February 9, 2010  |  Design, Rising Currents
Rising Currents: Public Space Redefined

This morning I got on the Staten Island ferry to tour parks on the island with Parks Department officials and the leadership of a major environmental foundation. For several of them, it was the first trip to Staten island where they actually got off the ferry and went onto the island. Along the way, we talked about the harbor and the upcoming Rising Currents exhibition at MoMA.

I was fortunate to be able to attend the final weekend of open studio at P.S.1, where the five teams shared the ongoing process of their work, and I joined a few other city officials, including City Planning Chair Amanda Burden and Leslie Koch, who is directing the development of Governors Island. The whole place was wonderfully crowded, and the final session where each team gave presentations was held in a room crammed to the gills with people, including many sitting or lying on the floor.

From the Parks point of view, the proposals represent some innovative ways to create new realms of public space, places that are not traditional parks, but rather are flexible zones of water and land and plants and animals. We currently tend to look at parks as distinct from other urban forms, with fences, walls, planted buffers— different vocabularies of building materials. While each team has proposed concepts very different from the others, they all redefine the interaction of streets, parks, seawalls, canals, piers, and even the harbor itself. From a purely selfish point of view, many of the proposals offer a major expansion of flexible green space.

Since the Dutch set up a trading post in New Amsterdam in 1624, we have filled in the watery edge and built hard infrastructure to enable commerce and transportation. The Rising Currents proposals tell us that we may need to think in a completely different way about infrastructure, parks, how we live and get around, and the intersection of water and land in the cities of the twenty-first century.

As we work on Mayor Bloomberg’s “PlaNYC” initiatives to build a more sustainable city—even as we add a million new residents—we are challenged every day, on projects big and small, to make each one function more holistically within the urban infrastructure. I am excited by the many ideas and approaches already growing out of Rising Currents, and we are looking forward to the exhibition’s opening. Rising Currents will likely offer a great deal to policy makers, but it will also help educate the public—both New Yorkers and visitors—about the challenges that lie ahead and the new thinking that will be required to meet them.