Heatherwick Studio

Building over-water park infrastructure is one approach for dense cities. But are these parks a flashy design fad or a real urban solution?

On Monday, reporters at The New York Times broke the news about highly confidential plans for a park on the Hudson River. The project, a $170 glimmer in billionaire Barry Diller's eye, would be dubbed Pier 55, replacing a rotting pier on the West Side of Manhattan near the Meatpacking District. Featuring a 2.4-acre stage of undulating parkland, an amphitheater, and other performance spaces planned by British architect Thomas Heatherwick, Pier 55 would be New York's first off-shore park.

Pier 55 in New York. (Heatherwick Studio)

Yet it would not be the first off-shore park proposal to come to light this year. It's not even the only piece of over-water park infrastructure that this specific architect is working on right now: Heatherwick Studio is also responsible for London's Garden Bridge, a proposal for a pedestrian parkway spanning the River Thames.

Garden Bridge (Heatherwick Studio)

Then there's the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C. Last month, the project's planners revealed that the Dutch architecture firm OMA and the Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm OLIN will ultimately design the new bridge park over the Anacostia River, connecting diverse neighborhoods.

11th Street Bridge Park (OMA+OLIN)

Is the off-shore park a design fad or a new urban solution? It's easy to detect in these proposals the aspirational urban trend inspired by the High Line in New York. (It's only a small coincidence that Friends of the High Line is presently mounting a photo and performance exhibition in Chelsea focused on Pier 54,* the site of the planned Pier 55 park.) Take a piece of aging infrastructure, or a site where new infrastructure ought to go—or both—and seal the development through the promise of high design and natural vistas.

At the same time, these cities (New York, London, and Washington, D.C.) have more in common than inviting river banks and ambitious planners. Where cities are densely populated, new park space is relatively rare. And where land is scarce, building a more typical urban park might not always be a viable solution—to the extent that there is any such thing.

"I don’t think there is such a thing as a traditional urban park," says Peter Harnik, Director for the Trust for Public Land's Center for City Park Excellence. "There’s already so many different kinds of urban parks, this is just one more different kind of urban park."

Whatever shape parks take, they can't serve everyone in major U.S. cities, even those known for their beautiful urban parks. Despite its nearly 39,000 acres of parkland, New York provides just 4.6 park acres per 1,000 residents, according to a 2014 report from the Trust for Public Land. Washington, D.C., boasts 13.5 park acres per 1,000 residents. The average among highly dense cities—including Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles—is 7.1 park acres.

Medium-sized cities do better. Medium high-density cities such as Denver or St. Louis enjoy 8.1 park acres per thousand residents on average. Low-density cities such as Kansas City and Indianapolis have the highest average acreage (18.5 park acres). Some of them, like Nashville and especially Anchorage, are nearly as much parkland as city.

So the cities mulling off-shore parks have much less park acreage per resident than other cities. (Let's no one get too hung up on these numbers: It's possible for hundreds of residents to enjoy the same couple of park acres at once.) New York, London, and D.C. also have in common high land and real-estate prices, which make it tricky to dedicate valuable land to pastoral purposes.   

"Of course, the rising cost of land would precipitate people thinking creatively about using other available resources," Harnik says. "But building something over the water or in the water is really expensive. There’s undoubtedly parts of cities that are less expensive than building in the river. On the other hand, those might be run-down areas that are more dangerous, or less desirable, or off the beaten track, things like that."

Pier 55 (Heatherwick Studio)

Of the three off-shore park schemes in the works right now, the most viable might be Pier 55. That's largely due to the fact that the plan, if it is approved, will be bankrolled by Diller to the tune of $130 million, with another $39.5 million coming from the city. With Mayor Bill de Blasio pledging no new parks (and focusing instead on upgrading neglected community parks), Diller's folly may be an unexpected architectural gem for this administration.

Pier 55 (Heatherwick Studio)

On the other hand, it's another cultural project financed by Diller and his wife, Diane von Furstenberg, whose ambitions are increasingly coterminous with the area of West Manhattan stretching from the Meatpacking District through Chelsea. "A new green pier in Chelsea would be a quintessentially New York partnership of capital and government, inequitable but beneficial," writes New York Magazine's Justin Davidson. "All de Blasio has to do to make it happen is channel his inner Bloomberg."

Both the Garden Bridge in London and the 11th Street Bridge Park in D.C. aim to connect socioeconomically disparate communities. London's Garden Bridge has its own celebrity backer, actress Joanna Lumley; it has already garnered $4.7 million in support from Citigroup, opening the horrifying prospect of a naming sponsor for a bridge park. With a $234 million price tag, though, there's still plenty of funds to raise (both Transport for London and the Treasury have contributed about $50 million each, per reports).

Garden Bridge (Heatherwick Studio)

This summer, Oliver Wainwright, architecture critic for The Guardian, extolled the long history of designers driven to "architectural madness" by the Thames, from John Soane to Antoine Grumbach. Wainwright sounds like a Garden Bridge skeptic—he offers up the plain objections that there is still no Thames crossing in East London—but consents that London Mayor Boris Johnson will probably get the thing built anyway. "There is something uniquely English about the fact that a delightfully superfluous piece of public infrastructure can appear at the whim of a celebrity and the impulse of an icon-hungry mayor."

Garden Bridge (Heatherwick Studio)

Planners behind the 11th Street Bridge Park may be looking at the longest road to realization. In Washington, D.C., there is no mayoral appetite for new architectural icons, much less a glut of them. And the D.C. project lacks any celebrity backing (unless you count hard-working local advocate Scott Kratz). Although D.C. has its own history of failed fanciful bridge designs—there's Chloethiel Smith's plan to build a "Potomac Ponte Vecchio"—none of them has ever addressed the Anacostia River.

11th Street Bridge Park (OMA+OLIN)

Building the 11th Street Bridge Park will require a delicate balancing act: The bridge design has to include education and conservation features to appease residents on both sides of the river, without stoking fears that the bridge park will spell gentrification and displacement for the much poorer residents on the eastern side of the Anacostia. Dat X is not just a framework for the design: It's a metaphor for the balance that the project has to achieve. Kratz, for one, has balance on his mind.

Here in D.C., both David Alpert and Neil Flanagan have written at length about how this bridge park won't connect people on the west bank of the Anacostia River with people on the east bank without additional transit linkages—which may never arrive. Of the three off-shore parks, the 11th Street Bridge Park faces the most obstacles up front; it's also the bridge park least geared toward the wealthy.  

11th Street Bridge Park (OMA+OLIN)

All three off-shore parks appear to acknowledge that the relatively sparse park space available in a global city is worth extending, even out into the water—whether that means replacing a disused pier, rebuilding abandoned bridge supports, or starting something new. And yet, these three proposals don't all entirely convey the egalitarian good will of free and equitable civic infrastructure.

Is the goal to increase the public park space in a city, or to add to the park acreage accessible only to a select elite? Are the good ideas among these off-shore park proposals something planners can actually implement?

"You have to consider the economics of being right offshore of the West Side of Manhattan, right offshore in the middle of the Thames, and right offshore in the Anacostia River, versus being in some obscure, faraway part of the city in any of those three cities," Harnik says. "Once again, it’s related to park advocates, and rich people who love parks, wanting to be where the action is. The one in D.C. is where the action will be, presumably. Anacostia is not really fully discovered yet, but there’s the idea that it will be discovered—just like the Chelsea area of Manhattan hadn’t really been discovered big time until the High Line."

*Correction: The work in the exhibition was performed and recorded on Pier 54. But the exhibition itself is being held in a Chelsea gallery near the pier, not on the pier, as the article originally stated.

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