NYC East River Blueway Plans Rise From Sandy’s Muck

Converting drab, post-industrial concrete waterfronts into attractive public access to water is a challenge many cities have been addressing for decades, and few more so than New York. Hurricane Sandy took certain concepts that the city’s planners had long discussed, and blasted them with new energy and motivation, new funding, and major new challenges. The result is the East River Blueway Plan, announced just this month.

The Blueway plan covers the Manhattan shoreline of the East River from the Brooklyn Bridge to 38th Street.

Blueway with Brooklyn Bridge

Image via WXY Architecture + Urban Design

This plan is as much a greenway (emphasis on terrestrial park and recreation with a linear shape typically along a waterway) as a blueway (emphasis on access for aquatic uses). The river itself—not a river in the usual sense, but a salty tidal strait—is a somewhat dangerous place to play, reversing its flow direction with every tide, and often speeding up sharply. Nevertheless, there will be boat launches and probably swimming pools and/or beaches, and cleaning up pollution is part of the plan. The water is already cleaned up enough to be swimmable by EPA standards except during lapses caused by combined sewer overflows.

A six-lane truck-free urban freeway, FDR Drive, lines the waterfront at present. Twelve blocks of it were built upon rubble created in Bristol, England by Luftwaffe bombers, then used as ballast by cargo ships that dumped the ballast here before loading up with war supplies. There are some disused piers. Land behind FDR Drive was once industrial but is now a mix featuring hospitals, urban block housing, and a power station. They all, in urban-design terms, “turn away” from the East River. There is one tiny fenced-off patch of self-forming sandy beach.

Hurricane Sandy generally flooded the first one to three blocks above the East River in this stretch, so it is among the more vulnerable parts of Manhattan.

Pre-Sandy blueway plans were to create fill land below FDR Drive and cover it with vegetation, park facilities, and bike and pedestrian access.

Blueway pedestrians under parkway

Image via WXY Architecture + Urban Design

Post-Sandy plans incorporate all that, but additionally deal with future storm surges—designing structures that will not only survive them but mitigate their flooding into the city. This can be accomplished to some degree with “soft edges”—marshes, tidal pools, and beaches—that absorb storm energy. The plan creates these outboard of a strip of more traditional parkland.

Blueway marshes and tidepools

Image via WXY Architecture + Urban Design

Currently under the guidance of WXY Architecture + Urban Design, the blueway will obviously take years if not decades to complete, but it’s good to see it getting a lot of community energy today, as well as the announced first 3.5 million dollars in funding.

Daniel Mathews writes about plants, animals, geology, and culture—most often writing in book form. (Bible form, if you listen to his fans. And now also in iPhone app form.) But he got his start in green homebuilding. Fresh out of Reed College, he went into the Oregon woods and built himself a tiny house out of timbers he cut and a cedar shakes he bucked and split all within 100 feet of the site. Fortunately he keeps up with the times, and focuses today on high-tech paths to a small carbon footprint. He lives in Portland with his wife, son, daughter, cat, dog, vegetable garden, and lots of music.

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