This harsh winter seems sure to linger in New York City past the official first day of spring on March 20, and we will likely have a few more weeks to see things in our newest naturalistic City parks and gardens that might go unnoticed in growing season. First up is this little park by famed designer, James Corner, that sits so unassumingly on the edge of an ancient estuary, yet manages to raise complex 21st century questions.
In coming weeks, before things get too busy outside, we will also talk with Darrel Morrison about the deep structure of his recent additions to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s Native Flora Garden, and visit the New York Botanical Garden’s newest big attraction by the team at Oehme, van Sweden and Associates. Thank you for your interest so far in this off-season experiment. -- Harry Wade for Grounded Design
Time + Space = Place
Here, a thousand years or more before the first Europeans sped up what is now the Hudson River on their way to India, a small estuary thrived where an easterly tangent of the river met a tidal strait at the northern tip of today’s Manhattan.
The Munsee tribe of the Lenape people lived among these waters. At low tide, they could walk across the mudflat from the mainland to their Manhattan village, Shorakkopoch. They shared the estuary for work and play – harvesting oysters, clams and crabs; using intricately woven reed weirs to trap striped bass and bluefish as the tide ebbed. Skilled small boaters, the Lenape would paddle almost silently and low in the water, face-to-face with the estuary’s flora and fauna.
Estuaries like this have always been among the most fertile areas on the planet. The daily ebb and flow of both sea and fresh water deposits a unique blend of nutrients and diverse species, without high salinity levels. For this particular estuary, the hills that sloped gently down to the water’s edge added further nutrients I runoff from the rich topsoil. The hills also protected the cove from storms, allowing the Lenape to hunt the densely wooded hills of Liriodendron tulipifera and Quercus rubra right down to the water, where they fished and farmed in gentle turn.
This setting, with its natural forces in balance with modest cultivation, may seem like an unlikely site for the British landscape architect and urban planner, James Corner, whose highly aesthetic tableaux of seminatural forces at work upon one another have become iconic of ecological urban design. But here sits Corner’s newest park – also New York City’s newest – on the edge of Manhattan’s last remaining estuary, in the shadows of the City’s last original growth trees.
What is it about this site that has brought the team from James Corner Field Operations 11 miles uptown from The High Line, one of the City’s proudest parks today? What does his eye for urban decay and reclamation see here?
|From left: The overgrown elevated train track platform in lower Manhattan before restoration and reconstruction began on The High Line in 2006; The High Line today. Source: Friends of The High Line|
The answer is a centuries-long story, every chapter of which can be read from any of the irregularly placed benches along the new park’s path.
To start, about two and a half centuries after the Lenape were driven out of the area, much of the surrounding mudflat was dredged to create the Harlem River Shipping Canal, technically making Manhattan an island for the first time and providing a shortcut for commerce. Bigger ships soon made the canal worthless, but here it remains, flanked by giant sheer cliffs of a local bedrock called Inwood Marble, exposed by the excavation.
The Harlem River Shipping Canal, Source: Harper's Weekly, February 16, 1895. Illustration by Al. Hencke
By the early 20th century, other small boaters worked these modernized waters. Columbia University’s collegiate crew team adopted the cove and an old boathouse was moved here in the 1930s for them, just a few yards from where the Lenape legendarily sold Manhattan to opportunistic Dutch settlers who, conceivably, could have included some of the crew team’s ancestors. Crew practice and village life are worlds apart, but then again, aren’t they similarly pragmatic kinds of activities, tied to getting things done, succeeding or failing because of the mood of the estuary on any given day?
Columbia University’s Gould-Remmer Boathouse,
in use since the 1930’s. Source: Pacman
Around the same time that the boathouse went in, the Henry Hudson Bridge (designed by David B. Steinman, 1936) opened up Manhattan’s far north side, framing the view from the estuary of the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades with the longest single-span of its time. It is an arc reflected in the nearby Inwood Hill Park hillside and Corner’s paths through Muscota.
Graceful though the bridge is, there are many distractions in the same eyeful. The odd battle of the blues, for instance: the peculiar blue gray of the bridge – close but not close enough to the blue of ‘C Rock,’ a sanctioned piece of graffiti first painted by those school-spirited Columbia boatmen in the 1950's on the cliff across from the boathouse – crowned by a 1960’s squat residential high rise they even call “The Blue Building.”
The Henry Hudson Bridge seen from Muscota Marsh Park, summer 2013. Source: inhabitat New York City
Which blue came first and why the others mismatched it so jarringly is a multi-generational mystery. But they all somehow combine with the hodgepodge of surrounding residential architecture of Deco to Brutal design, and with the invasive undergrowth that fills the untended edges of both shorelines, and of course the tidal garbage along the remaining mudflat at low tide.
Henry Hudson Bridge, “C Rock” and “The Blue Building,” winter 2014. Source: H. Wade
A Park on the Edge
From left: Muscota Marsh Park waterfront, winter 2014; designer’s rendering, 2012. Sources: H. Wade; James Corner Field Operations
“Muscota” is the Lenape word for “meadow by the water,” or “where the reeds grow,” and the new park includes a 350’ stretch of estuary waterfront, along with a boat dock extending out over the mudflat to the edge of the shipping canal.
Part of Columbia’s Baker Athletic Center, Muscota Marsh Park is a modest one-acre arc, subtly framed by Corner’s signature sleek industrial hardscape lines and biomorphic paths and beds. These sharp edges manage to counterpoint the complexity of the plantings and ecological water management systems at the center of the park, taking visitors on a short but leisurely walk along the water.
In fact, there are two separate water management systems that unapologetically take center stage within this park. The first is a three-tiered storm water runoff collection and filtration system that manages runoff from the higher zones of the park, and the second is a restored section of the salt marsh. Honest concrete weirs capture receding tides to maintain a constant low water level, reflecting back to the woven weirs once used in the same place to capture fish.
From left: Muscota Marsh Park tidal weirs, winter 2014; designer’s rendering of mixed planting zone, 2012. Sources: H. Wade; James Corner Field Operations
The fresh water wetland and salt marsh are especially vulnerable to birds that feed heavily in the area, so the zones are protected with a network of lines and the full impact of the plantings will have to wait for another year or more. When fully established, a gradient of plantings from aquatic to upland species tolerating temporary inundation will restore the area to Lenape lushness. The planting includes assorted sedges, rushes, cordgrass and their relatives (Carex pensylvanica, C. comosa, C. crinita, C. stricta, C. vulpinoidea, Juncus canadensis, J. militaris, J. effusus, Spartina patens, S alternifolia, and Scirpus tabernaemontanii).
Making their appearance sooner will be a few subtle plantings in the park’s drier zones – the blueberry look-alike, Black Huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) and the Arum-esque Lizard Tail (Saururus cernuus). And late this summer will hopefully bring Corner’s unusual use of the commonly resisted Baccharis halimifolia, creatively used as a screening hedge.
Karen Tamir, Senior Associate with James Corner Field Operations, has managed the Muscota design and development from the beginning and told me that the park’s ecological components make it especially reliant on short- and long-term management, which is shared by Columbia and the New York Parks Department.
“The restoration of the salt marsh has the potential to support new and returning plant species, new nesting opportunities, a thriving biomass. The systems are straightforward but delicate, especially for a park that will also support public recreation, educational programs, and the University’s own uses. Everything collides, so it is an especially compelling balancing act,” Karen explains.
Ecological restoration probably always comes into conflict with the logistics of human enjoyment, especially when it is on a large public scale. But this is not a flaw. At least in design that articulates the tension as well as Muscota does, a kind of implicit respect and cohabitation can emerge. This is part of Muscota’s repose, a calm that has already made it popular only weeks after opening in the dead of a very hard winter.
Much else contributes to the park’s charms, even within such a crowded urban space. Ice flows carried by the near constant tidal flow of the shipping canal highlight the contrast of water textures where the tide meets the calm of the estuary a few yards off shore. Except for lowest tide, the estuary combines the mystery of depth with the calm of shallows.
From left: Muscota Marsh Park as the estuary meets Harlem River shipping canal; woodland zone, winter 2014. Source: H. Wade
Turning inland, the historic boathouse and stonewall that separates Muscota from the street beyond will soon become a richly shaded hill of mixed ferns (Woodwardia virginica, Onoclea sensibillis, Athyrium filix-femina and Dryopteris cristata) and other woodland favorites. Preexisting mosses (unidentifiable in the winter) will cover the permanently weeping stonewall, making this area a very different experience of water and shelter than the estuary, just feet away.
An Edge to the Park
Muscota Marsh Park, winter 2014. Source: H. Wade
While water access can be part of the comfort of the place, it can also just as quickly disarm, and Corner’s design for Muscota engages both experiences, putting them in the larger context of contemporary City life in provocative ways.
Here’s the thing: The vast majority of waterway access in the City is gated for private boating and other high-priced sport. There are many opportunities to stand at a respectful distance and smell the salt water, but a generation or more of middle class New Yorkers has grown up with a vaguely illicit relationship with their water. The rivers and harbor feel slightly taboo and renegade – not an entirely unenjoyable experience if you’re willing to sneak down to the water’s edge at any of the hidden, overgrown and mostly illegal spots around the City.
A growing and empowered paddle sport community in and around the City is trying to clean up this stigma. Many of these organizations are part of the Metropolitan Waterways Alliance, a broader network of over 780 organizations working on waterfront issues to make more “places in New York where you can skip a stone from time to time,” or so MWA President and Chief Executive Officer, Roland Lewis, told me. “We’re far from being a Vancouver, with its spiritual connection to water, but we’re moving in the right direction, and education efforts today will mean a very different City waterway 20 years from now.”
Muscota is an elegant little microcosm of this City waterfront dynamic. At another level too, the park engages controversy. Here, “mixed use” takes on near-political intensity. Never mind the unspoken College-versus-neighborhood drama that has unfolded here, as Columbia borders Inwood. The park tells you everything you need to know about the standoff:
College crew teams literally– but politely – elbow out park visitors for access to the dock where they have launched their boats for decades. It is an alluring dock, perhaps evoking the ancient mudflat that once connected Manhattan to the mainland. But it’s a locked gate away for Muscota visitors.
|Muscota Marsh Park dock, winter 2014. Source: H. Wade|
This cramped quality is an undeniable and dynamic part of visiting Muscota. The place exists along fault lines in the City’s economic divide, sparking tensions of entitlement and disenfranchisement that are right at the heart of a City whose public/private boundaries have always been livewires.
Increasingly though, these partnerships, Muscota included, seem like the wave of the future for City parks –The near future. Projects like Latz + Partner’s Landschaftspark (1991) in Duisburg Nord, Germany, have made the ecological reclamation of abandoned, once private urban places a foundational concept for contemporary design, though the City is shortening the evolutionary timeline by putting currently active private enterprise to public recreational use now.
Other partnerships like this include the Sims Municipal Recycling Facility (Selldorf Architects, 2013) at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park, a very heavy industry space that has also been opened up for public access and education on recycling and environmental enhancements. Also, the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant is the largest sewage treatment facility for the City and supports an active community nature trail (George Trakas, 2010), docking facilities and more environmental education programs.
In this respect, Muscota is the most picturesque and modest of public/private parks. Yet none of those seemingly more complicated partnerships creates as much insightful stress as Muscota.
Muscota Marsh Park site aerial view, 2013. Source: Pacman online collection
Sandy hit Muscota when it was still in early stages of development and delayed its opening by months, though it survived nicely. Still, Karen Tamir, who is also on James Corner Field Operations teams designing a number of other urban waterfront projects, told me that design for these sites is definitely becoming more complex because of the changing climate.
“Developers definitely want to ‘lift up,’ which can undermine waterfront experience. A surge in early 21st century zoning changes in the City now requires things to be much more precise, and that may mean that fewer projects will be realized,” according to Karen. Still, highly ambitious projects advance, including James Corner’s landscape design for some areas of the ambitious Cornell University tech campus on Roosevelt Island. Karen adds, “Even so, New York City is such a vibrant community and waterfronts today are crying out for more variety in design. That’s the real demand today – variety, even if competing pressures make it more challenging.”
Her observations suggest an important question about waterfronts today, for designers and all other island people alike. As weather and changing tidal dynamics become more apparent, will waterside areas like Muscota become more precious to us, worth whatever additional effort and expense may become necessary? Or will we eventually desert these places for higher ground, just as our ancestors have often done before in times of disease or flood or noisy industrial competition?
There is probably an instinctive drive for both – to flee water and to linger there to protect it. Perhaps this is part of what make muscotas so compelling across the world and throughout history. They are among the most prized human habitats of our planet, simply too fertile and strategic to be left alone for long. And for the same reasons, they are among the most changing and vulnerable areas today.
By intent or not, Muscota Marsh Park puts itself in the middle of this ambivalence, creating a place that is vulnerable to the same forces of culture and nature that have shaped this place for millennia – extremes of tide and runoff, water quality, species ebb and flow, and overt and subtle violence based on property.
The park asks us to consider our own experiences of urban nature in transition. It offers no clear answers but seems to suggest that the future of such places will have to include practical ecological action, but also modesty and tolerance of others.
Most valuable of all, Muscota Marsh Park offers a place to become more conscious of the complexity of the water’s edge. --Harry Wade
Muscota Marsh Park, winter 2014. Source: H. Wade
Special thanks are due to Karen Tamir of James Corner Field Operations, and Roland Lewis and Andrew Krochalk of the Metropolitan Waterways Alliance, for their conversations and reviews.
A fascinating essay, but one that leaves me feeling a little depressed. The competing uses and interests are city life in microcosm, but as a New York City dweller, I tire of engaging in the necessary compromises (not to mention the challenges of climate change and rising water levels). I admit the park is an interesting experiment, but I may not want to participate.ReplyDelete
I agree, a project like Muscota certainly does not exude the kind of optimism that the Highline does (a meadow in the sky!). Too many constraints, a highly volatile ecosystem, and the layers of history all combine to create a project that is complex and by necessity, compromised.
So while little in the project is emotionally satisfying, I do think it is intellectually engaging, especially as Harry has framed it. Here you have a place that 400 years ago was a biophilic magnet. Life overflowed from this little cove. And then it was transformed into an economic artery--another sort of life-giving source for the City. And now it resides culturally at the margins, yet entirely valuable for a myriad of ecological, economic, and human reasons.
This well written conclusion leaves me with a few questions: "The park asks us to consider our own experiences of urban nature in transition. It offers no clear answers but seems to suggest that the future of such places will have to include practical ecological action, but also modesty and tolerance of others."
Do you think a project like this be less modest? Would a bolder design--perhaps entirely re-shaping the topography and expanding both the ecological and recreational potential--have been a better approach? Less question marks, more exclamation points. Perhaps the future demands less modesty and more robust intervention. I don't know.
Thomas, you make a good point of comparison between Muscota Marsh Park and The High Line. One is the City’s gift to itself for overcoming hard times in a deserted industrial neighborhood, and that the restoration was largely accomplished during our own generation’s Great Recession makes The High Line a celebration twice over. Muscota is about a much slower recovery and its mood is still tentative.ReplyDelete
But James, I assure you that Muscota has joys of its own. When its unconventional use of rarely seen native species is fully realized in a year or so, it will be a joyful place to see plants. It also offers a view of one of the last great, unexposed corners of New York City, which is worth the price of a subway ride in itself. Muscota may not give traditional park pleasure easily, but every time I walk by – even during this freezing winter – I see people who clearly find something deeply rewarding there.
If you do make to Muscota, please let us know what you think.
Thomas and Harry, my comment says more about my state of mind, at the moment, than about Muscota Marsh Park. I do not mean to dismiss the part, and I'll look forward to seeing it (but perhaps in warmer weather). Harry, I remember some indication that you might take groups for a critical view of the parks you're writing about this winter. That certainly would be of interest.ReplyDelete
James: A fairer weather visit to Muscota Marsh Park in the "upstate Manhattan" neighborhood of Inwood is a terrific idea. I will be in touch with specific options as things warm up a bit.Delete
And if anyone else is interested, please reply to this threat and I will keep you posted.
For now, enjoy the last of winter!
I'm an interesed out-of-towner who will be in NYC 4/ 24 - 4/27 (late afternoon on 4/24) in case something happens then?!Delete
I've read about this park previously and will visit when next there even if no tour. It's not clear to me how much the "neighbors" besides Columbia students and rowers can have access to the water. (I see the dock is gated.) But, as I'm sure you are aware and as Lynden Miller has advocated from her park development experience, the more people in the neighborhood can feel involved in their community parks and take ownership, the more successful they are, Miller established successful park in upper, Manhattan neighborhood at a time when people said that particular neighborhood wouldn't appreciate it -- i.e., they would trash it. And they didn't because they grew to feel it was "theirs" and became proud of it through their own involvement. If tour in the offing would love to know. Txs.
Gentlemen - a typo, I believe:ReplyDelete
For this particular estuary, the hills that sloped gently down to the water’s edge added further nutrients I runoff from the rich topsoil.
Thank you for perhaps the most thoughtful article I have a read on the Muscota Marsh. Having swum in the trouble waters that surrounded this project as a public space advocate, I certainly can relate to the livewires, tensions and tepid comments. I think most people will be pleased by the new park’s environmental sensitivity and natural tapered access to the water and if it is anything like the natural patches in the Hudson River Park (hopefully they are still there!) will find it to be a sensorial delight. That said in the spirit of getting things right for future parks and public space partnerships, there is value in assessing its shortcomings. Its design was not informed by the needs and aspirations of the community. As a result its programmatic potential, its “use” factor, for the community is significantly foreclosed. Without consideration to upland access, such as basic amenities and infrastructure necessary to support diverse activities that serve and enrich the community, we are left with largely a passive experience, not too different from what we already have.ReplyDelete
So the terms “public recreation” and “educational programming” at least as it applies to Muscota Marsh should be qualified. Currently the recreational opportunities afforded by the site assume residents will lug a 15’ kayak from their apartment, put it on their roof rack, and launch it from the dock, which in all fairness does not reflect the realities of life for the vast majority of people. The prospects of a shipping container remain but funding and the space to put it are in question. But even that, a locked box, serving a few, are inadequate for community stewards looking to host school programs and really open doors. So the education that Roland Lewis of Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance talks about is a better understanding of the needs and realities of meaningful water access in order to have a vibrant, usable, equitable, waterfront.
That said best practices to guide design exist. The boathouse at Pier 66 in Hudson River Park supports multiple organizations, for and nonprofit, providing diverse activities that ranges from free to affordable. The space is welcoming and buzzing three of the four seasons. Vancouver, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and other cities are increasingly designing parks to harness the creative programmatic energies of the community recognizing the long-term social and economic value. In addition to passive use, ball fields, and play grounds, the community wants to roll its sleeves as stewards of their open space, whether it’s in the form of on-water team building with local schools, on-water rehabilitation programs with hospitals, citizen science efforts, hydroponics and aquaponics, salt marsh restoration, etc. Facilitating this level of participation requires flexible, cheap, interim infrastructural solutions and welcoming agencies open to community-driven place-making.
Since it is doubtful that these progressive social energies are going away, it behooves park planners, policy makers and public spaces partners, to adopt designs and strategies that open doors for the community and encourage our shared responsibilities. Hopefully, as we wait for the day when community stewardship is the policy and not the exception, we can find incremental solutions to expand programmatic opportunities in and around Muscota Marsh.
Thank you again and I look forward to reading more of your articles.
Roger: Thank you for one of the many compelling reasons why New York City waterfronts are changing. Greater community use of the water should be as much of a priority for Citywide planning as, say, driver rights and architectural landmark preservation, maybe even more. And to my eyes as a City resident, the efforts of advocates like you are at least making this priority a necessary consideration in new park design, even if it doesn’t always result in improvement.Delete
The Citywide importance of greater waterway function does not mean that every new park must prioritize it, I think. There is still room for small parks focused on one or two other causes, like development of plant and animal habitats and richness of land-bound experience. I think that it is still too early to decide whether Roland Lewis’ optimism for education about these uses of Muscota are justified, but my understanding is that both stewards of the park, Columbia University and the City Parks Department, plan tours and lectures.
And importantly, citizens have responsibility to turn a park into a learning experience too, so neighbors and I will be active on that front. It also looks like Upstate Manhattan Resident, below, is on board for making sure we all play our role in realizing Muscota’s fullest potential. Thanks, UMR.
One last valid priority for any City park is escapism from the surrounding work world. It is a small version of the historical need for carnivals – regular and finite opportunities to turn daily pressures on their heads, free-associate, meditate, consider things not directly related to the rest of the world – whatever helps us refresh ourselves and get back to work. This function is just as concrete and important as anything else a park can do, and I think Muscota has the potential of succeeding.
I give you this: Muscota’s unique access to a protected cove demands more accommodation for public boating and other water-touching. So count me in on any efforts to develop that side of the park.
Terrific Harry. Please feel free to contact me - and anyone else here - at email@example.com as we are committed to bringing community-driven stewardship of our public spaces including Muscota Marsh. Your ideas on the subject are very welcome.Delete
great view...nice looking this very wonderful blogReplyDelete
Terrific article, and the most thoughtful yet on the design. We are all waiting to see how it looks when the plantings mature this spring and summer, having only seen a bare construction site for the last few years.ReplyDelete
Per the Baker Field Agreement (http://www.columbia.edu/files/columbia/content/baker-field-agreement.pdf), the dock is indeed now open to the city for public use, so those gate may be unlocked once warm weather comes.
The park is very small from a practical point of view, and as pointed out above mostly for passive use, but it is still a welcome flourish to a very under-financed and under-maintained large park nonetheless.
If you come to visit in the summer, a suggested architecture/landscape itinerary:
- 1 train to 215th St. Marvel at the raw power of automotive-based C8-3 zoning, but if you look hard you will see the Seaman Arch hiding in the background:
- Head over to Steven Holl's Campbell Center at W218 and Broadway.
- Continuing west along W218th, stop at Indian Road Cafe across from Muscota Marsh for some goodies to consume while sitting on park benches
- After the marsh, do a loop of the old Gaelic Field in Inwood Hill Park to find the Shorakkopoch Rock with its plaque on the sale of Manhattan
- If you have time, climb the twisting trails of Inwood Hill Park to the overlook. You will be surrounded by nothing but trees, failed dreams of 1930s WPA projects (in the form of abandoned lampposts and overgrown lookouts) and the hidden foundations of former summer estates. http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_about/parks_divisions/nrg/forever_wild/pdf/fw-trailmap-38.pdf
- Work you way back east and walk up the W214th step street, then north on Park Terrace West, to W217th St. This is one of Manhattan's few clusters of houses. (Not brownstones. Houses, with gardens and in one case actual lawn.)
- South on Park Terrace East to Isham Park, the predecessor to Inwood Hill Park and one of Manhattan's most pleasant
- Down the steps at Isham Park will put you at the entrance to the A stop for 207th St and the ride home.