Urban Pastorals

View of the Manhattan skyline from the Freshkills Park landfill. Courtesy James Corner Field Operations, New York.


Designs for three major New York parks reconfigure the experience of city life in the twenty-first century.



Once finished, any change in the built environment has a way of settling in quickly to become the new normal. A new park or high-rise or bridge takes so long to build that we get habituated to its existence within months of its official opening, indeed sometimes days after the construction workers clear away the orange cones or peel the protective film off glass doors. This, combined with the fact that we tend to pay little mind to that which is static and seemingly immovable, means that we often don’t fully consider the design of preexisting structures or public works, rarely wonder how they might have been different from what we behold. Moreover, unless they impinge directly on our daily routine, even extraordinary, life-altering changes to our surroundings can be overlooked or insufficiently examined.

For most of the past seventy-five years, New York was an introverted city. Residents could be forgiven if they barely registered that four of the city’s five boroughs were on islands, collectively featuring 578 miles of coastline. Most New Yorkers led landlocked lives, as the city offered few opportunities to engage meaningfully with its harbor or waterways. After all, the final portion of Battery Park City’s splendid mile-long esplanade, with its expansive views of New York Harbor, opened only in 1996. The first segment of 550-acre Hudson River Park was completed in 2003. Before the plan for Freshkills Park was drafted in 2001, the Fresh Kills estuary in Staten Island was the site of the world’s largest landfill. Governors Island, the Coast Guard’s local base of operations until 1995, sat wholly out of sight and mind. Sure, we could take in the splendor of the Upper Bay from Brooklyn—but mainly when perched high above it, on the promenade in Brooklyn Heights. To actually feel the spray of water on our faces—without heading to a beach in the outer reaches of Brooklyn or Queens—all we could do was catch a ride on the Staten Island Ferry, just for the fun of it. 

How different the city is becoming. A few decades into an ongoing waterfront reclamation and park-building spree, New York might soon lay claim to being America’s greatest water city. Freshkills Park in Staten Island, which at a gargantuan 2,315 acres will be New York’s largest green space after Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, is to open in stages over the next three decades, with Schmul Park, Owl Hollow Fields, and the bike paths of the New Springville Greenway, all bordering Staten Island’s residential neighborhoods, already completed. Freshkills’s 21-acre North Park Phase 1 is expected to open in 2019, and the 482-acre East Park, one year later. Manhattan-based James Corner Field Operations designed the park’s master plan. On Governors Island, which can be reached by a five-minute, 800-yard ferry ride from Manhattan’s southern tip, 40 acres of new park and public spaces, designed by New York and Rotterdam–based West 8, opened last summer. And the 1.3-mile-long, 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park by local firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), which begins north of the Manhattan Bridge and snakes southward along the East River’s shoreline to end at Atlantic Avenue, is open, and nearly finished. 

Collectively, these large urban parks are thoroughly transforming not just how New Yorkers experience their city but also our understanding of what urban life can and will be in the twenty-first century. So it is important to consider how these parks came to be and what they are. After all, landscape architecture is design, which means that it comprises a series of decisions that could have been made otherwise.  



There are many reasons why New York’s harbor and waterways have become hot sites for urban revitalization. Most immediately, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Vision 2020 plan included mandates to improve the city’s water quality, restore degraded waterfront habitats, and address the anticipated effects of climate change. Parks advance all these goals. They expand the variety of habitats for flora and fauna (including water creatures), thereby fostering species diversity. They increase the city’s permeable surfaces, mitigating flooding caused by heavy rain that can pollute the city’s waterways through effluent overflow. Because parks shift the ratio of absorbent to reflective surfaces, they also help combat New York City’s substantial urban heat-island problem: heat-retaining asphalt and concrete make city temperatures skew hotter than those in the surrounding countryside.

New York’s waterfront park-building campaign epitomizes a reorientation of major cities around the globe toward their aquatic edges, which they increasingly view as valuable public amenities. In the United States and abroad, similar projects are underway from Austin to Los Angeles, from Hamburg to Shanghai. The principal historic factor driving this phenomenon is the consolidation of the shipping and cargo industry: the most profitable container ships today are supersize behemoths, which can dock in only a handful of deepwater ports. The Port Newark–Elizabeth Marine Terminal in New Jersey, the busiest on the East Coast, has been leeching business from countless smaller urban ports for decades, including those that once lined the East and Hudson rivers. Combine this with the more recent reversal of long-standing demographic trends: more and more people are choosing cities over suburbs. 1 That has created a generation of urban dwellers who crave the kinds of services and life experiences for themselves and their families that suburban playgrounds and yards once offered them. 

Most of New York’s shorelines, long in desuetude, were already held in the public trust. So they came to be regarded as obvious sites for major urban redevelopment, and parks were the choice. Mustering the political will to build a new public park is easier than convincing people to build, say, prisons or affordable housing, and a less controversial enterprise than turning land over to private developers. 

Given the immense financial pressures on public resources today, not only in New York but nearly everywhere, one might reasonably maintain that it scarcely matters what a new public park looks like. Grass, trees, water, playground equipment . . . it’s all good, right? Well, maybe. But there’s good, and then there’s better than good, or even great. Frederick Law Olmsted’s extraordinary 843-acre Central Park—still the gold standard, since 1858—exemplifies the sizable urban park that offers much more than patches of green respite from the asphalt jungle. Designed by Olmsted in collaboration with architect Calvert Vaux, Central Park simultaneously enhances and substantively shapes people’s experience of Manhattan. And while not every park should be Central Park, Olmsted’s masterpiece still offers valuable lessons that can be extrapolated and used to evaluate contemporary park design. 

Olmsted’s sculpted, carefully constructed hills, dales, open lawns, and smaller, more protected glades and clearings greatly expand Central Park’s sweep, both literally and perceptually. They create an array of middle grounds between foreground and background, spaces where people compose themselves into discrete tableaux for our delectation: ambling lovers, a father playing Frisbee with his kids, a klatch of mothers with strollers finding relief from the heat under the shade of a tree. Over the course of an hour-long stroll, these vignettes unfold, then change at regular ten- or fifteen- minute intervals. The park’s panoramas befit the shifting, glancing, surveying character of our vision, felicitously coupling monumental vistas with more intimate and protected places where we and our eyes can rest. Here is Olmsted’s brilliance: Central Park is designed to work with human minds and bodies. From the Great Lawn to the Ramble to the lightly managed wilds of the North Woods, the park’s deliberately sculpted topography resonates with our walking feet, scanning eyes, and narrative compulsions. The shifting elevations and vantage points offer up little green scenes from which to construct a variety of memorable images. It all adds up to an immensely rich, layered experience of place.

We should expect no less of New York’s three most important new or forthcoming parks on Fresh Kills
and Governors Island, and along the shoreline under the Brooklyn Bridge. Indeed, given the substantial public resources pouring into them and the impact they will have on generations of New Yorkers—if not, through their influence, on parkgoers worldwide—our expectations for this new spate of parks should be sky-high. How will their designs shape our experiences of one of the world’s greatest cities?



The responsibility for designing large urban parks falls on the shoulders of landscape architects. This is a tiny profession—the roster of the American Society of Landscape Architects counts fifteen thousand members, many fewer than the American Institute of Architects’ eighty-eight thousand—and one that has undergone a revolution of sorts in the past two decades. Before the turn of this century, if the phrase “landscape architect” evoked any image, it was of a soil-encrusted WASP designing precious gardens for private clients. The profession seemed engaged in a less-than-urgent enterprise. But the maritime trade’s withdrawal from urban waterfronts, along with declining industry in Rust Belt cities—all those empty lots in Detroit—have left monumental swaths of unused land ripe for redevelopment.[pq]New York’s waterfront park-building campaign epitomizes a reorientation of major cities around the globe toward their aquatic edges, which they increasingly view as valuable public amenities.[/pq]Add concerns about climate change and catastrophic weather events like Hurricane Sandy, and the question of how best to design and make use of cityscapes is now being shoved into every urban policy maker’s face. Landscape architecture, once an effete and marginal practice, has become a frontline design profession.  

The lead designers of the new parks on Fresh Kills and Governors Island and by the Brooklyn Bridge are three of landscape architecture’s luminaries. British-born James Corner, founder of James Corner Field Operations, shot from obscurity to celebrity nearly overnight with a single gemlike project, the High Line, for which he led a large team of designers that included Diller + Scofidio (Renfro came to the firm later) and Piet Oudof, a Dutch designer of sublime gardens. Field Operations now has dozens of commissions for parks and public spaces around the United States as well as a handful of important projects abroad. Adriaan Geuze leads West 8, which earned early fame for its let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom master plan for defunct docklands in the Borneo-Sporenburg neighborhood in eastern Amsterdam. More recently, West 8 completed Madrid Rio, a major new park on a 3.7-mile stretch along the Manzanares River in the southwestern portion of the Spanish capital. Michael Van Valkenburgh of MVVA snagged the commission for the Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2005 after having prepared its preliminary plan. At that time, his firm was best known for achingly poetic smaller projects such as Wellesley College’s Alumnae Valley and Battery Park City’s Teardrop Park, but since then MVVA has taken on many other gritty large-scale projects, including the Maggie Daley Park in Chicago and the Corktown Common on the Don River in Toronto. For all three firms, designing a major waterfront park in New York was the commission of a lifetime. 

Corner, Geuze, and Van Valkenburgh preside over very different constellations in the firmament of contemporary landscape design ideas and sensibilities. Considering each firm individually clarifies their differences in approach; considering all three together reveals some of the most important themes and patterns that dominate discussions about how best to negotiate the natural world’s increasingly fraught, necessary role in urban life.

We must start with the sites for these three parks. Fresh Kills, an extraordinarily beautiful and, in Corner’s words, “strange” place, 2 contains wetlands, salt marshes, trees, and meadows, all abutting the large William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge. Governors Island’s new 40-acre park occupies the south side of the 172-acre island, and the Brooklyn Bridge Park runs along the shore of the East River. However great the ecological and topographical differences among these sites, Geuze, Corner, and Van Valkenburgh faced similar challenges. All three projects were prepared amid heightened concern about climate change, owing in part to the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy. There remains a palpable sense of urgency to the cause of reconfiguring fragile coastlines. And none of the sites is remotely “natural.” Freshkills Park sits on a monumental pile of fetid garbage that will continue to emit methane and other noxious gases for years. Governors Island more than doubled in size and acquired its current oblong configuration after decades of having landfill dumped along its southern edge, much of it excavated during the construction of the Lexington Avenue subway line and the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel. The mile-plus-long shoreline of the Brooklyn Bridge Park featured six piers of decrepit warehouses and docks that were severed from surrounding neighborhoods by the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway. 

Beyond their commitment to enhancing public life, Corner, Geuze, and Van Valkenburgh have little in common when it comes to building on postindustrial sites. Corner made his name as the leading intellectual figure in landscape urbanism, a movement promoting the importance of ecology and the management of open spaces in city planning. In a succession of conference presentations and treatises laced with postmodern jargon, Corner has argued the somewhat obvious case that the best design is a “dynamic, open-ended matrix [that] can never be operated upon with any certainty as to outcome and effect.” 3 The landscape urbanism he champions “escapes design”: the right scheme will magically emerge when data collected using various disciplines and methods—forestry, marine biology, graphic design, environmental engineering, acoustics—is inputted into a parametrically sophisticated program of sufficient computational power. Corner’s is a broad-brush approach: nature and people, he maintains, will fill in the details over time. 

Geuze, too, associates himself with landscape urbanism, but in practice his approach is quite different. The Dutch have traditionally taken a heavy hand when it comes to sculpting landscapes, since much of the Netherlands sits on dike-protected reclaimed land below sea level. Despite echoing Corner to criticize colleagues who, he feels, do “too much design,” 4 Geuze brings a rather conventional sensibility to his appointed task, with an interest in narrative and strongly modeled views, in the spirit of formal European gardens. His designs for waterfront parks in Toronto and Madrid feature simple oppositions, large monochromatic planes, aggressively repetitive patterns, and nakedly iconic gestures such as torquing and trussed bridges painted bright red. 

Van Valkenburgh, by contrast, deeply believes in the redemptive power of design, and unapologetically approaches landscape architecture as an art. If Corner’s approach is top-down, Van Valkenburgh’s is bottom-up. He combines an encyclopedic knowledge of ecology with a dogged focus on human sensory experience that is informed by intuition, along with occasional assists from environmental psychology. His complexly layered, topographically varied landscapes feature curving paths, constructed hillocks, and mystery-laden sequences culminating in surprises, like a monumental view or a rough-hewn, rocky amphitheater. 



What are New Yorkers getting in their new waterfront parks? Freshkills Park, by dint of both its enormity and the complexity of its challenges, differs substantially from the other two. Even though very little of Corner’s design has been executed, Freshkills Park is an exceptionally beautiful place. At sea level, a linked series of wetlands, freshwater creeks, and tidal saltwater flats stretch over 3.4 square miles to create a meandering, many-fingered landscape of marshy, soft edges. It is kayaking heaven. From these waterways rise first swamp grasses, then intermittent woodlands, and finally, the four hills comprising fifty-plus years of New York’s garbage. Each one rises over one hundred feet. The city sanitation department sealed the trash mounds (except for the West Mound, which will be capped by 2021), then spread dirt around them and planted grass seeds. In most of the park, the only visible remnants of the site’s malodorous past are the occasional leachate-monitoring wells and landfill gas-well header pipes, which are capped metal tubes protruding knee-high from the ground. Today, Freshkills features astonishing, unbounded expanses of meadows where tall, wheat-colored, red-tinged grasses sway in breezes, layered above meandering waterways and beneath the big skies one associates more with the western plains than with the East Coast, much less Staten Island. 

Corner describes his vision for Freshkills as “more of a national park kind of experience” than a conventional urban park. 5 Nature over time will be his coauthor. Everything Field Operations has proposed for this site treads lightly on the land, and rightly so. The North Park Phase 1, which borders the West Shore Expressway, the Travis neighborhood, and the Davis Wildlife Refuge, will run along the base of the North Mound in a long, lazy arc edged by a screen of trees, slowly rising to culminate in a lightly wooded plateau with a simply designed bird-watching tower. For the 482-acre East Park, expected to open in 2021, Field Operations envisions open grasslands with a wetland boardwalk, a picnic area, and a kayak launch. 

However well or poorly Corner’s less-is-more approach works in other Field Operations projects, it suits the manifold challenges of Freshkills precisely. Enhance these wondrous offerings by making them accessible, and otherwise leave them alone. Even though it remains closed to the public, Freshkills is already accruing substantive ecological benefits for the region, foremost among them enhancing species diversity, which is woefully absent in New York’s overbuilt environment. The New York City Parks Department has already counted many species that have reappeared on the site long after fleeing the region, such as deer, northern snapping turtles, gray squirrels, raccoons, weasels, and foxes. Returning bird species include the American kestrel, turkey vulture, ring-necked pheasant, red-winged blackbird, tree swallow, American goldfinch, osprey, and red-tailed hawk. The birds disperse seeds in the meadows, helping propagate more indigenous plants. For the meadows, Corner envisions fields of native flora: switchgrass, yarrow, goldenrod.

If Freshkills Park will serve as New Yorkers’ refuge from the city, Governors Island and Brooklyn Bridge Park both offer refuges in the city. The uninhabited thirty-three-acre northern portion of Governors Island features a historic district and national monument anchored by Fort Jay (1806–09) and the semicircular, hewn-sandstone Castle Williams (1811), both administered by the National Parks Service. This area also contains Colonel’s Row, a collection of late nineteenth-century historic homes arrayed around a small grassy knoll, as well as Nolan Park, which has the feel of a New England village green, and the enormous U-shaped Liggett Hall, originally a 350,000-square-foot army barracks, designed by McKim, Mead & White and completed in 1930.

West 8’s new park begins at Liggett Terrace, a public plaza by the hall, and spreads from there to occupy nearly all of the island’s southern tip, which sits about one thousand yards from Liberty Island. Geuze organized a collection of petal-shaped, low-slung green-and-brown areas that progressively increase in size, with plantings and play equipment arranged in a variety of visual patterns.[pq]The design starts from the individual human body, walking and scanning, listening, touching and imagining touching, anticipating.[/pq]Near Liggett Terrace, low, tightly floriated hedgerows trace out little paths. Further out, a long, linear climbing structure encourages kids to hoist and swing themselves while their parents loll about on its suspended nets. On a third, larger, grassy section, fifty red hammocks stretch between tree trunks. This so-called Hammock Grove doesn’t look like much now, but when the trees mature and spread their leafy crowns, it could offer an appealingly idle way to spend a pleasant summer afternoon. 

The curvilinear zones are accessible via wide, asphalt-paved pathways lined with white pillowed curbs in patterned concrete. Everything points toward the main event, the Hills, which opened to the public in July. Four artificial mounds, ranging in height from twenty-five to seventy feet, first hide, then reveal views of the harbor and—voila!—the Statue of Liberty. Geuze’s instinct to sculpt at least a portion of Governors Island’s pancake-flat topography into a more three-dimensional landscape repeats Olmsted’s modeling of Central Park. But here the gesture feels simplistic. A forty-acre park should offer much more than a show-stopping main event. Indeed, it’s not even certain that such a place needs a single climactic moment. (Leslie Koch, former president and CEO of the Trust for Governors Island, would likely disagree, as she reasoned that only something extraordinary would convince people to get on the ferry to make the trip out there in the first place. 6 )

Consistent with Geuze’s interest in narrative, the sequence we travel from Liggett Terrace to the Hills gradually unfurls a view of the Statue of Liberty, spatially telling a story about the anticipation of democratic tolerance symbolized by the monument. But that’s a tale that all of us already know and don’t really need to hear again. Overall, the problem with West 8’s design is that it’s a single, banged-out chord rather than the symphony of high notes and low notes that characterizes a really great urban park. It doesn’t offer the shifting rhythms that make us want to return again and again, knowing that we will find something new. It’s telling—and damning—that Geuze, happily envisioning people’s experience on Outlook Hill, says, “We expect people will take a selfie there.” 7 Although the long chutes on Slide Hill invite more sustained engagement, at least for kids, not much else does. It’s all too one-shot, or snapshot. The Hills are little more than a view-production device. Rachel Whiteread’s otherwise haunting Cabin (2016), a concrete cast of a wooden hut on Discovery Hill, exacerbates rather than mitigates the impression. A house that no one can enter, this is a piece of public art that deflects rather than invites engagement, let alone exploration. Once you’ve seen this place, you’re done. 

There are other disappointments in West 8’s design. Geuze reportedly spent a quarter of the budget raising the level of the park site by sixteen feet, warning of its imperilment by flooding; in the process, he fortified the bastionlike quality of the shoreline rather than breaking it up. Sure, it’s a vulnerable site. But to maximize ecological benefit of such reclamation projects, sloping inclines and soft, fuzzy edges work best, because they foster species diversity in a way that raised, hard edges don’t. (To be fair, the depth of the surrounding waters may have made softening the park’s descent to the water prohibitively expensive.) Either way, the oddest things about West 8’s design remain its contextual disconnects. Here you stand on an uninhabited island in New York Harbor, in a funky but mannered update of a formal European garden. And your relationship to the water is never more than purely visual, a pictorial scene rather than a three-dimensional, embodied immersion in the landscape. The whole composition feels abstracted from the site. 

It would be challenging to imagine a greater contrast to either the Hills or Freshkills Park than the new $355 million park in Brooklyn. Complex, urbane, ecologically rich, and experientially layered, Brooklyn Bridge Park represents a triumph so astonishing that Olmsted may no longer need to serve as the touchstone for all that landscape architecture can accomplish and be. Van Valkenburgh could be the Olmsted that our twenty-first century needs.  



We should start by considering the site as it looked in 2005, when MVVA completed the master plan: an asphalt-paved shoreline cleaved from the city by the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway and strung with a monotonous series of deteriorating concrete piers. Reconceptualizing this as a major urban park took grit, along with a good deal of imagination. Matthew Urbanski, the lead designer on the project under Van Valkenburgh, told me that during the design process, he constantly asked himself one question: for this park’s projected users, what experiences are missing from the city that landscape architecture can realistically provide? 8 In interviews and publications, Van Valkenburgh frequently recounts one early community “visioning” meeting, when an elderly woman said that she lived on a fixed income and owned no country house where she could escape the summer heat. She wanted a place where she could go at dusk, take off her shoes, and stand in the East River while gazing up at the moon. 9

Olmsted maintained that great parks offer a wide range of experiences for the many different people who use them in various times and seasons. Brooklyn Bridge Park, now 90 percent complete, does that in spades. MVVA parceled out a variety of spaces for passive and active recreational pursuits. Pier 1, to the north, features spacious, sculpted lawns, a waterfront promenade, terraces paved with variegated stone, including a twenty-nine-foot-high amphitheater built from rough-hewn granite blocks where you can look out on the bay and take in the skyline of lower Manhattan. At Piers 2 and 5, jocks young and old congregate, using the basketball and handball courts, an in-line skating track, and the playing fields for soccer, field hockey, and lacrosse. Pier 3, which has a projected completion date of spring 2018, will feature the kind of undulating, highly controlled, seemingly naturalistic landscapes that earned Van Valkenburgh his reputation: hillocks and gently sloping dales bordered with shrubbery and trees to define a central lawn. A serpentine labyrinth garden at Pier 3’s northern edge is reminiscent of MVVA’s stunning Monk’s Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. 

Everywhere in Brooklyn Bridge Park topographical relationships are precisely planned, carefully managed. During the design process, Van Valkenburgh climbed up on a ladder at the site to gauge the projected height of slopes and refine the design of the paths up and down constructed hills. Again and again, spatial sequences lead us from compressed, heavily planted, winding paths to an explosive release, where horizontal vistas offer up grassy expanses, paved promenades, and monumental waterfront views. As in Olmsted’s parks, the design starts from the individual human body, walking and scanning, listening, touching and imagining touching, anticipating. 

Upland from the natural outcroppings and the piers, a green spine connects it all. One section of the park’s central Greenway sits quite close to the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway, so MVVA designed a thirty-five-foot-high berm, called the Ridge, that redirects the highway’s deafening drone, cutting noise in the park by 75 percent. (Last summer, goats could be spotted grazing on the Ridge.) Proliferating along the Greenway is an appealingly wild composition of trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers, many of them native to the area. Between the piers, riprap attenuates the East River’s waves, as will floating boardwalks when funding is secured. A sloping shoreline offers all manner of inviting amenities: a sinuous kayak launch, marshy wetlands, a pebble beach where elderly women and everyone else can stand in the water and gaze at the moon. 

Urbanski told me that Brooklyn Bridge Park’s design is guided by faith in complexity. 10 This park is full: full of ways for people to use and enjoy and regard the city and its harbor, together and alone. It is also full of sustainability and resilience: green roofs, recycled materials, soft edges. It’s full of varied ecological habitats, including a saltwater lagoon and marshes, a shallow subtidal pebble beach, a dune, a wildflower meadow, a freshwater swale, wetlands, and a coastal forest with dense berried shrubbery to attract birds along the Atlantic flyway. It is full of public art. It is full of social initiatives, like the barbecue pits and picnic tables that draw people from neighborhoods geographically close to but economically distant from tony Brooklyn Heights. And most of all, Brooklyn Bridge Park is full of people: in 2014, the yet-unfinished park received an estimated  4.5 million visitors between May and August alone.  

MVVA embraced the site’s industrial past, starting from the preexisting twenty-five acres of concrete pier slabs, working alongside and with their detritus. On the piers, the firm demolished the warehouse sheds but retained their steel frames, painting them sky blue. These serve as scale-giving devices that help visitors visually reconcile the enormity of the bay with the smallness of human bodies on the ground. Tens of thousands of feet of longleaf yellow pine were harvested from the demolished cold storage building on Pier 1 and recruited for use in park benches, small structures, and wood decking. The waterlogged, rotting wood pilings were left in place, offering a poignant anthem to Brooklyn’s ferrying, shipping past. 

The zenith of the park’s design is the 1.6-acre Children’s Playground, located near the Atlantic Avenue entrance, which Urbanski designed in collaboration with environmental psychologists Nilda Cosco and Robin Moore at the Natural Learning Initiative. It features multifarious opportunities for children of all ages to explore, wonder, learn, and play. There’s a marsh garden scaled to little feet and hands, as well as a jet field and a “water lab,” which includes teaching structures such as the large wood-and-metal contraption that funnels a stream of water with propulsive force to rotate a pinwheel made of cups in various sizes. There is a valley of swing sets sized for young bodies, ranging from infants to teens, and a two-story slide that ends in a large sandbox. The box is dotted with wooden, metal, and rope-climbing structures in striking geometric shapes, and populated with stone animals as sentinels. The last time I visited, on a hot midsummer day, the playground was crammed with children and their guardians, clad in cutoff jeans and kippas and hijabs and whatever passed that Saturday for Brooklyn casual chic. Brooklyn Bridge Park is the very democratic social condenser that only a great urban park can provide.

Van Valkenburgh, like Corner, grounds his design in research drawn from a variety of disciplines and methodologies. What his Brooklyn Bridge Park shows is that research, though necessary, will never be sufficient. You need something more. Van Valkenburgh calls it heart. What he means, though, is that the landscape architect—like any architect—must have a deep appreciation for the complex, multisensory nature of human experience. Seeing and selfies matter. But so do sounds, tactile sensations, and memories cultivated over time. Moreover, Van Valkenburgh understands that great landscapes offer different things to different people, as well as different things to the same people over time: in darkness and light, in winter and spring, on quiet days and noisy ones. 

Brooklyn Bridge Park has been fifteen years in the making. It will take perhaps twice that long for the same kind of progress to be visible at Freshkills Park. But slowly, these landscape architects and their projects are utterly reconfiguring New Yorkers’ relationship to the city’s extraordinary harbor, that protected deepwater estuary that helped make New York what it is by offering first explorers, then traders, access to both the ocean and the wide, navigable Hudson River. Today, life in the big city includes navigating through oaks and hickories, sighting barn swallows and chimney swifts high in the sky or herons and egrets at the water’s edge, listening to the sounds of cattails in the breeze and the rustle of squirrels foraging for elderberries. 

Who knew? Perhaps life in the hyper-dense global cities of our age will be something worth treasuring after all.


SARAH WILLIAMS GOLDHAGEN is an author and architecture critic based in New York.