A Waterfront Park as Public Amenity and Climate Mitigator
This week, the Museum of Modern Art officially launches a new series of exhibitions entitled Architecture Now. According to MoMA, “The first iteration of the series, New York, New Publics, will explore the ways in which New York City–based practices have been actively expanding the relationship of metropolitan architecture to different publics through 12 recently completed projects.” The exhibition will showcase public-facing work, such as parks, community gardens, and pools, by Adjaye Associates, Agency—Agency and Chris Woebken, CO Adaptive, James Corner Field Operations, Kinfolk Foundation, nArchitects, New Affiliates and Samuel Stewart-Halevy, Olalekan Jeyifous, Only If, PetersonRich Office, SO – IL, and SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi. Recently I spoke to landscape architect Tom Balsley, whose firm SWA/Balsley collaborated with Weiss/Manfredi and Arup on Hunter’s Point South Park, in Long Island City, one of the projects prominently featured in the exhibition. Balsley and I discussed the origin story of the park, how it does double duty as both public amenity and climate mitigator, and the role of personal space in urban parks.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
TB: Tom Balsley
Hunter’s Point South Park opened after I left New York. I subsequently moved back and recently visited the park. I liked it — liked the urbanism of the park more than the urbanism of the nearby buildings, but that’s a separate story. Tell me the story of the park.
The first phase of the park was under construction when you left. That’s the big oval and the park building. All of that was underwater with [Hurricane] Sandy. But the entire park was designed to take in, absorb, and release these storm surge waters, and 90% complete Phase One did it without any damage at all. So it was held up as a great model for what we might call landscape infrastructure.
Or climate change mitigation.
Pick your term. The park opened to great acclaim, and then there was a pause, because parks typically come with a development, in this case, affordable housing. But the park was such a success that they rushed into letting out more developer RFPs for the final portion. The second phase of the park had these two giant landfills that were created partially from the excavation of the Queens Midtown Tunnel long ago. We carved a habitat marsh behind the smaller one, resculpted it, and turned it into this island that’s out at the edge of the river, removed from everything. That shoreline marsh became a tidal habitat and environmental sanctuary where visitors are engaged in a dialogue between marsh, river, and the skyline beyond.
Much has happened to public space in the last 30 years. We’ve seen the privatization of public space. It seems like every public space has to have commerce attached to it. There was a little bit of that in your park, but there were so many spots that were just gathering places, unconnected to commerce.
Thanks for picking that up. We prepared the master plan for the Queens West Parks, all of those parks along that edge in 1993. And then we completed the first phase in 1998 called Gantry Plaza State Park, which is next to Hunter’s Point South Park. Initially the community did not want any of that development. It was a blue-collar community, and there was a lot of opposition to it because of gentrification fears. Once Gantry Park opened, the existing community and the new residents in the market housing created the Friends of Gantry Plaza Park, testimony to their warm embrace. They have forever been our biggest fan. We had them as a sounding board to help us with the design process and get a sense of what this community wanted and needed.
And what did they want?
Well, if you ask a largely immigrant community what they want, they will tell you they want soccer fields. But we didn’t have that kind of real estate. What they wanted were places where they could meet, socialize, and play with their children, a place where they could have movies and ad hoc events. They also wanted an escape from the city. And so we used the topography to give us program and design cues. It helped us protect the southern end of the site as more of a stroll in nature. Whereas the northern part of the site was relatively flat, close to the subway and water taxi, to the school and retail across the street, and it responded to that with the active program of pavilion, multipurpose field, and play venues.
Obviously the park does double duty as flood mitigation.
Absolutely. Anytime we create a marsh or restore one, restore dunes or create oyster beds—all of these systems are nature’s way of protecting the land. One of the biggest moves was creating a revetment along the river. We needed that in order to create the marsh, because it needed protection from the strong tidal currents in the river. Once upon a time, there was a marsh, because the river was wider and gentler. It’s only become that powerful because it’s been narrowed with post-colonial industrial land reclamations, to a third of what it once was. We said, “Why can’t we just widen the revetment into a public trail along the river?” So we utilized resiliency engineering to include public benefit, while the marsh is doing its job as a buffer, absorbing and holding water. And let’s not forget: it’s also an ecological miracle, a habitat marsh. People just love that trail.
What’s not to love? There’s water, birds, marsh, New York City. It’s amazing.
Exactly. When you design public space, you get the request to keep the space active and flexible because they might want to host events here. And often that program doesn’t provide opportunities for personal experiences or connections to nature. But here we created various places to just sit and look at the river and skyline. All of these gestures were inspired by William Whyte, to create public space that is also personal space.
We’re talking about a waterfront park, and housing, in an era of sea level rise. Let me ask an impertinent question: How much development should there even be at the water’s edge?
Well, as long as that development is looking at 100-year targets and not 50-year targets, then I’m in support of it. We could take a hard line on that, but I’m not sure what our city edges would look like. There’s a lot of questions here: Do you not build at all? Do you build at extremely high levels? Do you address the storm surge at the point of entry into the port? That’s what’s being argued now. But this whole idea that we can build resilient waterfronts in an existing condition, and do it piecemeal, is almost folly. That’s why some people strongly advocate taking care of the problem further out.
What do you mean?
Any number of proposals, including big seawalls.
I think seawalls are inevitable.
I do too. And I don’t know why we don’t just admit it. We created a micro-model with the revetment and marsh at Hunter’s Point South Park. Maybe there can be seawalls of the 21st century, something extraordinary that could actually be environmental and public destinations for just a little bit more money. Maybe we haven’t fully explored seawalls with the right aspirational attitude. It’s almost sacrilege to talk about it.
It shouldn’t be. All the projections, all of the glacier melting, all of that is happening faster than anybody wants to admit. Seawalls for most coastal cities are going to be necessary.
It’s very likely.
Talk about the MoMA show.
The MoMA show is, for landscape architects, a pretty big milestone for our firm. We’re of course thrilled to share it with our collaborators, Weiss/Manfredi and Arup. I think Hunter’s Point South Park is a compelling example of the kind of impacts these special collaborations have had on the public realm in New York in these last 10 years. The park has won numerous international awards, but MoMA gives it a special cachet.
It may be indicative of the greater role of landscape architecture in the climate change era. I’ve always thought that climate change mitigation is essentially going to be about how we reclaim land, how we reapportion land, how we redesign land.
Absolutely. When the RFP went out for Hunter’s Point South Park, Arup reached out to us, because they knew about our history on the site in Gantry Plaza Park. They thought it would be great if we could continue with that spirit, working with their team. And I said, yes, but we have to be more responsive to climate, and treat this site as an ecological opportunity. Having said that, this challenge can’t be addressed by landscape architects alone, or engineers alone, or architects alone. It requires a real true collaboration of these disciplines, because it’s such a complex issue. The park is a model of that level of collaboration required to address the complex challenges of climate change. So, no one should take sole authorship for this extraordinary park.
Featured image by David Lloyd, courtesy of Balsley/SWA and Weiss Manfredi.