Building Nature

by Don Friedman on February 27, 2018

Yesterday’s post about the possibility of creating a park in the New Jersey Meadowlands didn’t touch on an interesting aspect of the proposed park: little of it would be built by people. Instead the park would be made by removing built structures and letting nature have its way.

It’s easy to forget that most urban and suburban parks are artificial landscapes. They are constructed as thoroughly and painstakingly as the buildings around them, even if they are presented as pieces of nature preserved in the city. For example, the big park of my childhood, Flushing Meadows, was a swamp before it was drained and cleaned for the 1939-1940 World’s Fair.

The picture above shows Bethesda Terrace in Central Park in 1862, as the park was reaching the state of “mostly completed.” The masonry portion of the complex stair looks much as it does today, but the high ridge behind it was mostly removed. This could seem almost like the natural landscape was being fitted into the park, but that’s not true. The south end of the park’s area was a swampy mess and the north end was too hilly.

Here’s a better example:

The path on the right that has a stone wall on either side of it? That’s the 86th Street transverse road. Those walls are still visible today, but only on the side facing the road because the earth was built up on either side of the road to effectively bury it below grade. All of the foreground land was raised after this picture was taken.

Finally, a photo that really shows the work involved in making nature:

That tangle of pipes is part of the system used by a reservoir – it’s not clear from the 156-year-old label if that’s the lake-like reservoir still in the park or the rectangular reservoir filled in the 1930s and turned into the Great Lawn. The water features in the park, including the two reservoirs, the lake, the pond, and the Harlem Meer, are all artificial to some degree, and there is a lot of buried pipe keeping them functioning.

Adaptation as a Strategy

February 26, 2018

This article by Karrie Jacobs – What if New Jersey’s Meadowlands were a national park? – speaks for itself,  but I thought I might add a little context for people unfamiliar with the geography. People have heard of “the meadowlands” because of a football stadium located there but don’t necessarily understand what it is. Most of […]

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A Permanent Short-Term Fix

February 13, 2018

When Hurricane Sandy submerged a chunk of lower Manhattan, our office was on Broadway, on the ridge at the center of the area. A little over a year ago, we moved to the corner of Broad and Stone Streets, in a lower area where a lot of neighboring buildings flooded to some extent. Various large-scale […]

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Urban Design Is More Than Roads

February 12, 2018

Via Curbed, comes notice of a report, Delivering Urban Resilience, on the intersection of urban design, resistance to extreme weather, and climate change. Three cities – El Paso, Philadelphia, and Washington – are used as examples, with Philadelphia’s circumstances being closest to New York’s. It is not really news to hear that technologies such as green […]

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Industrial Secret Gardens

February 6, 2018

On a number of occasions, I’ve been able to walk through the ruins of an old industrial site that is in the process of being reclaimed by nature. Here’s a description and a few photos of such a place in Sweden. That particular site puts me in mind of a children’s book I know that […]

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What It Looks Like

February 5, 2018

Like a lot of other technologies, recycling looks less impressive than it actually is. Given the reduction in non-recycled garbage in the course of my life, the fact that New York is recycling all of its plastic, glass, and metal through a new purpose-built facility is a big deal. It just doesn’t really look like […]

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The Second R

January 5, 2018

“Reduce Reuse Recycle” as been around for a while but it seems to me that the recycling part has stolen most of the attention. Building materials are recyclable but buildings themselves are not. What they are is reusable. That leads me to this article on Curbed about the conversion of the Brookfield Avenue Landfill in […]

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How Speciation Starts

December 9, 2017

This article on the rat population of New York is fascinating. There are genetic differences in the rats depending on where they live, with the relatively sparse population in midtown serving to separate the uptown rats from the downtown rats. Now that I have learned this fascinating tidbit, it’s unfortunate that there’s absolutely no place […]

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Changing The Meaning Of A Euphemism

December 6, 2017

Whatever your personal definition of “meadow” is, the New Jersey meadowlands are not it. The area is a vast swamp, barely above sea level. It’s the combined valley of the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers before they empty into Newark Bay, which itself is a branch of New York Bay by way of Kill Van Kull. […]

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Nature Reclaims

October 21, 2017

Good article and pictures of the Ridgewood reservoir on the Brooklyn/Queens border: here. Abandoned as a reservoir, it’s reverted to nature in a short amount of time. This topic has been the subject of some fascinating thought experiments, but here’s a real-life example.

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