Milton Puryear

"All the way from Greenpoint to Bay Ridge there were, for a hundred years, only four places where a private citizen could get to the water."

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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.


photos: Maureen Drennan

For more about the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative: