wexler. The work is made of two large elements, one table that provides shade for the chairs below and a second large table with chairs randomly built into it so that visitors sit within the table surface. These works invite visitor interaction with public art.
Ruston Way, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and Hudson River Park are waterfront parks that support visitors to connect to water in their environment. Throughout this research project I’ve been reflecting on how language impacts our understandings about place. I find the names of these three parks an interesting contrast. The name Hudson River Park honors a river. The name Brooklyn Bridge Park honors an iconic bridge. The name Ruston Way honors the road that runs parallel to the Tacoma waterfront. In this blog I’ve used the phrase “Ruston Way waterfront,” but the official name of the two-mile walkway is Ruston Way. I’m thinking about how names like Ruston Way Waterfront Park or Commencement Bay Park would honor a defining feature of this place—water.
Visitor Perspectives About the Ruston Way Waterfront
In studies of preferred landscape features, environmental psychologists have consistently identified water as a highly valued landscape element (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1998). This week, while walking the Ruston Way waterfront with a community member, my walking partner stopped, looked out to the water and said,
“You know what is really amazing about this place? Free public access to two continuous miles of waterfront. With the opening of Point Ruston we now have three miles of public waterfront access. In many communities waterfront access is private.”
Visitors to the Ruston Way waterfront highly value having waterfront access. In response to my ongoing survey question, “When I think of the Ruston Way waterfront I think . . . (share 3 words or phrases),” many community members include the word “water” first on their list, for example, “Water, fish, people, running,” “water, ocean, crabs” “water, summertime and going out to eat,” “water, ocean, sunset,” “water, peaceful, blue,” and “a water park.”
Tacoma community members often describe their feelings about the Ruston Way waterfront with phrases of great admiration like “feeling privileged to be a part of it,” “Good Tacoma,” and ” a truly special place.” They appreciate having the views of Commencement Bay, vistas of cities and Tacoma neighborhoods, seeing marine life, and observing passing planes and cargo ships. Below are reflections about the Ruston Way waterfront from two community members:
“There is a spot, not far west of Old Town, where you can stand on the walkway and look out to the Sound. In front of you is a series of old grey pier posts, one of which stands alone, with the frame of a bicycle tied to it at a rakish angle. You can see seagulls wheeling or sitting on the posts and one or two cargo ships from who knows where out on the water. Below and in front of you is a strip of beach with rocks and driftwood, and to the left one of the still popular and old-fashioned waterfront restaurants sticking into the sea. It is a wonderful combination of chaos and serenity and other-worldly voyages. I feel privileged to be a part of it.”
“My favorite spot on the Ruston Waterfront is Les Davis Pier. The benches face a gorgeous panorama of the bay. This makes for a peaceful stroll and serene view of Browns Point and Vashon. I love watching planes descend in the distance at Sea-Tac. The image of several cities in the distance from a single vantage point, which is just above water, is truly special. What also amazes me is seeing North Tacoma from a distant vantage point, but knowing it’s only a five-minute drive from the pier.”
Engaging Multiple Concerns
Waterfronts can become important shared community spaces by engaging multiple concerns–environmental protection, recreation, economic development, and public history (Hurley, 2006). In major waterfront redevelopment efforts there is a tension between “producing a “must-see” tourist site, on the one hand, and articulating local identity” (p. 41). Critics may “dismiss these efforts to build waterfront open spaces as the exploitation of an invented heritage for the purposes of diffusing opposition to public spending to subsidize private development” (Gordon, 1996, p. 282). Narrating local history, and how local history intersects with larger themes (e.g., westward expansion, social justice, and human-induced environmental degradation and renewal) can deepen community members’ sense of how place changes over time and how natural resources, like water, are at the center of debates about land use and development. The waterfront development at Point Ruston illustrates the debates between prioritizing economic development versus town interests like waterfront parks and public access.
For more information about this research project read the Project Overview.
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Bluestone, D. M. (Winter 1987). Promenade to park: The gregarious origins of Brooklyn’s park movement. American Quarterly, 39 (4), 529-550.
Gordon, D. L. A. (July 1996). Design and managing change in urban waterfront redevelopment. The Town Planning Review, 67 (3), 261-290.
Hurley, A. (2006). Narrating the urban waterfront: The role of public history in community revitalization. The Public Historian, 28 (4), 19-50.
Kaplan, R., Kaplan, S., & Ryan, R. L. (1998). With people in mind: Design and management of everyday nature. Washington, D. C.: Island Press.
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