Post-industrial Brooklyn Bridge Park has been a work in progress for the past three decades – and counts among New York’s favorite spots, inviting locals to work out, explore, or simply take a leisurely stroll. However, the park is constantly subject to new proposals and use scenarios that require sensitive negotiation between residents, investors, and the city itself.

The location simply couldn’t be better. Facing the skyline of Manhattan’s Financial District, Brooklyn Bridge Park flanks the world-famous eponymous bridge.

Like in many metropolises in the western world, the former harbor has become a new attraction and go-to place for the city’s residents. Where else could you find this much open space, if not in these post-industrial areas?

Today, the 34-hectare park is one of the largest in the US, stretching two kilometers down Atlantic Avenue and including the historic Fulton Ferry Landing Piers 1-6.

Manhattan skyline and grassland
A green oasis in the city.
Photo: Julienne Schaer

Endless activities

So, what makes this recreation area so popular? The inner city oasis offers plenty for everyone: the countless sporting activities include basketball, roller-skating, volleyball, tennis, climbing, and workout options to keep fitness buffs busy, while others who enter the park prefer to take a bankside walk with a view of the gleaming glass towers, have a park picnic, enjoy a gentle paddle in protected waters, do a spot of urban gardening, or simply visit one of the area’s playgrounds with their kids. At Pier 4, there’s even a real sandy beach!

To give visitors a chance to experience the park anew every time, neighborhood organizations stage a wide variety of events ranging from yoga sessions and reading circles all the way to members-only pool parties: The resulting mix is an urban paradise that’s as diverse as the city itself.

At Brooklyn Bridge Park, the sense of community is more tangible than almost anywhere else in the mega metropolis. Here, residents celebrate the city’s melting pot spirit, proud of their hometown’s amazing diversity.

Yet it took more than 30 years from initial concept to current state for this diversity to flourish. And even today, work on the Brooklyn Bridge Park isn’t quite finished yet.

First mentioned in 1632 by the city’s colonial rulers, the former harbor had its heyday in the 1850s when more than 130 warehouses and 25 so-called finger piers handled New York City’s bustling shipping trade.

But globalization brought major – and swift – changes until, in 1983, the local authorities discontinued all shipping operations, thus laying the cornerstone for the harbor-to-park conversion. Actual construction on the park only commenced in 2008, however, when the first green spaces, promenades, and sports areas saw the light of day.

People playing basketball outdoors
Spaces for sports activities contribute to Brooklyn Bridge Park’s draw.
Photo: Julienne Schaer

An award-winning project

Just three years down the line, Brooklyn Bridge Park won the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, one of the highest distinctions for urban renewal projects. “The park transformed a relic from the industrial age into an accessible, green recreation space for local residents,” the committee justified its decision.

It also lauded the many, often free leisure options for people from all social strata as well as the park’s strong sustainability angle. It not only offers welcome space and respite to temporary visitors, but also an important retreat and habitat for nature.

Now, protected areas to encourage rare bird species help to enliven the former industrial wasteland. The latest addition to the landscape: a flock of sheep, grazing among New York City’s skyscrapers.

Close-up of Brooklyn Bridge
The park’s popularity is through the roof.
Photo: Etienne Frossard

A park for everyone

In 2002, acting mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a memorandum for 150 million dollars, charging the non-profit Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation with the task to turn the new park into a self-financing project, with 80 percent of the area earmarked for park-only use.

And while many Asian or European cities boast plenty of privately initiated parks, the Brooklyn Bridge Park concept is still a world apart: Here, the people who use the park have a say and hand in its design.

Not just on paper, the outcome is a place for everyone. “This park is one of the most beautiful scenes in Brooklyn,” states Rachel Rosenfelt, creative director at US publisher Verso Books.

“There’s nothing like sitting below the bridge as it launches across the water to Manhattan, with water lapping up the shore and children playing on the carousel. Most people there are workers on their lunch breaks, so I always get the feeling of a shared sense of relief and serenity when I steal away from the computer screen and take in the beauty of the city.”

 

People relaxing in Brooklyn Bridge Park
Relaxing with a view.
Photo: Etienne Frossard

A sought-after space

The sense of community and varied mix of visitors definitely enriches the way people interact and live together. Yet it takes frequent and ever-new negotiations between the stakeholders involved – residents, visitors, operators, politicians, and investors – to get the delicate balance right.

In a major metropolis like New York City, urban space is at a premium – and accordingly sought-after.

Since the people behind it all need to raise 16 million dollars for the park’s upkeep and day-to-day operations, the obvious solution was to turn an area around Pier 6 into a real estate development – which turned out to be controversial.

While investors dream of luxury apartments, visitors and local argue for keeping the park accessible and not giving preference to wealthy tenants.

Plans for social housing compete with plans by the One Brooklyn Bridge Park society that promises “best prospects” for both residents and investors. New York City’s current mayor, Bill de Blasio, has been trying to arbitrate between both sides ever since he took office.

This debate is exemplary of Brooklyn Bridge Park. It differs from most parks – since it belongs to the people.

A premise only made possible by the mega project, but success also breeds greed and desire. Especially, since construction is not quite finished and some facilities are scheduled to open to the public in the near future.

For this to work, however, politicians, residents, and investors alike need to stick to the premise of a truly public park: everyone gets to have their say. It’s a unique deal that underscores the special nature and quality of Brooklyn Bridge Park.

People sitting at the Brooklyn Bridge Park waterfront
The people’s park.
Photo: Julienne Schaer