New York: The Green Archipelago
A breathtaking approach to Manhattan, along the East River in Astoria in Queens.
After more than nearly 4 years away, last summer I came back for a long visit to a greener and better New York. Not only are many of the city's neighborhoods gaining a higher quality of life, but the city seems to be finally taking advantage of one of its greatest assets: water on all sides. New York is an archipelago, just like Stockholm or Hong Kong, yet pedestrian access to its waterfront has been rather limited for decades and often the wet edges have been far from glamorous. Things are changing.World-class quality: Washington Square Park after its recent renovation.
I lived in New York City for 8 years, and had my first CitiNature project here in 2002. At that time the city was starting some exciting projects. Central Park was already beautifully restored, the Hudson River Park was under construction, beginning a total transformation of Manhattan's West Side, and the High Line park was conceived. But in so many ways at that time, the city was far behind its peers around the world in the quality of its infrastructure and waterfront development. Every time I would go to cities such as London, Sydney or Singapore I would feel let down, asking myself, 'If they can do it, why can't we?' And biking in New York was hazardous. I have always been a bike commuter, but riding my bike from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I lived, to any other part of the city was plain and simply dangerous.Bike path in Long Island City, Queens, right off the Queensboro Bridge bicycle path.
This last summer, I recognized that a process of fundamental change was underway. The city was becoming a serious global contender in green design and sustainability and moving towards a higher quality of urban life. In parts of Brooklyn I could have mistaken myself for being in Amsterdam or Dusseldorf. In Manhattan new bicycle lanes, separated from traffic, were being built on many Avenues and it was now a pleasure (and safe) to ride my bike over large tracts of the city. I could ride from E 45th Street, where I was staying, to the Bowery in 15 minutes - faster than using any form of public transport. I could also ride from the East Side of Manhattan to Queens, over the Queensboro Bridge, in about 10 minutes. The city was now bike friendly, although work is still underway to fill critical gaps in the network.Bike path on the Williamsburg Bridge, connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn.
I believe that New York is on its way to becoming one of the great biking cities of the world. In my 2 months in New York during the summer, I discovered how easy it is to move around inside the boroughs and between them, as well. There are 4 bridges with bike paths over the East River, connecting Manhattan to Queens and Brooklyn. Throughout the city there are nearly 400 miles of bike paths and the network is becoming denser. New York is no Amsterdam in terms of bike infrastructure density, but it is becoming easier and easier to get around this city solely by bicycle. Recent news, however, indicates that this progress may be under threat. Possible successors to Mayor Bloomberg are less bike friendly and have threatened cutbacks in bike lane construction.A soccer pitch in a park on Roosevelt Island, with a view of Manhattan.
In addition to massively expanded bicycle infrastructure, I discovered park renovations going on throughout the city. Formerly neglected parks in all boroughs are getting attention, making their neighborhoods more inviting places. People are responding and in any newly created or renovated park I saw, there were lots of people walking, picnicking, rollerblading, biking, sunbathing and of course, just relaxing. Poorly maintained parks were clearly not as popular and often almost empty I think it should be obvious to anyone living in New York that quality green space is in short supply and there is strong public demand for it.Corroding iron fence, sadly typical of waterfront infrastructure in much of New York.
Although New York has made considerable progress in the last decade, a tour along the shoreline can be discouraging. Large portions of the waterfront are still inaccessible and where it is open to the public, it is often in embarrassingly derelict condition. By bicycle and on foot, I explored the entire shoreline of Manhattan, the full perimeter of Roosevelt Island, and the sides of Queens and Brooklyn facing Manhattan. In contrast to the stunning Hudson River Park, most pedestrian waterfront areas of the city are in a crumbling state of disrepair. Pavements are sinking and uneven, access is difficult for nearby residents (most glaringly, along the west side of Harlem), fences are corroding and falling into the rivers, and parks along the water are poorly maintained and litter-strewn, Most readers of this blog, who live in the wealthier parts of the city, may be surprised to read this as parks in their neighborhoods are usually well maintained. It certainly seems that there is a divide between wealthier and poorer neighborhoods in terms of park investment and maintenance.New park on the waterfront in Long Island City, Queens.
To be fair, the city has its work cut out for it. Decades of underinvestment have left the present administration saddled with an unending list of urgent projects. But the task of rehabilitating the city's shoreline, and opening it to pedestrians, is . underway. There are large scale projects planned such as rehabilitating, expanding and extending parks along the east side of Manhattan and building the Queens East River and North Shore Greenway. There are numerous smaller projects, often associated with new development along the formerly industrial riverfront in Queens and Brooklyn. The plan is to have these parks one day connected in a continuous sweep of green spaces and recreational facilities along the entire perimeter of all the islands within the city.Carl Schurz Park, on the Upper East Side along the East River, nearing final restoration.
New York is without question one of the most interesting and dynamic cities in the world. Few places can compare with its mind-boggling array of cultural, culinary, educational (and so many other) offerings. But one place where New York has suffered in comparison to cities with the highest quality of life, according to various measures, is public infrastructure. While arguably having the best metro system in the United States, and one of the few systems I know of that operates 24 hours a day, it is run down and rather dirty in most stations. Public pedestrian infrastructure, likewise, does not compare well. Sidewalks are typically of artless, poured cement, streets are often roughly paved, and green spaces (especially outside of the wealthier parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn) are not up to standard. But the future looks bright. The scale of change I've witnessed tells me that New York is at last serious about catching up and becoming a truly world-class city in terms of the physical environment it provides. This is great news for the millions of people who call New York home.
about the author
After nearly two decades of corporate duty, I decided to follow my heart and do what I love: make cities greener and healthier places. Over the coming years I will be traveling to cities all over the world, reporting on what I see and learning about how even resource-poor places can improve urban lives through urban greening and greener lifestyles. I've started the CitiNature project to channel my energies and drive initiatives supporting equal access to green amenities for everyone.