Author Archives: Patrick O'Neill

A new word for NYC: bioswales

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy the issue of New York’s vulnerability to flooding has stepped to the forefront of media concerns. And rightly so. With a mountain of scientific data indicating the future holds increased threats from global warming, a coastal city like New York can ill afford to ignore the problem of flooding. But while the dramatic scenes of storm surges and the wreckage left in their wake are what stay in people’s minds, New York has long dealt with a less conspicuous flooding problem brought on by annual rainfall.

In the natural world soil plays a vital role in stormwater retention. One of the problems facing a city as heavily developed as New York is that it is almost completely paved over so there is no topsoil to provide stormwater retention and rainwater simply runs off the surface asphalt into the storm drains. When those drains are filled to capacity during heavy rains not only does the water pool in low lying areas, but it also floods the sewer system (to which the storm water system is connected in what is called a Combined Sewer Overflow system, or CSO) which then overflows into our rivers and streams.
Bioswale Model

The city has been diligently working on an inconspicuous and cost-effective solution first proposed in the PlaNYC document of 2007 to use green infrastructure to combat this problem. As the name implies, green infrastructure utilizes the natural properties of plants and soil to retain water so that it doesn’t overtax the storm system. New York receives about 44 inches of rain a year, and as a consequence of changes in global weather patterns noted above, rather than being spaced out evenly, those 44 inches are starting to come in punctuated periods of more extreme weather. This is not only worse for the storm system but also for plants as temperate weather shifts to extremes of flood and drought, which is always harder on the environment. The Green Infrastructure initiative was created to figure out a way to retain at least 10% of this runoff in order to reduce flooding and pollution in specific areas of the city so as to meet federal water quality standards in problem areas like Jamaica Bay and the infamous Gowanus Canal, to name a few. And the way it accomplishes this is primarily through the use of bioswales and greenstreets.

Bioswale DEP
Think of a bioswale as a large planter buried in the street. It acts as a small cistern, strategically placed to follow the street grade to maximize its effectiveness, catching rainwater as it runs from an area of high elevation to low elevation. The soil in the bioswale soaks up the water like a sponge where it is captured, stored, and released in a controlled manner through infiltration into the surrounding soil, evaporation, and evapotranspiration (a combination of evaporation and being used by the vegetation).

An important aspect of the bioswales is that they aren’t designed to be simply function as storm water retention. They are active microenvironments for the vegetation that gets planted there. Some of these plants are chosen mainly for their hardiness or resistance to pollution and flooding, but many are quite beautiful. Consequently the neighborhoods in which they are built will see an increase in property values and habitability due both the functional and aesthetic value of the bioswales. They provide benefits in other ways as well by adding shade from the trees as well as cooling the area in the summer heat through evapotranspiration. In addition, the green infrastructure initiative is actually working in conjunction with the Million Tree initiative, so wherever a bioswale is slated to be built it will include a tree.
During the planning stages a neighborhood will typically be sited for well over a hundred bioswales, but various zoning restrictions such as proximity to stop signs, parking meters, bus stops, fire hydrants, catch basins, existing trees, as well as surveying results and soil samples, and will typically winow this number down by about 60 to 75 percent. That’s still a lot of bioswales; enough to have a definitive impact on water retention as well as the beautification of the neighborhood. Each bioswale can capture about 250 cubic feet of water per rain event.

The other major green infrastructure program is greenstreets. Whereas bioswales are relatively small, about 20×5 ft (typically twice as big as current tree planters) greenstreets are considerably larger averaging about 2,000 square feet. (One greenstreet captured 25,000 gallons of water during hurricane Irene). Bioswales are also constructed on sidewalk space, whereas greenstreets are constructed in underutilized street space. Greenstreets serve the same purpose as bioswales, only on a larger scale and they are also equipped with scientific monitoring equipment to measure things like rainfall, temperature, evapotranspiration, windspeed, pollution, etc, all in an effort to continually improve the effectiveness of the design of green infrastructure through continual monitoring and feedback.

The Green Infrastructure Unit of the Parks Department also works with local people to get a better idea of what they want and how best to serve the neighborhood’s needs. For private property owners it’s possible to apply for a grant to install green infrastructure on your property, and the city also has an adopt a tree program where anyone can become a certified tree pruner taking care of your own swale. The hope is that by encouraging such civic participation the benefits of the program will reach a wider audience and it’s also been shown that trees that have been adopted live longer and are healthier.
Bioswale construction

So where is this green infrastructure? Well there’s a chance you’ve seen the bioswales already but just didn’t notice them because on the surface they tend to look a lot like the street trees we’re all so used, only larger. And while they certainly beautify the neighborhood, they are designed to do so inconspicuously and unobstrusively. But don’t think these are just holes in the ground filled with dirt. From the stones that filter sediments to the soil bacteria that can actually break down hydrocarbon pollutants and render them inert, the external rustic simplicity of the design belies a complicated and highly engineered system of hydrological engineering, landscaping, and natural water filtration that has a definitive environmental impact while saving the city hundreds of millions of dollars in massive, unsightly, and noisy infrastructure projects. As the program develops, new solutions to unique problems are always being implemented and the green infrastructure itself is constantly evolving to become more efficient, more beautiful, and more cost-effective.

For a more in-depth look at this topic check out a lecture given by Nette Compton, Director of the Green Infrastructure Unit.

Photos: NYC Parks

Claire Weisz

Claire Weisz is a founding partner of WXY Architecture + Urban Design, an award-winning, multi-disciplinary practice known for the innovative design of buildings, civic infrastructure, and public open space around New York City.

We first interviewed her weeks before Hurricane Sandy struck New York, but we begin with a follow-up conversation not long after the storm passed.


Your recent work for New York includes many projects that fell in the direct path of Hurricane Sandy: newly built Transmitter Park in Greenpoint, public buildings for the beach at Far Rockaway, public architecture in Battery Park that flooded at the tip of Manhattan, and on top of that, you’re now working on the East River Blueway, again at the water’s edge. Tell us about Sandy’s effect on your work.

The parks performed well, and they helped the waterfront absorb the impact from the storm surge. The parks have survived in great measure the salt water in the Battery and Greenpoint and the sand in Far Rockaway. This is taking into consideration that they came back within three weeks of the storm with the help of many volunteers and staff, who devoted hours to clean up those areas.

It is the electrical and mechanical infrastructure that didn’t survive the storm surge, and now the city and state are having to do a great deal to repair and re-install damaged equipment. Hard hit were the offices of many of our public and not-for-profit clients – the Battery whose office and archives were devastated, Jill Weber and her team in the Rockaways whose offices were severely damaged. Many agencies have staff who also have damaged homes.

Did the storm change the way you think about the city’s waterfront? Or might design for the waterfront, going forward?

Yes. It gave us a direct understanding of 100-year, and 500-year, flood lines. This was a reality check in time, space, and effect. Now I will never push to have utility infrastructure within reach of even a 500 year line. But like other catastrophic events it is important to not forget, but to absorb and make a part of all the design decisions one has going forward. Especially when making the hard decision of what to choose to do first.

As a designer of public space, if you were to boil down your reactions to the event, and came up with one take-away message for people to think about, what would it be? What would you like to see the city, and the country, do going forward? Are there adaptive methods or infrastructure would you like to see put into accelerated use?

Prioritize the environment by investing in the resiliency of cities and their residents, and this includes not just New York, but all important waterfront cities.

As a country we have to realize that the best way to save the planet is to support the fact that our cities all over the country — from Detroit to New Orleans — present the best opportunity for lowering our carbon footprint and are critical players in safeguarding our rural spaces and agricultural lands.

We need to make cities — and people who live and work in cities — a national priority, and invest in innovations in social and civic infrastructure like public housing and transportation and all types of public open spaces on and near the waterfront. This will be the best investment we can make in light of the unpredictability of climate change. It was amazing how grateful people were that the 2011 revival of East River ferry service was there to fill in when the subways weren’t running yet.

Do you think the city should build sea gates?

I hope that we will innovate in many areas and this might include sea gates. It is going to test the city and state’s abilities to harness a coordinated effort to do all types of environmental work that is not on the table today, because of permitting and current regulations. New York City in all the five boroughs needs to raise the level of many of the waterfront lands for storm protection and raise critical infrastructure in our public housing, hospitals, sewage treatment and utility buildings.

We need to put back and increase the dunes, invest in cogeneration and a disbursed power and data network, and even build new sea gates, salt marshes, planted berms and other initiatives. This increases the local expertise with rising sea levels; engineers, architects and ecologists might come up with a range of measures that even the Dutch haven’t tried yet. As important as sea gates might also be state-of-the-art local energy generation and data hubs.

Our first interview with Claire Weisz took place weeks before Hurricane Sandy struck New York. That portion follows:


Can you tell us about some of the current projects you’re working on in the city, like the Rockaway project?

The Rockaway project is the architectural piece of a master plan for a very unusual park. It was basically a little tiny park attached to a very large parking lot that was really part of the dunes and was used for dumping, from Beach 9th Street to Beach 30th Street.

When you say it was used for dumping…

People thought it was derelict land and they’d leave things there. The Rockaways is so challenged environmentally from threats of storms and also because it’s such a mix of high poverty areas, relative transportation isolation, and beautiful environment. It’s become an affordable place for people to move, but it also has real economic challenges and it doesn’t have all of the services and amenities. So one of the target parks that the Bloomberg administration focused on was to create a real amenity out there. So, everyone wanted a pool, but they got instead lots of water play, a skateboard park, more playgrounds, a big lawn for concerts, a football field.

The idea is that you have a functional thing, the maintenance office, a comfort station, but then you have this space and there’s kind of a dune park over here.

Attached to a comfort station is an open air classroom or community meeting space — something that can be a shade structure when nothing is happening, but that also becomes the beach pavilion shared by everyone.

Was the intent to service mainly just that community? Or to allow other people from other communities to use it as well?

The intent was to actually do something similar to what happened in Battery Park City. They created the best playground around and everyone from the whole city showed up there, which is not surprising. That was a similar goal in the Rockaways. To open up the neighborhood. And it’s already happened apparently. People are showing up at the skate park [from all over].

Tell us about another project you’re working on.

Another project — also a waterfront park — is called Transmitter Park. It’s part of the Greenpoint master plan, and it ties together…have you seen the zipper benches?

Down at the Staten Island ferry terminal?

Yes. We were doing the master plan for the park, and trying to figure out the urban design and zoning issues of making people feel like the esplanade was going to be public. We started to explore this idea of a bench that then turned and took you somewhere.

Then we realized that that idea of the benches had a lot to do with some of the things we felt urban design needed to do. One is encompassing an environmental idea of public — what they shared, what things, like trees, need to be protected, and how to occupy space and make really good relationships.

Out of that master plan we’re doing one piece of [Transmitter Park] as a park with Dar Walkovitch of A-com, the landscape architects. And we’ve designed the pier and you’ll see all of the railing, and the benches, and this pretty interesting pier. Only half of it’s being built. It’s actually a branching idea. So it’s an idea of saving money actually to do piers, where you only put the pile foundations, the piers, at what we call pods, and then you have these little bridges that connect the pods.

 And that’s just phase one?

Well, already, you’ll go down if you take the ferry, already pieces of it are being built,  and as each developer develops property parts of the esplanade will be built. And Bushwick Inlet Park is also part of that master plan.

And what else is on the docket for the master plan? How far into the future does the plan reach?

The whole thing is ongoing and it’s happening as we speak. It’s really interesting to see that public realm being built one piece at a time. And I have to say, on Transmitter Park, I went there the other week and there’s this fantastic new little coffee shop in a place that was a dead end street.

It must be satisfying to see these spaces being occupied.

Completely satisfying to see… people have all these ideas. What’s also fun about Transmitter Park is it’s a site for the Nuit Blanche festival, so that’ll be out there.

The other big project that we have under construction is the sanitation garage and salt shed on Spring Street, and that’s also worth talking about.  That’s a big industrial, city project to house three garage units, maintain vehicles, store salt, refuel garbage trucks, house sanitation personnel. And you can see the steel going up.

So what kind of things are you thinking of for the sanitation garage?

Well the sanitation garage is designed and it’s now under construction and really that was developed kind of twofold. How to do a beautiful, but yet, not aggressive building; a building that was very calm and could feel like a good neighbor. But the exciting thing about it is that all the guts of it are kind of shielded by louvers which are kind of composed to make subtle differences on the West side and on the South side.

Is that to disguise the building from the rest of the neighborhood?

In a way. In a way it’s to not say in super graphics, “here’s a big garage here” towards the neighborhood, but towards the West Side Highway it’s very apparent. But the idea is to not make it look like an office building — to actually make it look like the piece of industrial civic architecture that it is. [But] there won’t be any public access to it if you’re not a sanitation worker.

We’re trying to really enhance the industrial quality of it and make people want to go in, and we hope there will be tours actually, of the trucks and everything because there’s a lot of potential for that. And to be able to have kids really access and see how big these machines are, what it takes to kind of clean them. So when they see a garbage truck going down the street picking up recycling they’ll have a whole new appreciation for it.

What’s your background?

I grew up in Canada, and I went to the University of Toronto for architecture. Got my professional degree there. Then, the economy was terrible — so basically, on a lark, I decided to go to Los Angeles. Los Angeles at that point was an interesting place to be as an architect. Frank Gehry had just finished his little house, there was all sorts of dialogue about downtown LA, and people were looking at city halls as community.

I felt very lucky; I worked for architect Charles Moore at the Urban Innovations Group and really got interested in the idea of how design and communities and kind of new things happen.

So that’s always been a real interest, but very much as an architect. I would say at a core I am interested in form, space, light and inhabitability, I’ll call it. I’m interested in architecture being the kind of ‘art of people.’

I went back to school at Yale and that’s where I met Mark Yoes, who is my current partner. After I graduated I worked for Agrest and Gandelsonas, who are very interested in…I’ll call it ‘acupuncture planning.’ The idea that you kind of can read a city and do certain things at certain points that will change the city more. They’re very anti-master plan. I was very compelled by that, so I worked for them. 

What do you think New York needs more of? Just more green spaces, or something completely different?

I think what New York always needs more of is passionate, visionary supporters, and essentially clients for design, like Friends of the High Line, like Robby Hammond, Joshua David, and Rory Price at the Battery, and Betsy Barlow Rogers.

There are younger people who get ideas in Jamaica, in Far Rockaway, and see something and they want it to be better than anything in the neighborhood — whether it’s better food, better seating, better shade, better wi-fi — on some level I think that’s what’s really fun about New York. There exists an engagement in expectation, and that’s really what we need more of.

There are so many talented people who have ideas about how to make things and do things. The other piece is supporting local talent in the industry — people who make clothes and people who make railings — and trying to find a way to create affordable spaces so that people can make new things.

So there’s no real fixed idea in your head of what New York should be — it’s just sort of a never-ending potential of what could happen?

To me it’s really about the dynamic — this dynamic of saying, making a living and making money and doing well — that ambition to create a business that’s successful is fantastic. But, coupled with that, we want it to be the BEST interior restaurant, we want it to be the best… those two things working together, not just one or the other. I think it’s that. Then you get the unexpected.

More recent design work from WXY includes a popular plan for the development of Pier 40 on the Lower West Side of Manhattan, as shown in this video:

And a plan for the redevelopment of the blocks around Grand Central Terminal, as part of the Municipal Art Society’s new report on the future of East Midtown



Claire Weisz founded WXY Architecture + Urban Design and has focused on creating innovative approaches to public space, structures and cities. She co-founded with Andrea Woodner The Design Trust for Public Space and was its co-executive director. Claire is currently on faculty at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service and a visiting critic at the University of Toronto, and she has also taught and lectured at Yale University, Parsons’ Graduate Program in the School of Constructed Environments, Columbia University, NJIT and The Pratt Institute. She has served on numerous design award and competition juries and was co-editor of AD magazine’s “Extreme Sites: Greening the Brownfield” issue. Frequently cited in the media and professional circles, Claire is a registered architect in California, New York and New Jersey.

Portait of Claire Weisz by Jessica Bruah; all other images courtesy: WXY

The High Line enters its final stage of development

The High Line has quickly become one of the most beloved and iconic public spaces in New York City. As anyone who has visited the site can attest, it’s always thronged with people: New Yorkers, out-of-towners, foreign tourists, you name it. It manages to seamlessly combine the incessant hum of the city itself with the peace and tranquility of a much larger public park. Even developers love the site as adjoining spaces are attracting starchitect design talent and fetching ridiculous prices on the housing market.

Everyone now has cause to rejoice anew as the third and final stage of the High Line project is now underway. Known as the High Line at the Rail Yards, this last section will go from W. 30th to W. 34th streets in a large arc around the rail yards, ending in an abutment of the West Side Highway. The official groundbreaking for this stage of the project was on Thursday, September 20th and this section will be open to the public the first two weekends of October for those who have registered.

The final stage is scheduled to be completed sometime in 2014 and with the High Line being such a renowned success, who knows what similar projects will follow it. That particular area of the city has been a hotbed of development contention for years with plans having been proposed for an Olympic stadium, the Moynihan station expansion of Penn Station, the current extension of the 7 train, and myriad other projects. The completion of the High Line will be a small but significant step in the right direction for the revitalization of the area.


Breaking ground on soundview park

On Monday, June 18, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., joined Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and other elected officials to break ground on improvements to Soundview Park. Soundview Park is one of the eight regional parks being transformed under PlaNYC, the City’s long-term plan for a greener, greater New York. The work at Soundview Park will include the construction of more than $15 million in new amenities, including a track and field with a synthetic turf soccer field, a playground, sports court, comfort station, and outdoor amphitheater with an overlook and access path.

For more information about Soundview and New York’s other parks, visit the NYC Parks website.

details and image:

Enjoy fun in the sun at a historic grand re-opening



Thursday, June 28th marks the grand opening of McCarren Park Pool in McCarren Park, Brooklyn. I should say re-opening. Located within the 35-acre McCarren Park, McCarren Pool was one of eleven pools opened by Robert Moses in 1936. The pool closed in 1984 and sat unused until the summer of 2005, when the empty pool basin opened as a popular venue for concerts, dance, and movies. Thanks to the $50 million in funding allocated through Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC initiative, McCarren Pool has been rebuilt as a center for year-round recreation and will have its grand re-opening on Thursday, June 28th.

Click here for more information

Description and image: NYC Parks

Take a tour of New York…from the nineteenth century

Ever wonder what it was like to stroll through Central Park back when Sheep’s Meadow still had sheep grazing on it? Or to go for a dip at the beach when a woman showing a bit of ankle was cause to raise some eyebrows? The Arsenal Gallery in Central Park is hosting an exhibit of 68 photographs celebrating the New York City parks system between 1890 and 1940. The photos, which are part of the Museum of the City of New York’s archive, are a treasure trove of candid shots from a bygone era; the nascent years of the system of New York Parks and Recreation that we know and love today.


While it’s fascinating to see how much has changed; clothing, automobiles, demographics and ethnicities, it’s sometimes even more interesting to find the things that remain the same. Like going through old family photographs and seeing a grandparent when they were in their teens or twenties, the old buildings and other landmarks that we pass with insouciant familiarity today look more vibrant, and full of promise in these monochrome captures. They stare defiantly back, harbingers of change, the sole familiar feature in an alien landscape about to be transformed by the ineluctable march of progress.


The photographs of human subjects are no less impressive and thought provoking. The clothing may change, the people may change, the landscape itself may change, but the pursuits of the human heart are eternal and repeating from one generation to the next. The turn of a shoulder, a woman’s smile, the unbridled exuberance of children at play; these things will never change.

The exhibit is on display until August 30, 2012.

Click here for more information.

Microscopic landscape by Malcolm MacDougall III

Visit Union Square Park tonight for the ribbon cutting on a new Art in the Parks installation.

Sharing a natural dialogue with Union Square at the vibrant nexus of New York City is Malcolm D. MacDougall’s sculpture, Microscopic Landscape. The 24 foot, 7,500 lb work “is about potential energy and pushing a stagnant object as close to perceived movement as possible.” The constant motion found in Union Square is a microcosm teeming with diversity that defines the city, finding its inspiration in the multifaceted structures of the sculpture, and in turn inspiring this artist to observe activities as seen on the molecular level. The sculpture serves as a snapshot of the ongoing activity in the neighborhood; it is a static object that maintains the constant anticipation of movement, just as the grounds of Union Square provide the framework for the energetic flow of people and commerce. This exhibition is presented in conjunction with the Union Square Partnership.

The ribbon cutting is scheduled for Tuesday, June 19th at 7pm with a reception at the Citibank on 14th St. & Broadway to follow. The installation will be there through January 30, 2013.

Description and image: NYC Parks

Progress on the East River Blueway Plan

Previous City Atlas posts have covered the evolving plans for the East River Blueway Plan between the Brooklyn Bridge and 38th street. The plan is to improve water access and habitability along that strip of Manhattan coast through the renovation of green spaces and improvements in transportation and infrastructure. Urban Omnibus recently posted an interview with Adam Lubinsky, one of the principals of WXY Architecture + Urban Design, the firm chiefly responsible this colossal undertaking.

Mr. Lubinsky begins by discussing the overall plan for the Blueway and its inspiration and then goes on to talk about the challenges facing his firm, the city, and the relevant neighborhoods involved. It’s not simply a matter of water access, but rather a multitiered approach to habitability and improvement involving sanitation, the MTA, and various community boards and environmental groups as well as all the typical construction and engineering concerns. And the aesthetics of the end product are as much of a concern as any of these other issues.

The interview is nice inside look into the considerations that go into city projects of this magnitude and the concerns that different parties have to deal with and concede to. In a city where change is the watchword, the East River Blueway Plan is one of the more exciting projects on the docket and City Atlas will be following its progress closely.

Why New York has the most valuable muck in the world

As progress on the much-delayed Second Avenue subway line creeps along, one question has undoubtedly occurred to the many New Yorkers who witness the queues of dump trucks arriving and departing every day: “What do they do with all the rocks and dirt that are excavated from the site?”

Colloquially known as muck, hundreds of thousands of pounds of this stuff are to be excavated by project’s end. To give an idea of the scale of the project, just the planned 72nd Street station alone, which is being excavated from solid rock, is estimated to yield  375,000 cubic yards of muck. This amounts to 40 to 70 truckloads a day, with each truck having a carrying capacity of about 20 tons. What does the city do with all this stuff? Well, as it happens they can do quite a bit with it.

In fact, the New York that we know and love today is the result of generations of recycled muck being put to good use.

New York is a city known world-wide for its vertical expansion. The fact that Manhattan is an island, and that its borders were reached generations ago, means that the city has no where to expand but up. Well, actually this isn’t entirely true. It might surprise some people to learn that the island of Manhattan has itself expanded to accommodate the demands of an ever increasing population and this expansion was made possible by using the muck from massive construction projects like our subway system.

For example, from 1896 all the way through to 1964, historic Ellis Island was continually expanded by landfill. What used to be a tiny five acre island now measures thirty-two acres, due primarily to the muck from the construction of the lettered subway lines in the 1930’s.

Governor’s Island, originally 90 acres, was enlarged to its current 172 acres by muck from the construction of the Lexington Avenue subway line deposited on its southern end in the early 1900’s. The excavation for the foundation of the World Trade Center created enough landfill to not only expand Battery Park further into the harbor, but also create all of the land now known as Battery Park City, one of the most expensive and highly developed residential districts in the city, bringing in millions in tax revenue from land that was literally created from nothing. Landfill is even used in building great monuments and works of art throughout the city. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine on the Upper West Side of Manhattan is largely built from rock excavated from the construction of the #1 line in 1904.


So with such an illustrious pedigree of profiting by reappropriation one would expect nothing less from today’s modern engineers and city planners. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be quite the case. Or at least not on the same scale as past projects.

There are actually three major rail projects under way in the City right now: the Second Avenue subway line, the LIRR tunnel under the East River, and the extension of the 7 line to the far West Side. By their completion these projects will have produced hundreds of thousands, if not millions of tons of muck, which has to be disposed of somewhere.

In the case of the LIRR tunnel some of this muck was used to construct the landscaping in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Though the project is ongoing, the parts that have been completed are an amazing testament to the power of dynamic urban design.  In the case of the Second Avenue subway line, some of it is being used in the construction of the new Ferry Point Golf Course in the Bronx. Both of these projects add economic value to the city’s real-estate, generate revenue through business and taxes, and provide much needed public space for rest and recreation. Not to mention the aesthetic value that carefully designed green space with its rolling hills and meandering paths adds to the austere rectilinearity of the city’s landscape.

Some of the muck is also crushed and sold for further use as building material in construction and landscaping, but the city does not directly profit from this business, as it is all conducted by private enterprise. Disappointingly, it doesn’t seem as if any of the muck is being used to add to the overall land mass of the city and it’s environs, as in the past, but it is being used for land reclamation in some sites in NY and NJ in addition to the above mentioned building material. None of it is actually wasting away in a landfill. But considering New York’s successful history of recycling precious excavation material, maybe new uses will be found before this round of digging is through.

The first Food Book Fair comes to Brooklyn

For all the foodies out there this weekend will be the first annual NYC Food Book Fair. Promised as “…the first ever event bringing together food publications from around the world alongside a dynamic set of events celebrating food writing, reading, and activism” it sounds like a great way to cap off a tough work week.

Participants Include:

  • Dr. Marion Nestle Author, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics and Food Politics
  • Harold McGee Author, On Food and Cooking
  • Peter Meehan Author and Editor, Lucky Peach
  • Jennifer Rubell Performance Artist
  • Tamar Adler Author, An Everlasting Meal

The event is being held May 4-6 at the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.

A Food Fight You Should Get Behind

This Friday May 4th, join author Daniel Imhoff and special guests for a conversation about the Food and Farm Bill, why it matters to you, and what you can do about it.

So what is the Food and Farm Bill? The Farm Bill  allocates funding for Food Stamps, conservation practices, and farm subsidies. The 2008 Farm Bill is set to expire September 30 of this year, so Congress is currently debating policies that ultimately determine what Americans will eat for the next five years.

According to Michael Pollan, “Nothing could do more to reform America’s food system, and by doing so, improve the condition of America’s environment and public health, than if citizens were to weigh in on the Farm Bill.”

Daniel Imhoff is the author of many books on food, farming, and the environment. His latest book, Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill, is a comprehensive and comprehensible guide to food and farm policy for the average citizen.

The event is sponsored by:
New York City Food and Farm Bill Working Group
Slow Food NYC
Brooklyn Food Coalition

The event is free, but space is limited. Click here for more information and to reserve a seat.

Learning Made Fun – Let the Festivities Begin

The World Science Festival kicks off at the end of this month so don’t forget to purchase tickets for one of the city’s most stimulating, multidisciplinary, and fun festivals of the year.

Launched in 2008, the World Science Festival has grown into one of the most anticipated events of the year in New York, attracting people of all nationalities, cultures, and ages, to to share their common interest in science and the world around them. Featuring outdoor interactive exhibits, symposia, lectures, games and discussions running the gamut of scientific inquiry and discovery, the World Science Festival is a great event for adults and children alike.

Check here for more information and to purchase tickets. The festival begins May 30th and runs at various locations throughout the city until June 3rd. Unfortunately, some of the more popular events are already sold out.

Olmsted’s Homesteads

It was 190 years ago yesterday, April 26 1822, that Frederick Law Olmsted was born in Hartford, Connecticut. Though he held many titles over a long and eventful life, including farmer, journalist, and public administrator, he is most well-known as the United States’ foremost landscape architect and of course, the designer of our beloved Central Park.

Olmsted’s career as a landscape architect surprisingly began with Central Park in 1857. It’s impossible to imagine Manhattan without Central Park, yet public parks were somewhat of an innovation in American cities at the time and their true value is still being speculated on today.


In 1865 Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux embarked on their second collaboration designing Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. As revolutionary a design as was Central Park, Olmsted considered Prospect Park to be his masterpiece; the most elegant synthesis of his key ideals of the pastoral and the picturesque in landscape design.


The social impact of these two projects alone cannot be overstated. On a local level they provided New York, and what was then the city of Brooklyn, both of which were growing at a phenomenal rate, with much desired, and much needed green space within a dense and intensely oppressive urbanization. The parks were an oasis from the crowds, noises, and smells of these 19th century industrial cities. They were also a bold experiment in social egalitarianism. Designed with the loftiest goals in mind, and costing exorbitant amounts of money to build, the parks were there to be used by all; from the wealthiest socialites to the poorest immigrants.


These two experiments proved to be so successful, and the social benefits so far outweighed the monetary costs that it soon became de rigueur for any up-and-coming American city to have one. By the end of his life, Olmsted had had hundreds of commissions for parks and green spaces throughout the US. Through his masterful designs, his tireless efforts as a social commentator, and his role as New York’s parks commissioner, the idea of public parks as a social necessity slowly started to spread and become part of this country’s national consciousness.

The issue of public spaces is still hotly debated today. New York and Brooklyn were still nascent cities at the time their great parks were constructed. Central Park and Prospect Park were pruned from the wilderness. Any new green spaces today must, of necessity, be carved from the accretion of two centuries of urbanization. Buildings and homes must be razed and highly valuable (and taxable) property must be taken and put aside for the public good; decisions fraught with economic and political complications. However, the value of our city’s parks is undeniable. And a city without them is inconceivable. It’s yet another point of pride for all New Yorkers that our city was the proving ground for a concept, indeed, a social movement, that would prove to be so essential to successful and sustainable urban life.

(If you’ve got some time on your hands, I highly recommend this excellent Channel Thirteen video on the history of Olmsted and New York’s Parks).

Digital puppets stalk kids in Queens


The New York Hall of Science is an oft overlooked gem of a children’s museum in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park Queens. On display now — among their many permanent exhibits — is the Puppet Parade, a fully interactive digital puppet show using state of the art motion sensing technology.

The exhibit, free with admission, runs from April 7th to May 6th, but is closed Saturday, April 28th. Click here for more information.

Who is the Architect of the Century?


“Architect of the Century” was the headline reporting the awarding of the American Institute of Architects’ Centennial Medal to Ralph Walker in 1957. Though no such claim could ever be incontestable, Walker’s many contributions to the architectural profession, and skyscraper design in particular, are widely recognized.

An exhibit at 212 West 18th street (formerly belonging to the New York Telephone Company, but in light of recent remodeling and marketing as a multipurpose high rise, now known as the Walker Building) highlights select works from his career. Though few outside the industry are familiar with his name, undoubtedly millions of New Yorkers have seen his buildings at one time or another.

The one-room exhibit covers the period of Walker’s life from 1917 to 1959 and four major works within that period: the Barclay-Vesey Building, the Irving Trust Building, his designs for the 1933 worlds fair in Chicago, and of course, Walker Tower.

If you can look past the shameless self-promotion of an exhibit whose featured architect designed the very building housing the exhibit and whose luxury apartments (coincidentally) go on sale this spring, you’ll enjoy a quaint and highly informative experience that includes period photographs, movies and sound clips, some actual art deco fittings from his buildings, and in the case of Walker Tower, an amazing interactive physical model where touch screen controls operate the lights in specific apartments up for sale this spring. The experience is greatly augmented by one of the better tour guides I’ve had the pleasure of listening to, being both highly informative and extremely receptive to visitors’ questions.


So who was Ralph Walker and why should you care? Well, he is one of the architects whose body of work is highly representative of a bygone era. He’s one of the icons of early skycraper design, representing a gilded age in which vast sums were spent on the opulence of both the facade and especially the interiors of skyscapers. (The stock market crash of 1929 curbed such displays of wealth). Early in the emergence of this new building typology skyscrapers were called cathedrals of commerce. A more apt nomenclature based on their entryways might be monuments to mammon.

It’s a shame that many of these buildings now have restricted access in the wake of 9/11 since many of their lobbies are truly exquisite works of art that deserve to be admired and not just glanced at in passing between the street and the elevator banks.

Walker’s Barclay-Vesey Building was actually damaged by the attacks, but has since been repaired. However, in addition to this distinction it is also considered the first art deco skyscraper ever built, and it is one of the first buildings to really take advantage of the 1916 New York zoning ordinance, which placed limits on a building’s height in relation to its distance from the street in an attempt to make the city more habitable by allowing more sunlight to hit pedestrians.

Many of Walker’s buildings (not mentioned in the exhibit, but easily spotted in their natural habitat by walking the streets of New York) are notable for their massive bulk and huge footprint, often occupying an entire city block and looking more like a small mountain than a construct of man. Construction on this scale is almost unheard of in New York today, partly because it’s rare for any developer to be able to seize an entire city block, but also because Walker did a lot of work for the New York Telephone

Company whose buildings had special requirements for the tons of mechanical equipment and legions of switchboard operators that needed to be housed within their bulk.

Skyscrapers are an American innovation and no city in America is more famous for its skyscrapers than New York. From the Flatiron to the Freedom Tower our history is preserved in our buildings. Exhibits like this one remind us not just of how our buildings have evolved, but also of the socioeconomic conditions driving that evolution. They are a window into our past and from habitability issues to economic downturns, they remind us that while the architecture has changed it has all been in service to the same issues that concern us today.

Admission is free, but by appointment only. Call 212-335-1800 to make an appointment or visit



Far Rockaway Project on Track for this Summer

One of the city’s most cherished public spaces, Rockaway Beach is undergoing significant redevelopment. Started in the fall of 2010 and on-track to be completed this summer, the redesign will include three major new constructions for the public’s enjoyment: a performance lawn, a boardwalk overlook, and a new comfort station, as well as other ecological improvements to the area like better storm water collection and tree plantings. The goal is to create more usable public space that is functionally viable, ecologically tenable, and visually enjoyable. Claire Weisz, principal of WXY + Urban Design which developed the plan along with QRP landscape architects, sees the improvements as not only benefiting beach goers and seasonal tourists, but also as a vital component to fostering a greater sense of community among the area’s permanent residents.

Ambitious East River Project Surges Forward

In recent news, the East River Blueway project has taken a significant step forward. The project was previously mentioned here in reference to a planning meeting that was open to the public. Imagined as both an expansion of recreational facilities and an increase in river access between 38th street and the Brooklyn bridge, WXY + Urban Design, the Manhattan-based firm responsible for such projects as the Far Rockaway redesign and the intriguing benches in use at the Battery Park Ferry Terminal, has been chosen as the design firm to bring the project to fruition. One of the firm’s principals, Claire Weisz comments on the project and her vision for New York’s future.

Want A Fun Way to Get Some Outdoor Exercise?

Now that the weather is so nice most people are slowly emerging from winter hibernation mode and getting back outdoors, both for exercise and neighborhood strolls. Why not combine the two? A growing trend is for people to take running tours of their favorite cities. A quick Google search of running tours will bring up a list of companies, the services they offer, and the cities in which they operate. The biggest seems to be City Running Tours which operates in ten major cities in the US, including New York. While not cheap, the services seem to be very flexible, enabling customers to choose where to meet, the distance of the run, the pace of the run, and what sites to see along the way. Your urban pathfinder then provides a running commentary on what’s around you.

For those who find themselves in a new city and want to combine some sight seeing with a good cardio workout, or if you just want a different perspective on the city you live, in it sounds like a great time. And for those social runners out there it’s a great way to meet new people whose interests you share. Either way, those winter lbs aren’t going shed themselves. Why not make it as fun as you can.