TrailsBlog: Exploring Brooklyn’s Past, Present and Future on the Greenway
Exploring Brooklyn’s Past, Present and Future: the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway
New York City boasts 520 miles of coastline within the five boroughs [yes, you read that right!], and never has so much of it been publicly accessible. The Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway was conceived in 1999 as a “thick ribbon of green,” a landscaped corridor that would increase public access to the waterfront, connect parks and open space, and provide infrastructure for active transportation and recreation. Today, the 26-mile planned route is approximately 70% complete and serves Brooklyn’s 2.65 million residents, 1.1 million workers, and over 15 million annual visitors from across the City, region, and the world.
Traveling the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway is an exploration in time. As Brooklyn developed from a collection of small farming communities to a major industrial hub, Brooklynites’ relationship with and connection to the waterfront was severed over time, both physically and figuratively. The first commercial uses for shipping and storage were developed along the Brooklyn waterfront in the mid-19th century, spurring nearly 150 years of continual industrial development. By the end of the 20th century, global modernization had made much of Brooklyn’s waterfront industry obsolete, resulting in an era of neglect and abandonment.
In the early 2000’s, Brooklyn started to become one of America’s hottest real estate markets as community and business leaders turned their attention back to de-industrializing and reclaiming the waterfront. New York City shifted waterfront and transportation plans in response to a steadily increasing population, including plans that created new access to parks and open spaces for growing waterfront communities. Greenway segments and open space existed in southern Brooklyn in areas like Shore Parkway, Coney Island, and parts of Jamaica Bay, but there were large gaps in access to the more industrial northern waterfront.
In 2004, a neighborhood group formed the nonprofit Brooklyn Greenway Initiative (BGI) with the goal to envision the Greenway, plan route with community input, and integrate it with sustainability and coastal resiliency plans. Over the next 16 years, BGI channeled significant federal, state, and local support to this vision, resulting in implementation plans, future-forward designs, and capital funds to build a Greenway that spans the entirety of Brooklyn’s waterfront, traversing dozens of different neighborhoods and communities. By design, the Greenway reflects the character of its immediate surroundings, which is readily apparent as you journey from North to South to East:
- Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Clinton Hill, DUMBO: This is a dense, urban stretch with a mix of restaurants, stores, housing, “pocket” waterfront parks, and industrial corridors. Many of these North Brooklyn neighborhoods have undergone a radical transformation from industrial to densely developed residential areas.
- Brooklyn Bridge Park: Brooklyn’s prototypical modern waterfront park, this post-industrial park opened its first sections in 2010 and now spans 85-acres over 6 piers, jutting into the East River towards lower Manhattan.
- Columbia Waterfront, Red Hook, Sunset Park: This area has maintained its history of industry with a mix of manufacturing and residential areas, as well as new commercial developments and adaptive reuse public parks like Valentino Park and Pier and Bush Terminal Piers Park. A current gap in the Greenway, these connections are planned to be implemented in the next two years.
- Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bath Beach, and Gravesend: This stretch of Greenway runs alongside several historically residential neighborhoods. From Owl’s Head Park south, the Greenway directly abuts New York Harbor, with magnificent views of the water and the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.
- Coney Island and Brighton Beach: The route from Shore Parkway over Coney Island Creek and eastward through Brighton Beach is the largest remaining gap in the Greenway. BGI continues to garner local support and political will for its completion within the next two years.
- Jamaica Bay: This stretch running east and northeast from Brighton Beach is set on the beautiful shores of Jamaica Bay. The uninterrupted trail has incredible views of the Bay and surrounding nature preserves, southern access to the Rockaway peninsula, and a connection to Shirley Chisholm State Park, the crown jewel of Jamaica Bay’s green spaces, which opened in 2019.
To date, approximately 18 miles of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway have been implemented. By the end of 2021, NYC Department of Transportation committed to establishing the route of the Greenway as part of the Green Wave Plan, bringing the 26-mile vision closer to fruition. Analysis of Greenway usage reveals that the route serves tens of thousands of cyclists and pedestrians every day, and that use is on the rise as more people adopt alternative modes of transportation and recreational enjoyment.
As Brooklyn has undergone a half-century of rapid transformation, the vision to create the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway has been truly innovative. This Greenway is essential for people of all ages and abilities to travel using alternative transportation, connect to open spaces, and enjoy the borough’s storied waterfront. As NYC grapples with climate resiliency and modern public health crises like COVID-19, it is clear that amenities like the Greenway will be essential for the future of this great city.
Thanks to our partners at the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative for contributing this trail profile. For more information on BGI, visit www.brooklyngreenway.org. To suggest a future trail to be highlighted in the monthly TrailsBlog feature, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
New York State is currently preparing a Statewide Greenways Plan, to identify which projects will help connect and grow our statewide network of trails and greenways. Have your voice heard! Fill out the survey at www.greenwaysplan.org