Lessons from across the pond: What can we learn from New York?
I don’t know about you, but whenever I visit anywhere on holiday I usually spend some time pondering ‘could I live here’. The Big Apple of course provoked lots of these musings. But as I wandered around Manhattan and the ‘up and coming’ land of Brooklyn and Williamsburg, my opinion was massively influenced by my recently acquired ‘urban green infrastructure’ lens. As one of our most renowned worldwide cities, New York offers quite a mixture of highs and lows from this perspective. Yes, there are some lessons for our UK cities to take, but there are many it can learn from us too.
As you are no doubt aware, New York is the epitome of dense urban form; in the western world at least. From our Airbnb apartment, the elevated metro clattered past at 10-minute intervals throughout the day, blocking daylight and regularly reminding us where we were and how connected our Williamsburg home was, to buzzing Manhattan across the water. Heading out for a run on one or the mornings, this intensity was reinforced as I ran past block after block, pausing pretty much every 30 seconds to wait for the green man at another cross roads. I ended up running 4 km just to get to a green space where this could be avoided.
Much like Hyde Park, I fully understand why Central Park is so rammed with joggers, cyclists and tourists. It is a huge lung for the city, but there is so little green space beyond this. Washington, Tompkins, Union and Stuyvesant Square Parks, amongst others, provide some open space in Manhattan but they are not big, while over the East River, the options are even more limited. From my rooftop terrace, the views of Brooklyn were pretty bleak, lacking trees and greenery, with even children’s play equipment relegated to the roof top. I’m not looking for huge expanses of green either. Through our Urban Greenspace work, open space or greenery of all types, from pocket parks and gardens, to street trees and railway sidings allowed to green up, can provide vital health and community opportunities a city needs.
But having said all this there are several things that NY gets right. Co-location of greenspace uses was evident in every park we went in. In the McCarron Park in Williamsburg, there were baseball pitches and a running track, an unusually engaging children’s play area and designated dog park, skate ramps and an outdoor swimming pool, farmers market and buskers. No giant grass expanses with three football pitches and some springy chickens here.
But it was the all new Domino Park on the east banks of East River which really proved the importance of green space design in regeneration. This vibrant space was the first element of the wider regeneration of the Domino Sugar Refinery and has already had a huge impact on this site, driving visitors and interest in the wider regeneration scheme. I was blown away by how beautiful and varied the linear park was, embracing its heritage but also offering so much for so many different types of visitors. I would even go so far as to say it was better than the Highline – perhaps a victim of its own success? But fundamentally, it demonstrated the importance of greenspace when we are delivering new city propositions, driving interest and intrigue across a long- term regeneration scheme, opening up the riverside, celebrating the heritage within the site, providing views and access to a significant construction project, and I don’t doubt delivering much interest and, in time, strong sales.
Our urban greenspace valuation tool – newly rebranded ‘Greenkeeper’ this week – is now six months into its development but is already looking promising in terms of its ability to clearly demonstrate this value from an economic, social and environmental perspective. Understanding but also comprehensively demonstrating the worth of greenspace is vital for ensuring it is delivered within our cities and personally, I’m really hopeful that Greenkeeper will soon be something New York can ‘learn’ from us!
Author: Jenni Montgomery