2011-12-02 / Top Stories

Gateway: Visions For An Urban National Park

Everything You Wanted To Know, And More
By Anna Solares


The Riis Park Bathhouse has become the iconic symbol of Gateway. A new Gateway book provides details the history and development of the national recreation area. The Riis Park Bathhouse has become the iconic symbol of Gateway. A new Gateway book provides details the history and development of the national recreation area. You may become a little overwhelmed if you happen to flip through a copy of “Gateway: Visions for an Urban National Park” where you will see old photographs of men with maps rolled out in front of them and landscape diagrams labeled with terms such as “ecological modifiers” and “bio-filtration stations.”

The 221-page volume published by the Princeton Architectural Press, however, is not your typical, hand-me-down Environmental Science textbook. Edited by Alexander Brash, Jamie Hand and Kate Orff, the volume features the results of the Envisioning Gateway design competition, a competition that was spearheaded in 2007 by the Van Allen Institute, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and the National Parks Conservation Association in their efforts to redefine the true purpose of the Gateway National Recreation Area. The book, which also includes a seaand land-based photo essay by Laura McPhee and reflective essays written by two of the editors, offers the quaint 26,000 acres and more than three decades old community park partitioned within the New York Metropolitan area, in a rejuvenated light immersed in potential.


Drawing the Park’s master plan in 1934. Drawing the Park’s master plan in 1934. From the first essay, “Cosmopolitan Ecologies,” written by Orff, the historical significance of Jamaica Bay, now the host of the park’s Wildlife Refuge Center, leaps from the pages. The area, once inhabited by early Lenape Indian and later, Dutch settlements, Orff explains, underwent numerous infrastructure changes. By the 19th century, the “swamp on the edge of town” was being eyed by prominent landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, although the Industrial Revolution later seized the bay and it became the scapegoat of 70 miles of sewer pipelines. By the 20th century, the bay became the site of a series of projects, including plans to have it become a “futuristic world class” megaport and the nation’s greatest airport, in the hands of ambitious landscape architects such as Fredrick Law Olmstead and Robert Moses. Jamaica Bay’s struggles are also highlighted with its tidal proceedings recorded as having collapsed in the 1900s, an event that allowed 50 million gallons of sewage into the bay’s confines. The timeline of Jamaica Bay is accompanied by Orff’s proposed plan to turn the bay into a “pilot program” that can house experiments dedicated to the reinvention of urban national landscapes.


Building the Flatbush Avenue ramps to Belt Parkway, 1953 Building the Flatbush Avenue ramps to Belt Parkway, 1953 The proceeding essays, ‘The Unique Value of our National Parks” by Alexander Brash and “The Two Gateways: The First U.S. Urban National Parks” by Ethan Carr, add an insightful element to the explanation of the national park. Brash chronicles the “Evolution of Parks” into the modern day. Our parks, he explains, were initially founded on the human need to “preserve,” later to be used as “commons” both in the late Middle Ages and by Native Americans, and lastly, for industrial market purposes. Brash explains that now, our parks are founded on three values; a desire to offer public access to these parks and exercise a “right to ownership,” a need to preserve our nation’s historical icons, and the Fredrick Law Olmstead theory that parks foster good mental health and beneficial “epiphanies.” The success, and the challenge, of these parks Brash explains, lies in how these parks correspond with these three values.


Proposed ferry plan, 1969. Proposed ferry plan, 1969. 
The Floyd Bennett Field control tower, 1943. The Floyd Bennett Field control tower, 1943. Carr’s essay compares and contrasts the Golden Gate National Recreation Area to the Gateway National Recreation Area. Although both were established in the “New Conservation” age by Congress, Carr highlights the way in which the San Franciscan recreation area had an easier time in its construction. The Golden Gate park, with support from groups such as the Sierra Club, he explains, was up and running in a blink of an eye. The Gateway National Recreation Area, however, was hastily patched together with subsidized New York parks when abundant New Deal aid began to dwindle. Carr also tells of the park’s most current problems; a lack of transportation to and from each of its three sites and a lack of financial support from the government to provide accessibility and maintenance for the park.


Mayor John Lindsay signs document ceding land to NPS, 1974. Mayor John Lindsay signs document ceding land to NPS, 1974. “The Process,” which features the six winning proposals chosen from the 97 entries for the contest, is the chapter that truly grabs. In one proposal, Floyd Bennett Field has been converted into a research center with labs and incubators reserved for the use of the diverse and nearby masses. Another dictates ferry lines and a subway system for the fragmented park. Others still allow for the envisioning of a Jetson reminiscent park world with cable car road systems crisscrossing Jamaica Bay and floating 75-foot by 140-foot hydroponic pods which will filter out Jamaica Bay’s waters. Topography diagrams with vivid digitally created plans allow the eye to glide through the plans.

“Gateway: Visions for an Urban National Park” gives it all to you. The background and the history of significant portions of the park, theories associated with the park, and designs for a better Gateway are all cleanly presented, chapter by chapter. The combination of what Gateway has been for the last three decades, the thorough explanations of what it unfortunately is now, and what it can hopefully be, clearly sends the message sewn into this volume – Gateway can dynamically jostle our New York metropolitan area if it is approached with innovative minds knowledgeable of its significance in a developing urban world. The landscape architect, the ecologist and the plain old park lover will find this an intriguing read.



Fort Wadsworth Battery, Fort Tilden, 1946. Fort Wadsworth Battery, Fort Tilden, 1946.

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