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The Multiple Personalities of New York's Gateway National Recreation Area

The Multiple Personalities of New York's Gateway National Recreation Area
Laura McPhee

One of the nation's most-visited national parks, Gateway National Recreation Area, defies any preconceptions about what a "park" is. Much like the national parks of our collective consciousness, Gateway is a natural wonder. Its 26,000 acres encompass the coastline of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and New Jersey, and it contains estuaries, salt marshes, bird-nesting grounds, and beaches. You'll find soccer pitches and historic military forts, too. But Gateway is also home to New York City’s first municipal airport, sewage treatment plants, sewer outfalls, landfills, and acres of the nebulous-origined, squeamishness-inducing substance known as “black mayonnaise.” Due to neglect, misuse, and budget cuts, to say nothing of the ravages of time, this extraordinary, multiple-personality'd park is in peril.

Fortunately, in 2007, the Van Alen Institute partnered with several partners to create Envisioning Gateway, a multi-layered effort that included an international design competition, organized efforts to investigate the park's diverse ecology, and ultimately, concrete steps to help envision a more sustainable future for the park, its natural inhabitants, and the urban communities who use it. Van Alen, together with Princeton Architectural Press, also produced a gorgeous companion catalog to the effort. 

Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, in one of the catalog's many insightful essays, writes, "In its mixture of opportunity and indeterminacy, the Envisioning Gateway process is emblematic of the current state of landscape architecture and landscape urbanism—full of rich potential and minefields, conceptual and practical, at virtually every turn.”  The contributors to Envisioning Gateway jump right into a simmering debate over who should design and plan parks, what those parks should look like, who they should serve and how. Hawthorne does a terrific job disseminating the oft-undiscussed but pressing issues facing anyone brave enough to take on the task, such as vulnerability (via such diverse factors as climate change, recession or terrorist attack). In so doing, he highlights concerns that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux never had to consider.

The complexity of renvisioning Gateway is staggering. That's why these photographs by Laura McPhee (daughter of writer John McPhee, who wrote about Gateway in his essay, "Ranger," back in 1971) that open the book are so compelling. Laden with history yet unencumbered by stakeholder infighting, funding concerns, or environmental impact report data, the images are full of possibility and invite further exploration. No single image can possibly capture the park but as a series they capture its competing states of chaos and simplicity. As McPhee explains, "For me, the experience of standing in Jamaica Bay in waders at dusk watching Kennedy Airport traffic and the rising tide in the marsh was quintessential. I made some images then but there were so many other experiences and I was astonished by the place in all its diversity."

Mapping the Ecotone, the first-place design for the Gateway Project by Ashley Kelly and Rikako Wakabayashi, offers an elegant solution that responds to the breadth of considerations on the table. As Hawthorne writes, "...in the way it considers the effects of time and future environmental changes, it is flexible and open-ended, and admits a sense of fragility and flux, in ways no doctrinaire modernist could ever abide."

A perspective view of a proposed Floyd Bennet Field park in Jamaica Bay, New York.  Image by Ashley Kelly and Rikako Wakabayashi.

All photographs by Laura McPhee.

Keywords: New York, Parks

Allison Arieff is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities. She writes a column about design and architecture for The New York Times and is editorial director of SPUR. All posts »

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