Creative Reuse in Brooklyn Bridge Park

Urban Green Council Program Associate Emma Gillespie recently had the opportunity to interview Brooklyn Bridge Park architects Nik Elcovitch and Matthew Urbanski from Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates on the park’s sustainable features. Urban Green Council will be offering a tour of the park on April 21st.

Emma Gillespie:  The park has many sustainable design aspects- which ones are you most proud of?

Matt Urbanski: I think the main thing that makes this project most unique is the overarching concept of creative reuse. Along with reuse must come resourcefulness- trying to make the most out of the resources a site provides, which is different than what you might be encouraged to do otherwise. Our approach is one of resourcefulness but its not one solely motivated by sustainability or a green agenda. That, of course, dovetails beautifully with what we are doing, and this approach of resourcefulness is an aspect of the green agenda… And it was also out of great respect of what was already there... [Reuse and resourcefulness] came together to support the green agenda. One of the great resources of the site was the incredible scale of the site. There was an industrial scale that came out of the utility that seemed to work very well as a new type of experience for New Yorkers. We have some of the best parks in the country, but they’re not necessarily industrial. So to tap into the industrial scale was key to the idea behind this project.

EG:  Can you give me some specific examples of reuse within the smaller design elements of the park?

Nik Elcovitch: Sure. You’re probably familiar with the existing building at Pier 1 that was there. That building was filled with lumber, and that particular wood was used because of its durability.  So for a marine environment, we thought that we could use all this lumber as furnishings in the park- the benching is all made from this lumber. In the next couple of weeks, you’ll start to see this lumber go into Pier 6 construction.

Another cool example of sustainable reuse was—and when the park is finished, you’ll never know this— when you go to Pier 1, you see lawn, shrubs and trees. You would think that we brought in planting soil.  75,000 cubic yards of the fill is pulverized granite from the East Side Access Project.  So as they were digging that tunnel, they were discharging pulverized granite and shipped it four miles away to our site. We were receiving about 70 truckloads per day for about five months. You see the final expression in the landforms.

MU: One fortuitous thing about the project is that we were able to get a great level of cooperation between agencies to get their materials. But again, practically, those are hard things to do. We had other ideas for fill. So being flexible and having municipal agencies that are willing to work together is also an important thing to be advocating for.

The other showstopper is the park’s water reuse .

NE: Throughout Pier 1 we have standard drain units, but instead of leading to the river we move all that stormwater to underground tanks. We collect over 100,00 gallons of water. From the tanks, with the irrigation pump, we pump this stormwater up to the highest point of our filtration system, which are our wetland ponds. So as gravity works, we have plants that help with the filtration down to the lower pond and from there feeds back down into the collection tanks. As the park continues to develop, the future development sites will also be connected into the system.

MU: When you decide to do [a project] like this, you have to learn how to become very nimble. It’s great that the reuse concept is becoming more acceptable—this has changed over the years. For advocates like Urban Green Council, I like to say ‘don’t over promise and under deliver, under promise and over deliver’. It’s better to never give up on being pragmatic.


EG:  The completed sections of the park have quickly become an integral part of Brooklyn. That said, what are some of the challenges of designing a park with so much still to be implemented?

MU: The biggest challenge is the greatest opportunity, which is that the site was off limits for [the members of the community’s] whole lifetime because it was an industrial site. We were bringing a piece of land into that place and so it wasn’t easy for people to get their heads around what we were doing and what the possibilities were. And one of the greatest surprises was that people are receiving it well. What is being made continues to be different from what’s already there. And we hope that people will continue to receive it well.

About the authors

Emma Gillespie