‘Neighborhood parks are not just nice amenities; they are real public health assets that support our communities’ physical and emotional well-being.’

Courtesy Gowanuslands.org

A rendering of the park that the authors’ and other community members envision for the Public Place site, where the city is proposing housing and a school.

In a recent study of open space in 15 major U.S. cities, New York City came in last. While the city has several world-class large parks, it lacks smaller quality neighborhood parks with grass, trees and a little space to walk. In neighborhoods where these parks are present, they are enduring community anchors that make a meaningful difference in the lives of their residents.

Gowanus has even less public greenspace than the low New York City average, as well as in comparison with neighboring communities. Existing parks in the community are small, paved and often in disrepair.  By the Parks Department’s own assessment, Gowanus is underserved for open space.

For years, the community has pushed for a public park on Public Place, a vacant, six-acre plot of city-owned land along the west side of the Gowanus Canal. The site is perfect for a park due to its size, location, and accessibility, and much needed due to the lack of open green space in the community.  In 1974, the community, local elected officials, and city government worked together to enact zoning protections to prevent development on the site, and to protect it for open green space and recreation uses. For years, the park was delayed due to pollution concerns. In 2018, National Grid began a clean-up initiative.

Recently, instead of developing a park, the Department of City Planning (DCP) has proposed to remove the open space protections from the site and to develop it into a 28-story housing complex as part of the Gowanus rezoning proposal. DCP is now inviting public comment on that proposal. While housing is important, DCP should consider the community’s input on this issue, and recognize the importance of the site for public open green space in the community.

Neighborhood parks are not just nice amenities; they are real public health assets that support our communities’ physical and emotional well-being. For the majority of New Yorkers, city parks are also our primary and sometimes only access to green spaces.

The Gowanus rezoning proposal would allow a host of new high-rises, 8,000 to 10,000 new apartments, and roughly double the size of the population of the neighborhood from 20,000 to 40,000 people.  Many in the community have expressed concerns about the potential effect of this proposal on local infrastructure such as open space, affordable housing, schools and subways, as well as the timing of the proposal and public-process by which it will be presented to the community (i.e. during the COVID-19 pandemic and with virtual public meetings).

The rezoning proposal would certainly increase the need for open space in community; Public Place Park is the best way to meet that need. While housing can be built throughout the community and on multiple sites, there are no other sites left in the community for open space – it is now almost entirely paved over. We should protect the one site left that can become a quality park (and that already has been designated for open space by the community, city government, and local elected officials).

The park also has clear environmental benefits. First, it allows for long-term environmental remediation, which is important because the site is polluted. Despite the National Grid cleanup, according to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, the site will require long-term monitoring and site assessment. A park allows for that monitoring and assessment to occur while also providing for public use, similar to the Freshkills Park model on Staten Island.

The park will also mitigate flooding for the whole neighborhood by absorbing storm water runoff into the canal. Flooding is a big problem in the community which is likely to get worse due to additional development, continued public disinvestment in sewer infrastructure, and more frequent storm surge as a result of climate change. In the absence of long-delayed sewer pipelines and overflow tanks, the park will provide critical flood mitigation infrastructure needed in the community.

In addition to the much needed environmental benefits (improving air quality, counteracting heat stress with shade, etc.), studies have shown that urban parks also serve as biodiversity hotspots in what would otherwise be an uninhabitable concrete desert. Providing Gowanus with a park would help all of its residents – human and otherwise. It’s very easy for our native insects and birds to be overlooked, but they are some of the tiny, essential cogs that make our planet run, and just like us, they need suitable habitats to survive. Even short lived pop-up parks have been shown to increase species richness, but nothing can match the ecological benefits of having permanent green space in underserved areas.

DCP is inviting public comment to the rezoning proposal, and the community is speaking out on Public Place Park. Over 1,000 people have now signed the gowanuslands.org petition asking DCP to consider the Park, and several local elected officials are taking note. The public hearings for the Gowanus rezoning proposal will begin in January 2021; now is the time for the community to engage with Community Board 6, local elected officials, and DCP on the importance of Public Place Park and open public green space in the community.

The authors represent local community group Gowanuslands.org.