As the incoming president of ASLA NY, I would like to consider the future of landscape architecture in New York. At the ASLA President’s Dinner, on November 1, 2012, we honored Doug Blonsky for his leadership of the Central Park Conservancy, The Architect’s Newspaper for their efforts in bringing landscape architecture to the forefront of the design community’s imagination, and Commissioner Carter Strickland for changing the culture at the DEP in embracing green for the city’s infrastructure challenges. I would like to sketch a philosophical and social background against which their accomplishments can be viewed.
The biggest question confronting us in practice is what will happen after the Bloomberg Administration. Mayor Bloomberg set in motion a visionary transformation of the city. Across the board we saw progress: flagship parks, the Design Excellence Program, Janette Sadik Khan’s bike lanes, DDC’s green buildings, and DEP’s decentralization of stormwater management to a vast network of rain absorbing gardens. We need to ensure that this green vision, and its momentum, will be maintained in the post-Bloomberg era.
Certainly the Conservancies and other existing public private partnerships will provide some institutional stability. But, in addition, I would like to propose a City Green Conservancy modeled on the Central Park Conservancy that would ensure the existence and funding of green jobs and the availability of related training needed to maintain the bioswales, green roofs, and green walls on public buildings; the future High Lines and Low Lines; and the parks beyond the famous flagships that have come into being in the last decade. The Bloomberg legacy is that green spaces should permeate the city at a finer level than had ever been imagined; and thus individual support organizations, like those that support our flagship parks, need to be augmented with ones that will tend to a new and growing distributed network of green riches.
A second point: There is a general split in how we treat our waterfront improvement. To date we have very urban areas, like Battery Park City, and we have purely natural areas, like Jamaica Bay. This distinction is both generated and reflected by the institutional structures of the city, state, and federal government, which place different agencies in charge of different zones. Yet here we have a great opportunity; the ability to integrate these strands of waterfront vision to the mutual benefit of all in such a way that the whole is be greater than the sum of the parts. Productive parks that manage stormwater could create beautiful ecosystems and nature preserves while draining the streets of surrounding neighborhoods and recharging aquifers. Bushwick Inlet Park could be an ideal spot for this, for example, as could the proposed Gowanus Green project. These productive parks could treat grey water, if properly designed, with no loss of aesthetic value. This would provide a steady source of irrigation for gardens. The reverse is also true. Wetlands and other coastal areas can be made more accessible to people, with boardwalks, appropriate recreational activities such as kayaking, and restaurants carefully integrated into the ecological preserves. New York could thus pioneer a kind of urban ecotourism which would generate a buzz out of proportion to its economic impact. A progressive-minded visitor could stay in a hut on Jamaica Bay in order to kayak or fish during the day and go to the Metropolitan Opera in the evening.
Just as with the High Line, such developments could enhance the prestige and intangible aura of New York. Parks are, in fact, cultural infrastructure with a direct economic impact. A revolutionary step toward realizing these exciting possibilities might be the elimination of some of the boundaries between city agencies, or the instatement of collaborative dialogues between them that could create the same result.
It is fitting that New York should be in the forefront here, for it was Central Park that created the template for such a fusion. Central Park expressed the sense that the vastness of infinite nature, as exhibited in the Hudson River and Luminist Schools of painters, is part of the essential inner life of the American people, and as such should be present in cities for the people’s enjoyment. Such a project required far-reaching vision, subtle design, deft political work, and incredibly broad collaboration—a cooperation of diverse groups in both means and ends; and thus Olmsted is justly regarded as the most seminal figure of landscape architecture. His greatest advance occurred here in New York. The Moses era, however, abandoned this heritage, seeing the New York landscape as merely utilitarian—for transportation or sports, for lawns or paths—and in so doing it dispelled the spirit of the romance of nature, of skillfully controlled messiness, with which Olmsted and Vaux had imbued their creation. Moses envisioned no rich ecological layers, and did not even attempt a simultaneous solution to the problems posed by the many varying requirements of the city and its inner life.
In the last decade, however, the outlines are becoming clear of a possibility that can now be discerned as an extension of the sensibility informing Central Park. It is a vision realized not in one titanic work, nor even in a necklace of parks, but in a network of green initiatives, both public and private, informed by an enlightened collaboration of urban interests. Politically it is founded on the new green consciousness of the general public, indeed of the entire world, that is one of the acquisitions of the twenty-first century. And, as can be seen clearly in the case of Olmsted, it is the landscape architect who has the skills to coordinate these collaborations and thus who has the responsibility to combine sophistication and sensitivity in this difficult but rewarding enterprise. Thus a neo-Olmstedian vision is coalescing of nature reclaiming its place in the urban world, and of the urban world opening itself to the infinite breath of nature—on railroad trestles, on facades, in streets and plazas, on roofs—in a distributed network of collaborative projects which cross boundaries to solve many problems at once; and which, in so doing, go beyond the solution to the problems at hand to create something essentially new.