Thursday, August 25, 2011

Metro Hort Tours Brooklyn Bridge Park

Let’s just get it out there. 
The Brooklyn Bridge Park is breathtaking.
It’s a landscape architect’s loooonnnggg dream come true. 
More about that later.
Point here is that the time from “Let’s build a park” to what is gracing the Brooklyn waterfront is a gestation period worthy of a sci-fi epic. Or in other words, NYC politics.

Fast forward to the spectacular, park of today. 
The genius loci is one visitors can truly believe is the way it has always looked. 
Isn’t that a hallmark of great landscape design?
Not unlike Manhattan’s Central Park, where most people think the land was preserved the way it was rather than the real history of cleaning out tent cities and squatters to design a more healthy and beautiful city park in the tradition of the great urban European parks. 

One cannot over emphasize the current NYC Bloomberg admiration’s efforts to provide more parks, bike lanes and more “green” lifestyle alternatives. 

And so, after more than a decade of work, the Brooklyn Bridge Park is alive, real and enjoyed by so many citizens that it should’ve been deemed a crime that it wasn’t completed sooner.

On the recent tour of the Park with the Metro Hort professional association Park tour, ( we not only saw families and locals enjoying and using every bit of the Park, there was also a nighttime, open-air movie on the newly made hill/swale that looks out to the Statue of Liberty to the South and Manhattan to the west.
Who needs cinema with that kind of built-in view and skyline?  In any event, there were blankets hosting hordes of lucky lookers the night we were there!

The cloudless, summer evening started off swell enough. 
Emerging from the #2 subway at Clark Street, proceeding down to the waterfront to the Ice Cream Factory meeting point, one crosses over first Pineapple Street, (how cute you think!) then Orange and Cranberry Streets before blinking back the thought you are in a game of Shoots and Ladders. 

L-R: Regina McMyer, Matt Urbanski, Sabine Stezenbach
Landing at the assigned Pier 1 gathering place, we are greeted for the tour launch by garden enthusiast and Metro Hort organizer extraordinaire, Sabine Stezenbach, who introduces Regina McMyer, president of the Brooklyn Bridge Conservancy, Rebecca, director of Horticulture, and landscape architect, and passionate park planner, Matt Urbanski, a Principal of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and a lead designer of the park.  

We learn that Matt has worked on the Brooklyn Bridge Park (BBP) since it was conceived, approximately 15 years ago.  The ardor he feels about the making of this oasis is palpable, his love never waning over the course of its flight from CAD conception to a green, fun-filled place of beauty.   Matt should be named the patron saint of BBP as his husbandry of the space throughout the decades and the commitment to using history and native plants is evident.  He is therefore also the perfect tour guide.  

The large group followed our enthusiastic Pied Piper leader along the crushed granite walks that meander throughout the new Park for what was to have been a 90-minute tour. We were so captivated and Matt was so energized, we reluctantly disbanded at around 9 pm, forging on way past the original half-mile destination to Pier 6, and instead made it all the way South past the piers and Children’s Garden to Atlantic Avenue.

The first phase of the Park is approximately 1.3 miles along the street; 5 miles along the water, explained Mark, because the design team added crenellated shoreline, employing cuts and curves.  He also explained that Pier 1 is a “misnomer” as the area here is landfill.

The throbbing, beautiful “entrance” to the park is studded with the iconic restaurant, The River Café, the seafaring-picture-postcard-looking Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory and the old barge, that is now home to enchanting, ethereal musical performances – all perched “under” the visage of The Brooklyn Bridge and its cathedral-like buttresses and spider-web tension wires that have inspired artists, including Georgia O’Keefe, along with legions of foot travelers and tourists who walk the bridge as a rite of passage. 

It is pointed out the existing structures provided the reference for scale to the landscape designers, integrating the new pedestrian space to work with the existing scale: The Brooklyn Bridge, along with the Fulton Ferry Terminal.  
Pier 1 belonged to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The area was used to unload food off the ships and boats.  (See, Brooklyn’s acclaimed food heritage is pedigree.) 
We could almost see the scene in our mind’s eye as described by Matt as he told the story.  “By the late 1950’s the stevedores could be found slinging the sacks on ropes into the sheds that were built on the piers to store the food from the containers.  By the time work started on the park, it was as if it had been in a time capsule or “time warp,” he said.  “The question was not so much to rebuild but to repair.” 
The design team was committed to preserving the spirit and history associated with the space, yet creating a park that served the communities needs now and going forward.  It is a brilliant, thoughtful design with great respect for the history of the space and its contribution to the life of the city. 
Before I could post this story, the NY Times ran a related piece today about the waterfront efforts. How timely!

Matt shared a key landscape design consideration was how to introduce someone into the park and work with the view, he says while gesturing wide to sweep in the drama of the Manhattan’s “skyline-as-attitude” casts its sexy footprint just across the narrow East River.  “No park has that! So we had to parse it out,” he laughs knowingly/confidently, while gesturing in a theatrical hand swoop.   

Matt details how they took a flat site, made a 30-foot hill of stone excavated from an access project site in Long Island.  “There are thousands of cubic yards of soil” used to make one space into multiple, interesting spaces.

Big plantings were a challenge, particularly the scale of the trees.  The need to introduce shade was acute, yet so was the need to protect or preserve the bridges and harbor views.  The resulting strategy is a “designed hedgerow.”

The London Plane, multi-stemmed trees are dense along the pathways: “They won’t swallow up the lawn,” Matt commented, while pointing out the emerging “green tunnel” effect they created, quickly adding that the more than 1,000 in-the-ground plantings have only been here a mere 15 months, the park having opened June 2010.” 

The trees are full at eye level now.  They were spaced fairly close together: 20 feet apart, rather than the customary, accepted landscape design of spacing plants to allow for the full growth mature plant to inhabit.  There are also some Honey Locust and Kentucky Coffee trees added in as a twist.  There was some discussion about this as Matt said the needs of now: “look and shade,” outweighed the idea of designing the space for 20 or 30 years hence.  “The design is about anticipated attrition,” he stated with smile, anticipating some disagreement among the horticulturists.  “Otherwise, we are disappointing park-goers for 75 years.”  
In turn, everyone chuckled to think most landscape design is indeed planted for the long term, meaning today’s park patrons must endure teeny trees so that their grandchildren can enjoy the finished product. 
There is a third rail and it’s working just fine at BPP.

The intention is that the trees in the hedgerow will push each other out – “fight for the light, then to give more views than now” Matt said.   

The sleek wire fencing is New Zealand sheep farming fence wire; the posts are native Black Locust and park staff can readily close off any part of a lawn without bringing in unsightly snow fencing.  

The plantings are dense, with the under plantings utilized to make a linear garden.  Varieties including ‘Blue Muffin’ viburnum and ‘Hummingbird’ clethra were used because they are intended to stay low, requiring “no crazy pruning” Matt and Rebecca added.  

Repeated was the important landscape design mantra of “managed succession,” according to Matt.  The idea is that old-field plants such as sumac or bayberry would give way to successive plantings: “To keep the plantings in a state of disturbance.”

When talk of irrigation inevitably came up, Matt said it is a big strategy for this park, and in no small part fueled by conservation and the fact that wetlands and the river border the park.  The water is directed into a drainage system to the Park’s “Water Park” then back up to a cistern.  From the cistern, the water is pumped into traditional sprinkler system/watering heads.
The idea is to recycle rainwater that covers 70-80% of the park’s water needs without taking any city water. Very impressive engineering. 

After a brief stop to admire the thousands of blanket-toting, picnic-packing park fans who had set up a perch for the evening’s outdoor movie, the MetroHort group headed onto the seashore rose-lined path to the Granite Flow Prospect area of the park that graces the promenade and precipice on the East River waterfront. 

Here, it is a series of stepped seating stairs designed to take in the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty views, while embracing the cool water breezes.  It is gorgeous granite; that could have achieved an Elle Décor or Dwell magazine kitchen-design photo spread appearance already. 

Next up was back out to the point to descend down a rather steep, lush, lawn to the same East River water’s edge.  One feels in a green blanket hallow bed, surrounded on both sides by high hills dotted with dense plantings of ornamental grasses and trees including Dawn Redwood, Pine and Swallow.  The lawn was so rich-looking it brought up the question of what kind of soil was hosting this verdant space that would make a golf-course groundskeeper, well, pea-Green with envy!  Matt and Rebecca explained there were seven different mixes of soil used, inoculated with compost tea. Plus, they claim there are no pesticides or fungicides used!  Excellent for the families sitting on the grass.  Or those scantily-clad denizens communing with a higher authority J  

The tour took us next across a bridge and out to the water area near the Brooklyn waterfront closer to Brooklyn Heights and the god-awful BQE highway. (What were they thinking back when??)
Matt told how they performed an engineering analysis of this site and wanted to make a “Big Ba Boom” moment as one comes around off the pedestrian bridge and turns to see:  drum roll, please: The Statue of Liberty.  The park planners and landscape designers succeeded brilliantly. The drama created should earn them an Oscar.  

Here there are lots of big boulder rocks on either side of the path, with native plants punctuating the salt marsh borders.  We were told the builders cut back and shaped the riprap in order to make slopes and terraces.  Matt could hardly contain himself, exclaiming, “We made salt marshes in New York City!!”  He added they also had the not so surprising consequence of finding a muskrat had taken up residence there in Brooklyn….  

The plan here is to make 10 acres of area available by 2015 to be used for kayaking so that water sport adventurers can connect to the canals and bridges that embellish the city. He pointed out that curiously, there is presently no place to readily just walk from the city to get into the water.  Seems crazy for an island and shoreline landscape.

This area is part of a storm water infrastructure that was planted with aquatic plants, including pickerelweed, mallows, native rush, Matt said.

Meandering back to the Water Garden, the borders are lined with lots of bayberry and boneset.  “It’s a very intimate space,” commented Matt, the group nodding their agreement.  

The striking red lobelia here at the water’s edge stood out like a fashion model on the runway.  Sabine nailed it when she noted they looked liked skyscrapers, fronting as they do the not too distant Wall Street skyscrapers towering behind them.  It is as if they are trying to imitate their big shadow or brighten up their grey facades. 
The asclepia there was so pretty too. 

Matt explained they bio-engineered the site, using coir matting -- most often referred to as coco fiber -- around the pond’s edge, along with lining logs around the stream and pond.  The whole thing works like a relay wall, with water pumped into the planned perched wetland pond nestled between a lawn swale on one side a bike lane on the other.

At this point, the tour officially concluded.  Matt and Sabine offered to continue heading back south to explore more of the proposed completion of the BBP.  Most opted to continue to follow our exuberant Pied Piper: Matt. 
Besides, the breezes were so nice and the sun was a pearly, pink glow, just setting behind the Manhattan skyline to the west; so we were more than seduced to continue our arboreal and pastoral journey.  

We continued on to see what will be at the Heights.  Under the Brooklyn Heights area.
It is a very ambitious and smart design that will soon be here.  
Most important will be the 42-degree slope on the 30-foot high landscaped hill/wall needed to block out the noise created by the never-ending conga line of cars on the BQE above.  Matt says here and without the wall “The sound is a living hell.”
At Pier 2, Matt exudes his enduring love of the place, having worked on the design and sherpa-ing the project to completion since the 90”s.  Here he described a spiral pool and canal that will soon be gracing the site.

The lights at the skeletal structures on the piers provide illumination for the basketball, tetherball courts.  At night, it all looks like a surreal movie set. 
Matt says porch swings will soon dance from the ceiling of the structures. 

The landscape design genius here is the blending of industrial memory and invoking rural elements of the site, as Brooklyn is the beginning or start of Long Island – and according to the lore of Native Americans it is the head of the fish – with the Twin Forks of the East End being the fins. 

The industrial heritage of the site has been honored and preserved, with ribbons of light punctuating the piers like a lighted Etch A Sketch.  “It will become a signature of the park,” Matt said.   It’s very glamorous.   

Running down the list of soon-to-be parks from his park-o-meter memory, Matt said
*Pier 3 will look like nature took over
*Pier 4 will be made into a bird sanctuary. And a grand beach – with more access to the water.
* Pier 5 and 6 …. More to come

The Children’s Garden is a mosaic of gardens: each element of the children’s garden has its own identity. There is an enchanting Water Garden or Water Lab, with aquatic plants, including horsetails, water sprays, and a fun, huge sandbox village with animal critters and teak decking surround. It offers an intriguing, sense of play and discovery. There is a slide mountain – (German, custom-made for the site) with a “floor” of a spongy element that puts a spring in your step; surrounded by bamboo. 

Matt reported Adrian Beneppe says it’s the best playground in New York.  And who am I to disagree with the best-ever Parks Commissioner?  J

Only the dark of night made this amazing garden tour come to an end. 
We’d traveled a few miles of New York waterfront; and at the same time, traveled back in time more than a few decades. 
And what might be characterized as inspired garden magic, we learned that in order to maintain the park space there is a Hort staff of--drum roll please-- Two! Yes, just two full time people. Plus a seasonal staffer.  And the volunteers.  It’s not fair that just a teensy bit more taxes might go toward a better lifestyle for all… Volunteer if you can. 

Enjoy this amazing park. It’s a love letter from urban landscape architects to the citizens of this great city.  Hugs all ‘round. 

Horticulturist, blogger & artist, Phyliss  Odeyssey

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