Re-imagining the Waterfront as Part of an Integral Urban Infrastructure
Water is the foundation of life as we know it. It supports our environment and our ecosystem, the food we eat and the air we breathe. Our bodies succumb to the whims of the tides, and our minds—often confined by the physical and psychological space of a city characterized by towers of concrete and steel—instinctively seek out the calm and comfort open water represents. As Herman Melville’s most famous protagonist Ishmael wandered the water’s edge on Manhattan before setting sail in Moby Dick, he noted, “the insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs – commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward…Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.” Water, in the most fundamental sense is what we are made of—it is the basis of the natural world, and the most crucial building block of urban environments. So, if water is so important to our city and our sanity, why is it so hard for New Yorkers to access?
This was the question of the hour last Saturday at the 2nd annual City of Water Day on Governor’s Island. Sponsored by the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance—a coalition of more than 400 organizations from all over the tri-state area committed to revitalizing the waterfront—City of Water Day is a celebration of the vast potential of the waterfront for commerce, recreation, ecological diversity and enhanced park space, and included free kayaking lessons, lectures and film screenings about waterfront issues, a tide pool, live music, food, teach-ins, and even a boat-building workshop.
“This is our chance to demonstrate what a city of water could look like,” said Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance CEO and Executive Director Roland Lewis. “There could be fishing and kayaking, lounging in the park—we are turning New York into a waterfront town on an island for a day.”
And what better place than in New York—America’s most bustling and overbuilt metropolis—to draw attention to the importance, and potential, of regular access to the natural beauty that surrounds urban environments lucky enough to have been built along a coastline. Especially when the overall success of the city can be directly credited to the very waterfront from which it is now so utterly disconnected.
“For a long time, we’ve turned our backs on the waterfront,” Lewis continued. “Now we’ve rediscovered it, but we create walls in the form of condos. When they first built Manhattan, there was no Central Park. The waterfront was the park, the center for recreation. The water should be ours—it’s refreshing to the spirit, and to our communities.”
In addition to acting as a socially and environmentally positive urban space, the waterfront—and available access to it—is now more important than ever in the face of a dwindling economy: It is one of the only truly free recreational spaces the city has to offer, and blocking it raises questions of spatial segregation.
“Our waterfront should reflect the diversity of the city that surrounds it,” Lewis explained. “It should be equitable for all, including those who can’t afford to live in the condos. The people in the city with means can go to the Hamptons or Connecticut, but the people without need a place to go too. We will always gravitate towards water—it’s in our bones. It is a common ground that all people should be able to enjoy.”
Not so in New York. Or at least, not yet. Neighborhoods in all five boroughs—including our very own Greenpoint/Williamsburg—are engaging in ongoing struggles for the waterfront. In this year’s Project for Public Spaces’ “Hall of Shame,” New York City came in at the top of the list as having utilized its waterfront in the least positive and progressive fashion, which is exactly what the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance is trying to change, through advocacy, planning projects and events like this one.
“The city and nature simply can’t be either/or,” said Bill Slezak, Chief of Harbor Programs at the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, a Metrpolitan Waterfront Alliance member organization. “To be out on the water is to really appreciate and understand New York City. We want to reintroduce people to the natural resources in and around the harbor, as it is a great natural port.”
Slezak paused, his eyes drawn to a fish tank full of creatures caught in the Hudson, observing children play with small urchins, crabs and sea snails. “Development and restoration are no longer on two separate tracks—they’ve got to be integrated so we can build ecologically friendly habitats for wildlife and humans.”