by Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy
It doesn’t take a detective to figure out that Brooklyn Bridge Park is, well, a park. Places for sitting: check. Tall trees for shade: check. Grassy areas for hanging out: check. Paths for walking: check. Water: check. All the familiar clues that spell neighborhood park are here. But in what ways can the Park be described as sustainable? That’s the question students in grades 5 to 12 come to tackle during their exploratory walking tour of Pier 1 that forms the core of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy’s Sustainable Landscape class.
With a bit of sleuthing and support from a Conservancy educator, the students bring to light telltale clues that reveal how the Park conserves water and other resources, how it reuses materials, and how it supports natural ecosystems.
For starters, there’s the mop of greenery sprouting from the top of the compact utility building and refreshment stand near the entrance to Pier 1, where the group meets. When it rains, the roof’s soil layer holds the water, which the green roof’s plantings absorb. Soil and plants keep the sun’s rays away from the roof surface, which helps cool the building in the hot summer months, reducing the need for air-conditioning. The densely layered plant community in turn offers habitat for birds as well as insects and other invertebrates—all services a standard roof could never dream to provide.
Then there’s the building itself. Its facade is clad with boards of southern yellow pine, a lucky local find turned significant design element of the Park. In the 19th century, the yellow pine, also known as longleaf pine or heart pine, had been used for the beams and joists of the National Cold Storage Warehouses that stood right at the site. Like other conifers, Pinus palustris as the tree is known botanically, produces resin; unlike other conifers, however, it produces enormous amounts of it, giving the wood extreme durability and strength. Today, the reclaimed rot-resistant yellow pine makes handsome benches that can withstand the park’s salty air, sun, rain, snow, and cold. So, as one student mused, “There’s no need to cut down living trees to make seats.” The pine, once common throughout the Southeast is now almost completely gone from its original range due to its popularity as a building material. This serves as a reminder of the East Coast’s recent human history.
The students continue their walk along the edge of Pier 1: On their left, densely layered plantings of wildlife-friendly trees and shrubs frame a grassy slope. On their right, the wild waters of the East River come rushing in or out, depending on the tide. Once the students reach the wind-pummeled tip of Pier 1, they have a clear view toward Pier 2, which still looks pretty much like all piers originally looked—flat like a parking lot. Now they turn toward the hillside of Pier 1 and begin to climb the steps of Granite Prospect that carry them more than 30 feet above the East River. Arriving at the top, the students pause for a moment to take in the expansive view of the New York Harbor opening before them. Then they’re back on task, “Wait, we’re on a pier right, so there’s a mountain on a pier? That’s so much stuff. How can that be sustainable?” Turns out the bulk of the material that makes up the rolling hills of Pier 1 was excavated a few miles away in Manhattan during construction of the East Side Access Tunnel, and the stuff had to go somewhere. As for the steps, informally known as Brooklyn’s stoop, they are made from granite that was left over when the Roosevelt Island Bridge was rebuilt.
Circling back to the entrance of Pier 1, the students follow the interconnected ponds that collect the rainwater that percolates through the soil of the Pier 1 watershed. After being filtered naturally, the water is stored underground until needed to irrigate the Pier’s thirsty plants in times of drought. Together, the shaped landscape, soil, plants, ponds, and catchment system contribute to hold water on the land instead of shedding it, as the city’s acres and acres of impermeable surfaces do. A park with a sustainable twist, or two, or three.