New York City’s Best Sustainable Parks

I knew this post was coming… I’ve had an increasing sense of nostalgia about my visit to NYC a few years ago and I need to purge.

I occupy a fascinating place in our industry in that I sit somewhere between architecture and engineering [in the old old days they used to be one in the same] – an architect by background, experienced in designing public places and assessing green buildings, and now immersed in consulting for sustainable buildings and community infrastructure. And I still feel that our industry celebrates our green buildings with only a secondary thought for the sustainability of the spaces between.

This culture is clearly changing and maturing, but part of my mission is to give it a little nudge along… if we don’t get good at creating sustainable and loved public places we’ll end up with high performance wastelands [what example just popped into your head?]

I was lucky enough to score 10 days in the Big Apple in 2010, and I was shocked. Shocked by how multi-layered, cultured and vibrant NYC is. I suppose I’d been conditioned by the media to expect something less, so my expectations were exceeded within a few hours of landing.

There are lots of surveys and polls around, but I have my own list of favourite public places & parks in NYC, and I’d like to share just a few of them. These are in order of the walk from Central Park down to Battery Park [sort of], with some brief notes on how they contribute to a sustainable community; [Note: most image sources are hotlinked through the image]

  1. Central Park; the green heart of NYC. Richly detailed, full of history, old trees, art and sculpture. Connects a bunch of attractions such as the Guggenheim, MOMA, Museum of Natural History & Hayden Planetarium, and Strawberry Fields to name but a few. This is NYC’s front and back yard and counterbalances the high density urban environment around it. Here I taught my wife to play chess in the Central Park Chess House. Priceless.The Central Park New York City_4
  2. Bryant Park; W42nd-5th Ave junction. A vibrant mini-version of central park, with hundreds of deck chairs, sports, rich flower gardens and high quality street furniture and finishes. This park really ebbs and flows with the seasons, including ice skating in winter. A great example of multi-layered community activities, interaction and people watching. 02 - Yoga - Photo by Bryant Park Corporation
  3. Madison Square Park; with the Flatiron building as a bookend, this is where I started to discover the sustainability programs underway in NYC at the time – cool public displays, sculptures, built examples of living sustainably. This park is full of art and sculpture – at the time there were 16 lifelike human silhouettes throughout the park and atop all of the surrounding buildings – incredibly engaging with the place and the architecture. Shake Shack also worth a visit…madison park
  4. High Line Park; I’ve heard mixed views on this – largely when someone else is trying to replicate what the High Line has done. Here’s the tip; it’s not replicable. It works because it responds uniquely to the site. This park is a vegetated and landscaped elevated rail line [the rails are still there] and a must visit. An elevated journey through the rooftops, the quality and detailing of the landscaping is top shelf and it activates an otherwise hard industrial environment. All kinds of businesses, eateries and stores are popping up here. A great example of adaptive and creative re-use that is re-binding a series of old neighbourhoods. Work with what you’ve got.high_line_new_york_t210611_ib14
  5. Washington Square Park; integral with the NY University neighbourhood – full of students, locals and tourists alike. Takes its place as an outdoor classroom and meeting place. The surrounding medium density streets are an eclectic mix of Uni, residences, small basement shops and cafes. We bought our first chess set here [after learning in Central Park : ). Public places are not just green spaces, they are people places and extensions of our buildings.Washington_square_park
  6. Trinity Church; if you manage to visit Zuccotti Park right next to Ground Zero, then Trinity Church’s graveyard, you can’t help but feel small and humbled. This graveyard has headstones going back to the 1700s, is beautifully planted, and is a drop of quietude amongst the hardcore financial district of NYC. Reminding us of our temporary employment is a good way to dust off complacency.trinity church nyc
  7. Bowling Green; I must admit I wasn’t a fan of this part of NYC – it doesn’t have the multi-use-residential-village atmosphere that the other park areas have, but this little park was fascinating to sit in and watch people unashamedly fondle the Charging Bull’s… er… did you catch that Swans game…? Public art, yet again, touchable and engaging. Even in a Bear market it’s still vital that our places and spaces provide a canvas for art and discourse.charging_bull3

So that’s a small list of my faves. All unique, but all bound by a commonality of great scale, activation, deliberately designed edges, no back-of-house areas, passive safety, and great art and culture. Difficult to design and get right from scratch, but these places give us a great head start.

And now I’ve convinced myself that I have to get back there to ‘further my studies’… could be a great green city tour in the making?


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