New Design Trends and Policies Help City Dwellers Touch Water

Wednesday, August 15, 2012
The Field Operations' new plaza fronting New York by Ghery. (Stoelker/AN)

The Field Operations’ new plaza fronting New York by Ghery features flush fountains. (Stoelker/AN)

An interesting trend to hit landscape architecture in recent years is borderless fountains, where water flows flush with the pavement. If so inclined, visitors can kick off their shoes and stroll though damp pavers. Such fountains can be found by Field Operations with Diller, Scofidio + Renfro on the High Line, Digsau’s Sister Cities Park in Philly, and Field Operations’ recently completed plaza fronting New York by Gehry. The trend seems to speak to city dwellers need to touch water.

The "Getdowns" on the East River Waterfront Esplanade (Courtesy haveyoueastenyet/flickr)

The “Getdowns” on the East River Waterfront Esplanade (Courtesy haveyoueastenyet/flickr)

But borderless access is hardly limited to pocket parks and plazas. Several of New York’s riverfront parks are beginning to incorporate high tide into their design. SHoP’s design with Ken Smith for the East River Waterfront Esplanade use “getdowns” to the water, where the East River gently spills onto the bottom of a series of steps. But the most “radical” design comes from Michael Van Valkenburgh for Brooklyn Bridge Park where rip rap pavers gently follow snakelike access to the actual river. Yes, you can walk down into the river!

Designs by MVVA snake into the river. (Courtesy Alex S. MacLean│Landslides Aerial Photography)

Designs by MVVA, featured in the new Van Alen exhibition, allows access to snake into the river. (Courtesy Alex S. MacLean│Landslides Aerial Photography)

The designs speak to water access issues that will be among many topics explored this fall at the Van Alen Institute to compliment River City: Waterfront Design for Civic Life, a series of exhibitions and public programs. The first exhibition, Immensity and Intimacy: Brooklyn Bridge Park, explores the convergence of new development with recreation. An October 4th debate between Fred Kent (Project for Public Spaces) and Michael Van Valkenburgh will be moderated by the soon-to-be-former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. The debate promises to be an all-out brawl on the public versus private control over the riverfront.

The MVVA design take rip rap pavers to the river's edge. (Courtesy Elizabeth Felicella)

The MVVA design take rip rap pavers to the river’s edge. (Courtesy Elizabeth Felicella)

The fact that folks want to touch the water shouldn’t surprise anyone in mid-August, and somehow all the aforementioned designs manage to astonish. But what’s really astonishing is that access to the water is such an oddity at all. “The whole thing is a miraculous joke, considering we’re on an island,” said Roger Meyer, chair of ConservancyNorth, a nonprofit public advocacy group in Northern Manhattan.

Meyer navigated the treacherous waters of Northern Manhattan’s waterfront access during debates spurred by development at Columbia University’s Baker Field. As part of the deal to build their new Steven Holl-designed athletic building, the university promised a marshland park designed by (surprise!) Field Operations with waterfront access at Manhattan’s northernmost tip. Nearby, a city-owned boathouse and dock in Inwood completed in 2006 sit unused, in part because the dock was placed in a marsh that becomes a mud flat twice a day during low tide. Whether the public will be able to use the boathouse for the new park is anyone’s guess.

The Eco-Dock proposed for Dykman Marina. (Coutesy Guardia Architects)

The $700,000 Eco-Dock planned for Dyckman Marina will be able to dock tall ships as well as launch kayaks and canoes. (Coutesy Guardia Architects)

Meanwhile, Council Member Robert Jackson’s office confirmed that his office has allocated $350,000 toward $700,000 Eco Dock. The balance will come from Borough President Scott Stringer’s office and the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance will receive the money to build the pier.

Both of the planned access points in Inwood do not yet have community programming plan in place.In the rush to fulfill recreation goals of Vision 2020, the city’s comprehensive waterfront plan, few have thought about the upland programming needed to support the new docks and waterfront access.  “The whole idea is to have an authentic use of the waterfront, genuine activity touching the water,” said Meyer. “It’s useless if you don’t have upland infrastructure, access is just a fraction of the picture.”

It wouldn’t be the first time that Parks has built before programming was in place. Nevertheless, access is coming and upland programming sounds like good fodder for further debate.

For more on Van Alen’s “River City” programing click here.

Getting feet wet on the High Line (Flickr/CasulCapture).

Getting feet wet on the High Line (Flickr/CasulCapture).

Old school. (Stoelker/AN)

Old school in Inwood. (Stoelker/AN)

One Response to “New Design Trends and Policies Help City Dwellers Touch Water”

  1. Roger Meyer says:

    Thank you Tom for the much needed look at reclaiming the public commons. Imagine if Central Park were to be treated like our waters, polluted, barely accessible, with marginal support for recreation, and little regard to surrounding neighborhoods. You can bet people would be up in arms. There is no doubt that big strides are being made in city government to redevelop the waterfront, but the question remains is the public really getting their public commons back?

    How many more opportunities are there for the public to use and enjoy the water than say 5 years ago or compared to other cities? I hope and think the NYC waterfront has advanced in this regard though as your article notes there continues to be investment of public dollars into waterfront development that yields questionable public benefit.

    The waterfront was once an economic driver for the city. How is it that on an archipelago of 8 million people we have not significantly reinvented our public commons and particularly in a equitable manner? Aesthetic esplanades, the occasional get down, a dock, the rarer still community boathouse, is something. But this is a far cry from the authentic and dynamic waterfront that once was and that people leave NYC in droves to enjoy every year. Perhaps a realized waterfront is coming but that’s not clear given the pace, the one step forward, one step back, and uncertainty of funding.

    What is really missing is a strategy to reconstitute a waterfront culture. Like salt marsh remediation, holistic thinking needs to guide the waterfront revitalization process. To do this the community needs to be stakeholders in the future of their waterfront and not just passive users.

    How are the schools and after school programs involved? How can we extend environmental science, team-building, higher education, farming, maritime, green markets, alternative transportation, boat-building, tall ships, physical rehabilitation, cultural practices, diverse recreation, world class athletics, scholarships, and jobs into the waterfront and do so in a manner that contributes to the draw of our neighborhoods and a sustainable regional economy? Without mapping out a possible waterfront culture and using this to drive design we risk a costly hit or miss approach to waterfront development.

    To bring back a diverse and sustainable waterfront culture there needs to be oversight in order to ensure the common wealth is in fact shared, that waterfront development is in step with the civic/economic aspirations of the community, and that there is a strategy to integrate private/public uses. We also need to lower the barrier of entry for water-dependent groups and business as this barrier, which is a big reason why our waters and waterfronts today are primarily under realized public assets.

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