PARKS AND RECREATION, B INSPIRED, SEPTEMBER 2018

Image courtesy of  B Inspired  

Image courtesy of B Inspired 

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If you spend time with New Yorkers – or want to live like a local when you visit – you can’t avoid the city’s parks. From T’ai Chi classes at sun-up to free concerts in the evenings, in New York, park life is a way of life. Katie Treggiden reports on the innovative green spaces shaping the city.

Fireflies fill the air as picnickers throw open their blankets and unpack their food to the sound of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra tuning up in Central Park. Cyclists and joggers circumnavigate the gathering crowds as the sun sets and the temperature drops. ‘I’m so happy to live in New York, just for this experience,’ says Koray Duman, principal of local architecture firm Büro Koray Duman, pushing his own bicycle as he speaks. Parks are the antidote to the chaos of the city that makes living here worthwhile. ‘You can step into Central Park and forget that you’re in one of the biggest cities in the world,’ says New York-based designer Brad Ascalon. ‘It is an 843-acre masterpiece.’ But although Central Park is the city’s most well-known green space, pioneering new developments like the High Line and Domino Park are jostling for top spot in the city’s park scene.

The High Line (opened in 2009 after local residents Joshua David and Robert Hammond met at a neighbourhood community meeting to discuss the future of the elevated railway) begins with a dramatic balcony overlooking Manhattan’s Meatpacking District and the recently relocated Whitney Museum. It meanders through the dappled shade of young trees and the 14th Street Passage to the sundeck, where adults relax on sliding sun loungers while children run barefoot, squealing with delight, through a stream just a few millimetres deep. A short stroll further is Chelsea Market Passage, which offers the rare opportunity to combine ice-cream sandwiches with the perusal of some serious works of art – the Friends of the High Line commission new installations every six months. Only the 10th Avenue Square and Overlook – an amphitheatre-like space with views up 10th Avenue to the north and over the Hudson River to the Statue of Liberty to the south – remind you that you are in one of the biggest cities in the world.

It’s an amazing feat when you realise that David and Hammond’s only aim in establishing the Friends of the High Line was to prevent it from being demolished. After a competition that received entries as disparate as a lane-swimming pool and a rollercoaster, landscape architect James Corner, architecture firm Diller Scofiluo + Renfeld and planting designer Piet Oudolf came up with plans for the linear park that now measures 1.45 miles and attracts over five million visitors a year. It took $187 million and three years to build, but thanks to property taxes from the accompanying surge in local development, the High Line is predicted to generate $1billion for the city over the next 20 years.

However, despite its popularity, its sizeable return on investment and the copycats appearing worldwide (the Seoullo 7017 in Seoul; Tokyo’s Log Road Daikanyama; and the Goods Line in Sydney, to name but a few), the High Line has come in for criticism. ‘The local community just didn’t come here,’ explains Duman. ‘When asked why, they said that they didn’t see other people who looked like them.’ Almost a third of local residents are people of colour, yet a City University of New York study found that visitors were ‘overwhelmingly white’ and tourists rather than locals. ‘We were from the community. We wanted to do it for the neighbourhood,’ said Robert Hammond in a 2017 interview with City Lab. ‘Ultimately, we failed.’ In their defence, Hammond and David totally underestimated the appeal of their venture, expecting no more than 300,000 visitors a year – and they are addressing the feedback with a much more diverse programme of more than 450 public activities a year. It’s working. The Tuesday morning T’ai Chi classes are popular with tourists and locals from all walks of life – all moving in slow, concentrated unison as the morning sun warms their faces. Landscape architect James Corner of Field Operations is applying the lessons learned to subsequent undertakings – such as Domino Park.

‘The treacle is coming,’ warns a wild-eyed child as he hurtles past at meteoric speed before crawling up a nearby tube slide. Artist Mark Reigelman’s playground at Domino Park casts children in the role of sugar, enabling them to propel themselves through series of constructions taken from the factory’s original layout and even painted in the same sugary colour palette. The riverside park is arranged along a similarly linear plot to the High Line, and as well as the playground, offers visitors a dog run, volley-ball and bocce ball courts, a lawn, a taco-bar and – judging from the wet clothes – a pretty unpredictable fountain courtyard.

‘We hired Field Operations because they did the High Line,’ says Dave Lombino, managing director of Two Trees – the development firm behind the regeneration of the six-acre Domino Sugar Refinery site. ‘From the outset, we wanted to do something that was representative of the community, where everyone would feel welcome, so we met with Rob Hammond, we listened, and we took note.’ Having acquired a site that spans a quarter of a mile of the East River bank in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg from another developer, they tore up the approved plans and asked what community really wanted. The result combines residential and commercial development in such a way as to preserve the original factory façade. ‘That mix brings a whole new energy,’ explains Lombino.

New plans also made the park more accessible by removing a steep slope and adding a public road alongside it, but Reigelman thinks the most important factor in its success is the sense of play. ‘My work has always been about improving public spaces,’ he explains. ‘But having seen the impact of this project, I might have to become a professional playground designer.’ He’s only half joking. On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, the results speak for themselves – the playground is teeming with children and, looking on from the side-lines, their parents and carers sit side by side. ‘Tourists, Dominican and Puerto Rican groups, the Hasidic Jewish community and white Americans all hang out together here,’ says Reigelman. ‘There are very few places in New York where that happens. And the grown-ups are just as willing to be playful here as the kids.’

The same fun-focused approach is being applied elsewhere as formerly industrial piers are turned into water-front leisure spaces for city-dwellers right around the edge of Manhattan – and then linked up with green spaces in between. Listed in Time Out New York Kids’ ‘25 Best Playgrounds in New York City,’ Pier 51 at Hudson River Park takes inspiration from its history too – the jungle gym references the White Fort once located nearby – but more importantly, children can soak themselves and each other with giant water gushers and buckets. ‘Don’t forget the towels,’ warns Time Out. Ironically, this development is part of a wider programme to turn the whole perimeter of Manhattan into one contiguous park as part of an improved flood defence scheme conceived in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. $335 million of public money has already been allocated to the ‘Big U’ – a flood barrier ‘disguised as a park’ extending 10 miles around the tip of Manhattan island. Soon, you really won’t be able to avoid New York’s green spaces, but with parks this good, why would you want to?

You can read this article online here.