Milton Puryear

Please tell us what you do.

I am head of plan­ning and project devel­op­ment for the Brook­lyn Water­front Green­way. We ini­ti­at­ed the idea of build­ing a Green­way along the 14 miles of the old indus­tri­al water­front in Brook­lyn.

All the way from Green­point to Bay Ridge there were, for a hun­dred years, only four dif­fer­ent places where a pri­vate cit­i­zen could get to the water — because of ship­ping, mar­itime facil­i­ties, and indus­tri­al facil­i­ties. We rec­og­nized that there was a win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty with the decline of a lot of the indus­try – a win­dow that would close as new con­do­mini­ums rushed to the water­front and locked it up, so we were deter­mined to try to cre­ate pub­lic access along the water­front before that win­dow closed. We’ve been plan­ning this project since 1998.

Our goals for the Green­way are that it is con­tin­u­ous, phys­i­cal­ly sep­a­rat­ed from traf­fic, with sep­a­rate lanes for bikes and pedes­tri­ans, and land­scaped. And we want peo­ple to feel like they have stepped out of the street grid, that they got into a dif­fer­ent kind of envi­ron­ment. We want to change the aura for peo­ple.

Anoth­er rea­son why we focus on the water­front is that there are very few sub­ways along the water­front. Red Hook res­i­dents are eight times more like­ly to com­mute by bike as New York res­i­dents as a whole because there are no sub­ways around. Bicycling’s just the most effi­cient way to get out­ta there – to get to work and get home. So that is the case in many water­front neigh­bor­hoods. And the oth­er thing is – water­front neigh­bor­hoods don’t real­ly con­nect well to one anoth­er, they are divid­ed by major infra­struc­ture like the bridges and tun­nels, or the Gowanus Express­way. And if you want­ed to go from Sun­set Park to Green­point you have to go inot Man­hat­tan – or you have to go deep­er into Brook­lyn. You can’t go along the water­front, which is the most direct and the fastest route. Peo­ple are sur­prised now that our new seg­ments have opened around the Brook­lyn Navy Yard because they can get from Williams­burg into down­town Brook­lyn in 15 min­utes and it’s real­ly noth­ing. The dis­tances start to melt away when you real­ly con­nect the­se com­mu­ni­ties.

So we saw it as cre­at­ing a whole lot of new pos­si­bil­i­ties. And what we had to do was to get every­body else to have the same vision. That was our first job and we did that by going out to all the civic orga­ni­za­tions, the elect­ed offi­cials, all the com­mu­ni­ty plan­ning boards, and present the idea, and most peo­ple were sup­port­ive. Many of the com­mu­ni­ties along the water­front had plans that called for more water­front access. And so there was a con­ver­gence of inter­ests. We were pur­su­ing this at a time when it was the right time to pur­sue it — my asso­ciates here, Meg and Bri­an, we came togeth­er and said well, we know this is a big idea – 14 miles – but let’s go for it.

What makes New York City liv­able for you?

One of the things I like most about my neigh­bor­hood – I can walk to every­thing I need. If I want a fish mar­ket – 4 blocks, if I want fresh veg­eta­bles, if I want Mid­dle East­ern food, if I want Ital­ian food, if I want Mex­i­can, you know, it is all with­in walk­ing dis­tance. Sub­ways – I can walk to five dif­fer­ent sub­way lines. That to me is, my ide­al. I’ve always tried to arrange my life so I could walk to work and for the most part, I have. I used to work in Man­hat­tan – I would walk across the Brook­lyn Bridge to my office — that’s qual­i­ty of life for me. To not have to get into the car and fight traf­fic. So that’s one thing.

The oth­er for me is the water­front. Most New York­ers don’t have as much access to it as I have because I live right at the water­front. But being able to walk home from the sub­way and face the sun­set, walk into the sun­set – that’s pret­ty spe­cial and…also just the relief that hor­i­zon­tal per­spec­tive gives you. You know, being able to see for fif­teen miles all the way to the Newark air­port. I feel like that is reliev­ing – it is emo­tion­al­ly just ben­e­fi­cial not to be con­tained in walls. I have this phi­los­o­phy that our emo­tion­al DNA evolved for the savan­nah – our strongest sense is our sight. But then, when we are suc­cess­ful in cities we build our­selves into canyons where you can’t see more than 100 feet; which uncon­scious­ly adds stress, that uncon­scious­ly adds unease, and then we pay thou­sands of dol­lars for a view or for a vaca­tion to get away from it. So hav­ing this water­front right here near my home is great but it is also a ben­e­fit I think we could har­ness for all New York­ers that would inspire them to exer­cise, inspire them to be near the water, which is itself calm­ing. And you know, just takes you out of your­self. If you stand and look at the water, at the move­ment of the water, it just pulls you out of all that oth­er stuff that’s going on.

And also, the oppor­tu­ni­ty to help cre­ate New York. There are just a lot of real­ly cre­ative peo­ple who have a lot of vision, who are reshap­ing New York. And I guess that’s anoth­er thing about New York, it recre­ates itself; so to be able to be a part of that is fun. To cre­ate the com­mu­ni­ty you want to be in.

What would you like to see hap­pen in New York in the next ten or twen­ty years?

Well, one thing I would like to see is the Green­way net­work com­plet­ed. We are work­ing on our 14 miles, but we are also work­ing on the Jamaica Bay Green­way and try­ing to com­plete that. When we’re fin­ished with all of this, we would have a 30-mile water­front Green­way. I’d like to see that in all the com­mu­ni­ties.

And in the next ten to twen­ty years, I would like to see more green infra­struc­ture that helps us improve water qual­i­ty in New York by pre­vent­ing the release of raw sewage dur­ing heavy storms. With the Green­way, all of our land­scaped areas are designed to cap­ture the storm water runoff from [paved] streets and side­walks, and retain it, so that it doesn’t run into the sew­er sys­tem and cause pres­sure that caus­es the­se untreat­ed releas­es.

I would like to see some­thing come to pass that we’re try­ing to get the city on board with: to remove all the storm water of Brooklyn’s East River Water­shed from run­ning to the sew­er sys­tem by cre­at­ing a back­bone along the Green­way of green infra­struc­ture that absorbs storm water, but also directs the excess direct­ly to the river once it’s been fil­tered through the land and been cleansed. So it has this weep­ing capac­i­ty direct­ly to the river. Then con­nect that back­bone with the up-sloped streets by adding incre­men­tal­ly green infra­struc­ture – noth­ing but planters – con­tin­u­ous tree pits – but they are designed right, they have the right soil, they have the right pipes under­neath them to take the excess, you have the right veg­e­ta­tion to uptake as much of the water as pos­si­ble. And all of that would dra­mat­i­cal­ly improve water qual­i­ty, which would improve people’s access to the water, you know, to be in it. You know there is a say­ing in New York, if it has rained in the last three days don’t go swim­ming. We wouldn’t have to be so con­cerned about that. Unless may­be if it’s a tor­nado or hur­ri­cane.

How could a project like the City Atlas be use­ful for what you do? What would you like to see in it?

City Atlas could be help­ful to us by bring­ing atten­tion to our objec­tives. There are four and a half miles of Green­way that peo­ple can use now. We’d like to get as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble involved in advo­cat­ing for it – help­ing to plan and help­ing to review and be involved in the design. To become mem­bers, to take bike tours, just to real­ly engage peo­ple in the qual­i­ty of life that the Green­way could bring about.

I’d also like to see the City Atlas provide infor­ma­tion about for­ward-think­ing devel­op­ments through­out the city, such as the Green­way and also issues, such as this storm water issue. I think that if you took it the­mat­i­cal­ly and then took it in terms of indi­vid­u­al projects – major themes for New York City and then projects or ini­tia­tives that are for­ward-look­ing – that might be a nice way to allow peo­ple to engage in the infor­ma­tion.

OK. Describe a hap­py day for you in the city. What do you do, and where do you go?

Well a hap­py day for me in the city would be bik­ing with a friend, um, stop­ping may­be for brunch some­where and then rid­ing our bikes out to Fort Tilden beach out in far Rock­away and swim­ming. Tak­ing a pic­nic, walk­ing through Fort Tilden, see­ing wildlife that you don’t see all the time and watch­ing peo­ple. May­be going to the Broad Chan­nel Wildlife Refuge – see­ing the city from it’s edges, from the out­side and com­ing back into the city refreshed and renewed.

Do you think our actions and deci­sions today affect the future of the city?

Our actions and deci­sions of today real­ly deter­mine the qual­i­ty of life of tomor­row. Right now, New York City has tak­en on a lot of peo­ple. The pop­u­la­tion is grow­ing. It’s grow­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly in water­front areas. In the Brook­lyn water­front areas, the streets are not that wide; the num­ber of cars can’t grow at the same rate as the pop­u­la­tion. It’ll just be mur­der for every­one, so, you know we’ve got to fig­ure out how to real­lo­cate the pub­lic resource, the pub­lic right of way – real­ly take the oppor­tu­ni­ty to rethink all the assump­tions that were made when peo­ple didn’t even have cars — when they were using horse and bug­gies, when the right of ways were defined by prop­er­ty lines. So this is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to improve the way we expe­ri­ence our city by cre­at­ing facil­i­ties – I mean I am talk­ing about the Brook­lyn Water­front Green­way but it’s true even in the streets.

And, there’s a big debate about bike lanes in New York City. You know, real­ly, it’s just about shar­ing the space. Shar­ing the space between the three user groups, pedes­tri­ans, bikes and cars. Bicy­cle use is up which is actu­al­ly good for the envi­ron­ment and is actu­al­ly makes it work for a lot of peo­ple. But it does involve, fig­ur­ing out how to do things a lit­tle dif­fer­ent­ly than you did in the past and that is always stress­ful for peo­ple and a source of push-back. And hope­ful­ly it doesn’t get pushed too far back.

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pho­tos: Mau­reen Dren­nan

For more about the Brook­lyn Green­way Ini­tia­tive: brook​lyn​green​way​.org