The New York Restoration Project has made good on its green-space promise

The National
The New York Restoration Project has made good on its green-space promise
By Ashley Lane
November 26, 2015


The five boroughs of New York City ”“ Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx ”“ may not be areas that immediately come to mind when one thinks of green spaces. This is something the New York Restoration Project (NYRP) has spent the last 20 years trying to change. The non-profit private organisation, founded by actress Bette Midler in 1995, works to restore public parks, housing projects, vacant lots, schools, sidewalks and waterfront areas in lower-income communities. While NYRP’s projects have had an immense environmental impact, they’ve also had a noticeable effect on a social level as well. Projects have set the stage for diverse communities to come together and participate in ecosystem services, volunteer opportunities, and even arts and fitness programmes.

A cornerstone of the NYRP agenda is the restoration and continued maintenance of 52 community gardens across New York City. The first official project, marking the launch of the organisation, was Fort Washington. The green space fell victim to neglect and disrepair during the 1990s, after being a popular public destination for more than a century. In 1995, Midler took it upon herself to gather more than 100 volunteers and begin the process of clearing rubbish from the natural stretch along the Hudson River. Today, the 159-acre area is visited by families who picnic along the shoreline.

That same year, the group turned its sights to a second location. Fort Tryon Park had also been neglected during the 1980s and 1990s, becoming overrun with an abundance of rubbish and invasive vegetation. The NYRP, in collaboration with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, worked to uncover and repair paths that had been obstructed by debris and fallen trees. The public park now offers beautiful panoramic views of the lower Hudson River and New Jersey Palisades, and access to playgrounds and gardens, all of which attract thousands of residents and visitors year-round.

Other NYRP efforts have included maintaining the northern half of Highbridge Park ”“ home to the recently restored High Bridge ”“ and the restoration and maintenance of Sherman Creek. The 15-acre Sherman Creek park was a former illegal dumping site that sits along the Harlem River. The effort originally began as a shore clean-up project, but eventually expanded and the group reclaimed five more acres of land along the river. The end result was the introduction of Swindler Cove ”“ an oasis of woodland, wetland, a freshwater pond and a pathway running throughout; the Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse, home to the group’s non-profit partner, Row New York; and the Riley-Levin Children’s Garden, which operates as one of the only community gardens in northern Manhattan.

Plans for an outdoor education centre in Sherman Creek park are also currently under way, funded entirely by the Thompson Family Foundation. The project, which launched in 2013, looks to take what is currently known as the Former Boat Club Site and create what will be dubbed The Pavilion ”“ a flood-resistant outdoor recreation and learning centre. The group hopes that the effort will allow for increased access to the waterfront and the promotion of environmental education among the community’s youth.

The restoration and upkeep of gardens is not, however, the only focus of NYRP. The group has recently become involved in the New York City-wide effort known as MillionTreesNYC. The project, launched in 2007, had one goal: to plant and care for one million new trees across the city’s five boroughs. Over the last eight years, the city has planted the majority of the trees ”“ about 750,000 ”“ in parks and along streets. NYRP, along with homeowners, businesses and other non-profit organisations, worked to fill in the remaining gaps, focusing on areas such as housing projects, libraries, airports, places of worship and hospitals. Willing residents with space in their own gardens were also offered a tree to plant.

The effort has proven far more successful than initially imagined. While the original prediction was that the project would take 10 years to complete, the millionth tree ”“ an eight-metre, eight-year-old lacebark elm ”“ was planted in early November in Joyce Kilmer Park in the South Bronx. Thanks to the initiative, the city is now home to approximately 5.2 million trees that span 168 different species.

More recently, NYRP embarked on a project in the South Bronx, an area of the city that the organisation has been working closely with for more than 15 years. The Haven Project, officially launched in July, will look to renovate a network of open spaces in Mott Haven and Port Morris, a 3.4-square-kilometre community located north of Randall’s Island.

The aim is to create safe bike and pedestrian paths to connect the neighbourhoods of south-east Port Morris. Clear paths to the Randall’s Island Connector, currently under completion by the New York City Economic Development Corporation, will also be designed. Increased access to the connector, and a pedestrian and bicycle bridge linking Port Morris to Randall’s Island, will mean residents can enjoy the island’s more than 250 acres of parkland and recreational facilities. Finally, The Haven Project will look to rebuild shoreline infrastructure that was damaged by Superstorm Sandy, and create open space along the waterfront for people to enjoy.

Though the efforts of NYRP intend to promote pedestrian safety, combat climate change and increase social interactions, the project also aims to improve the physical well-being of New York’s residents. Many within the community are currently affected by high rates of poverty, diabetes, asthma and obesity. This is in part due to the lack of parks, trees, pathways and green infrastructure, all of which have been found to have a profound effect on quality of life. The project has partnered with Bronx-based organisations, such as the Montefiore Medical Center, in the hope of demonstrating the connection between open space and the general well-being of communities. It’s the goal of NYRP that these connections will transform the way society values the spaces between buildings ”“ a lesson that any urban centre in the world could benefit from.

If you’re heading to New York City, visit some of these impressive green spaces.

Central Park

New York’s most iconic park and the most visited urban green space in the United States, Central Park stretches from Manhattan’s West 59th Street up to West 110th. It is home to a number of attractions and beautiful scenery. Put your skills to the test with a game of chess at the Chess and Checkers House, near the South End, or take in the views with a run on one of the park’s many pedestrian paths.

Brooklyn Bridge Park

This 85-acre green space, on the Brooklyn side of the East River, offers spectacular views of Manhattan. Whether it’s a picnic on the Empire Fulton Ferry Lawn, the spot from which some of the most iconic images of the bridge were taken, or a game of volleyball on Pier 6, there’s plenty to keep visitors busy.

Bryant Park

Nestled among the canyons of Manhattan’s skyscrapers is Bryant Park. The green space is not only a popular meeting place for locals ”“ be it for lunch or a catch-up over coffee ”“ but it also boasts a number of enticing activities for tourists. Take a stroll through the park’s gardens or promenades, have lunch on the Fifth Avenue terrace, which looks out onto the New York Public Library, or simply enjoy the architecture of the surrounding buildings.

Flushing Meadows Park

Flushing Meadows Park might not be the most obvious green space to visit in New York City, but it is certainly worth the effort. The green space, referred to as “a valley of ashes” in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, was renovated to house the 1939-40 World’s Fair. The park, located in Queens, features the Unisphere and the World’s Fair Towers, along with several impressive sculptures. Tennis fans will want to pay a visit to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre, the current venue for the US Open, also located in the park.

Fort Greene Park

History buffs will want to explore Fort Greene Park. The 30-acre green space, located in Brooklyn, was originally the site of military forts built for the American Revolutionary War of 1812. Walt Whitman advocated for the area to be reclaimed and made into a public park, once its military use had begun to wane following the wars. Those planning a visit should make a stop at the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument, which sits on top of a crypt that holds the bodies of 11,500 men and women who died during the American Revolutionary War.

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