Rising Currents and Open Piers

On Monday the first section of Brooklyn Bridge Park, Pier 1, opened to the public, and on Wednesday the exhibition Rising Currents: Projects for New York's Waterfront opened at MoMA. The first is a six-acre portion of an 85-acre park that stretches from roughly Atlantic Avenue on the south to the Brooklyn Bridge on the north (see interactive map) along the East River. The second consists of artists-in-residence at P.S.1 addressing the challenge of sea levels rising from global climate change. So how do we reconcile these apparently opposite ways of thinking about New York's waterfront, when issues of public space (short term) and eco-sustainability (long term) are both seen as important?

[Brooklyn Bridge Park Opening | image source

Brooklyn Bridge Park is the result of a post-industrial landscape shaped by storage and shipping. The park can be seen as the successor to the warehouses that lasted about a century. But if predictions for rising water levels come true, the waterfront's use as a park would have an even shorter lifespan. The Brooklyn Height Promenade overlooking the park will be okay, but the playgrounds and other features designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh would become submerged by the East River. But can lessons from the MoMA exhibition be applied to the design before it's complete? Or will infrastructure addressing rising waters address this and other stretches of New York City shoreline?

[Rising Currents Zones | image source

Brooklyn Bridge Park sits just north of Zone 4 above, to the right of Zone 0. These and the other zones correspond to the teams developing suitable responses for each; all are based on research by Guy Nordenson and others for Palisades Bay, the New York/New Jersey Upper Bay area. All the responses run counter the traditional, muscular ways of dealing with this sort of infrastructure, i.e. the levees of New Orleans. Holding back the rising currents is not the name of the game. Instead learning from nature's processes and utilizing "soft" infrastructure are the means of exploration for the different contexts. So how does public space, especially that alongside the city's waterways, change as we move forward? A post at the MoMA exhibition blog by NYC Parks & Rec Commissioner Adrian Benepe starts to address this issue:
"the proposals represent some innovative ways to create new realms of public space, places that are not traditional parks, but rather are flexible zones of water and land and plants and animals. We currently tend to look at parks as distinct from other urban forms, with fences, walls, planted buffers— different vocabularies of building materials. While each team has proposed concepts very different from the others, they all redefine the interaction of streets, parks, seawalls, canals, piers, and even the harbor itself."
So Brooklyn Bridge Park's interaction with the East River would then be the logical place for addressing a rise in the water level. The hard edge of Pier 1 may give way to a soft zone that allows the rising waters to be dealt with in some manner besides holding it back. If one thing is clear from the exhibition, New York City's solutions to rising sea levels will be a combination of approaches implemented in a multitude of areas. There is no single fix for one area; and even if there were, the ignorance of other shorelines and the interdependence of them all is irresponsible. We'll see if the exhibition shapes Brooklyn Bridge and other NYC park projects as talk about rising sea levels moves from conviction that it is a problem to practical solutions for the future.


  1. Stony Brook University engineering dept. did some in-ground testing of ash leftover from power generation, formed into blocks (cinder-blocks) and found that after 10 years there was no adverse effects to the soil surrounding them. One of the suggestions for the recycled materials was as a cheap way to mediate rising sea levels. Escape from New York?

  2. I think the architectural design of Brooklyn Bridge Park has to see some improvements to address the issue of the rising waters. It would be such a waste if such a beautiful infrastructure were to be hidden by the issue of rising waters which is not a one time problem but could occur a few times unexpectedly. There goes the chance for future generations to see the storage and shipping horizon.


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