Gowanus Lounge: Serving Brooklyn

Urban Environmentalist NYC: Q&A on City of Water with Jasper Goldman

December 18th, 2008 · No Comments

The Center for the Urban Environment (CUE) had an opportunity to speak with Jasper Goldman, Senior Policy Analyst at the Municipal Art Society of New York, about the film City of Water and the future of our waterfront. To learn more about the subject, come and see the compelling new documentary by the Municipal Art Society and Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance at CUE’s Third Thursdays on December 18th (today). It will happen at 6pm @ CUE (168 7 Street, Brooklyn, NY). Call 718.788.8500 x263 or email rwelch@bcue.org for more info

Q: What’s your most compelling vision for the waterfront and what are the greatest impediments to its realization?

A: Our hope is that the waterfront becomes increasingly diverse and exciting. A place that serves many different functions at once – a place for living and recreation; a part of our economy; a part of our transportation infrastructure; an integral part of the port of New York and New Jersey; a place of nature; and perhaps most importantly, an active, exciting place to be. Too much waterfront development in NYC creates places that are frankly boring and somewhat homogeneous. We have to reverse that trend. I think the biggest impediment is a lack of imagination that infects our planning process right now…So as a city, I think we need to think much harder about how to create a great waterfront and look very carefully at what other cities have been able to achieve.

Q: Has the economy changed the dynamic–-making this less or more of a political moment to open the waterways to the people of New York City?

A: The economic crisis is obviously slowing down, even halting, the pace of development. On the one hand, that means some of the waterfront development that is slated to happen will be delayed, and that the waterfront access that might have come with that development will also be delayed. On the other hand, so much waterfront development has been mediocre or developed without thinking through the overall planning “big picture,” that I think the delay gives us a respite to really think through how we want to develop the waterfront – and get it right.

Q: City of Water talks a lot about “waterfront access” and “water access,” can you explain the difference?

That’s a great question. Waterfront access is access to the waterfront. Water access is access to the water itself – ferry landings, boat docks, “get-downs,” fishing piers, places where you can actually touch the water. If you walk along the Manhattan waterfront, a lot of the waterfront is now accessible but there are very few places where you can actually touch the water – and that’s a huge shame because it’s only when we actually engage with the water itself that we truly take advantage of our waterfront. So communities and planners need to think hard about how to redesign waterfronts to really include ways of actually getting in touch with the water itself and not treating it as a visual amenity only. As somebody says in the movie, we have more “open space” in the form of our waterways than we do parks and plazas in New York. So the key is to make sure that we can access it in as many places as possible.

Q: What’s the best way to preserve the diversity of waterfront use, particularly in terms of the balance between residential development and industrial preservation?

A: It’s basically a question of good planning. We need to really look at the big picture, and not look at sites on an individual basis in a vacuum. We need to figure out what areas of the waterfront are critical for the functioning of our working waterfront and the port; which areas are critical for our industrial jobs; etc. We need to protect those areas, which are critical for the city’s future and economy. One example of where we have failed as a city to do that was the graving dock in Red Hook. This was an essential ship repair facility – there’s a wait for ship repairs in New York that’s about two years apparently – and we let it get paved over for a parking lot for IKEA. Obviously we have to avoid making those kind of mistakes and maintain the balance in the waterfront.

Q: People talk about the importance of integrating the dynamism of city streets into waterfront access—what places do that most successfully now?

A: My favorite part of the waterfront is in DUMBO. I love the fact that you have a park – Brooklyn Bridge Park – where you can actually touch the water and wade in. The preservation of historic buildings there like the Tobacco Warehouse is also terrific. Best of all, you have several entrepreneurs doing creative things right at the edge – BargeMusic’s concerts; the River Cafe; Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory etc. And last summer, we had the floating pool come in, which was a huge success. So I think all those things make that piece of the waterfront an exciting place to be and in many ways a great model of waterfront development / use for the rest of New York City. I also love the adaptive reuse of historic buildings in Red Hook – the Fairway Supermarket, and the artisan’s businesses. Again, it has the diversity of uses that make it an interesting, dynamic place to be.

Q: What do you think of the idea as water as our city’s wilderness, as some say—and is building nature into the waterfront on the radar of key stakeholders in the next decade?

A: I love the idea of the waterfront as our wilderness! Some of my favorite moments in New York City have come in places like the Gowanus Canal, Newtown Creek, the Bronx River, College Point and Silver Beach – all of which seemed to me at the time to have an undiscovered quality that made them exciting to visit. I’d recommend visiting those and other places to all urban adventurers out there – especially from the water itself!

As for building nature into the waterfront, this is incredibly important. Engineers and developers like building concrete walls at the water’s edge that are really anaethma to any kind of marine and animal life – from oysters to birds. I think most New Yorkers gain a real karmic well-being from seeing and experiencing nature within the city, and developing the waterfront so we facilitate that is important. I think key stakeholders are starting to grasp it, and some of them, like the New York City Parks Department – are ahead of the curve; but we still need to raise awareness generally of how important this issue is.

Q: Compared to other major big cities of water, how is the city faring in term of access—and what can it learn from its national and global neighbors?

A: Overall, NYC is somewhat behind other cities in terms of redeveloping our waterfront. On the one hand, that’s a bad thing because less of our waterfront is accessible than it should be. But it also gives us an opportunity to learn from other cities – some of which frankly do a better job of using and developing their waterfronts than we do. For example, Rotterdam has figured out how to redevelop their waterfronts with the kind of small-scale development that fosters diversity, activity, and opportunities for local businesses. We can learn a lot from that in New York; too much of our development is on enormous parcels that become quite sterile just because of how large the scale of development is.

Rotterdam has also figured out how to balance the working waterfront with pedestrian access – there are places you can go to where you can see ships docking, unloading cargo and so forth. There’s almost nowhere you can do in New York City. Of course, Rotterdam is just one example. There are thousands of places we can learn from. But we have to decide first as a city that we want to learn from these places and that we need better, more creative waterfront development in New York City. That’s really the first step. We can’t just leave this to the professionals; as citizens we need to be actively involved in pushing architects, planners and government officials for better waterfront development. Ultimately we’ll get the waterfront we deserve.

One way to get involved is to get active with whatever your local waterfront organization – visit the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance’s website www.waterfrontalliance.org for more information about some of the groups. The real key though is to “get wet” – start kayaking, canoeing, even swimming. Once you’ve actually touched the water of the New York Harbor, you’re much more likely to care about it and get involved in its future. And if enough citizens do that we’ll have a great waterfront.

(Interview conducted by Rebeccah Welch, Senior Associate Director of Communications at the Center for the Urban Environment. As a guide to a more sustainable New York City, the Center is dedicated to educating individuals about the built and natural environments. For more about our work visit www.thecue.org.)

Tags: Urban Environmentalist