Fred Kent on the New York Waterfront
by Fred Kent
While forward-looking cities from Abu Dhabi to Vancouver to Hong Kong are increasingly moving away from past mistakes by realizing that their waterfronts are sacred properties belonging to everyone, New York’s waterfront “revitalization” efforts persist in the privatization of public lands. Battery Park City embodies the monotony that characterizes excessively passive and privatized waterfront development. Yet, sadly, these same mistakes have been replicated at prime waterfront locations in Queens’ Long Island City, Red Hook’s Ikea site, and much of the Hudson River Park. This trend looks to be continue in forthcoming developments, including Brooklyn Bridge Park.
New York City has become a showcase for the landscape architecture profession where park projects inspire acclaim from other architects, but fail to attract public users. The entire stretch along Manhattan’s west side, called Hudson River Park, features dunes and grasses modeled after the beaches of the Hamptons. The park’s bike esplanade succeeds in creating an attractive, continuous pathway, but the rest of the park lacks significant destinations to draw people, and consequently the bikeway feels like a speedway mimicking the adjacent Westside Highway. While iconic design statements, such as Gehry’s IAC Headquarters, dot the boulevard’s street front, the sidewalks below remain void of the vitality necessary to create lively waterfront connections.
As long as roads are allowed to dominate choice public spaces and moving cars is considered more important than building a great city, Manhattan’s waterfront will continue to disappoint residents and tourists alike. At the same time, the tremendous potential of the Brooklyn waterfront, which is greatly enhanced by the absence of major roads, is being undermined by the Brooklyn Bridge Park Plan that combines an overblown architectural statement with passive uses and privatization. The design for landscaping the park has neglected community input, resulting in a plan that gives no thought to how people would actually want to use such a spot. This is seen most clearly in the perched wetland planned for its most prominent pier. Additionally, the rich possibilities for creating inland waterways including Newtown Creek, the Gowanus Canal, and the Bronx River are ignored.
New York could quickly and marvelously transform its waterfront by learning from the example of Paris Plage, Vancouver’s Granville Island, People’s Park in Copenhagen, and Hunters Point’s Water Taxi Beach in its own backyard of Queens, all of which have all evolved into beloved public attractions despite minimal funding.
New York City is endowed with one of the world’s most striking and storied waterfronts, but to make it a great place on the order of Central Park, Prospect Park, or Rockefeller Center it must learn from its mistakes and revitalize waterfront places as shining assets that offer a rich diversity of public uses at a number of distinct destinations that are well-connected to one another.