Rebecca McMackin, director of horticulture at the Brooklyn Bridge Park, acknowledges that the common understanding of a city park is of a lawn, picnic tables and sports fields, and her park has all those things. But, she adds, there is much more there as well. Brooklyn Bridge Park is one of the most innovative urban landscapes in the United States, an example of how humanity can be accommodated in partnership with wildlife and native ecosystems, with all these elements shaped by a concern for sustainability.
I confess that I would not have seen the potential of the site: a half-dozen huge, decommissioned concrete piers stretching for almost 1 1/2 miles down the Brooklyn side of New York’s East River. But local residents saw in this a chance to create the greatest park in their borough since the days of Frederick Law Olmsted. They joined together, founded a conservancy, and pushed the project through, hiring the firm of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates to redesign the landscape. In 2010, the first section of the park opened to the public and McMackin came on board.
The landscape is, in one sense, completely artificial. Twenty different formulas of engineered soils were brought in to accommodate the various plantings. Soil excavated from a new subway tunnel was used to create the topography, including the hills that isolate the park from an adjacent highway, helping to reduce the traffic noise. Nor did the use of recycled materials end there. Thousands of cubic yards of granite salvaged from a couple of city bridges undergoing reconstruction were used to structure the park’s landscape, and rot and fire-resistant southern yellow pine lumber from three old warehouses on the site have been used to construct benches, picnic tables and decking. Even the storm water that falls on the site is recycled: filtered through the plantings and the soil, it collects in huge sub-surface tanks to be used for irrigation.
From the beginning the park has been maintained organically, which helps to foster wildlife. Much of it — the birds and monarch butterflies — take advantage of the park’s three acres of meadow and grassland and the constructed salt marsh as resting places on their trips. Other species, though, are year-round residents. Indeed, some species, McMackin points out, such as the golden northern bumblebee, thrive better in this urban setting than they do in suburban habitats where they are more likely to encounter pesticides. Some of the animals that have appeared since 2010, such as a native bee that frequents blueberries and a stick insect, are rarities in the city. Others are burgeoning, such as the native Carolina mantises which McMackin’s team of gardeners have fostered by culling egg masses of invasive foreign mantises that prey upon them, so that the natives are now spreading out through Brooklyn.
Maintenance routines are worked out in coordination with the plants and the wildlife. Leaves are largely left where they fall to enrich the engineered soils. McMackin has transferred the horticultural team’s planting season from spring to the fall. She has found that that schedule leaves the plants better rooted in and more able to cope with their first New York City summer.
It can also coordinate better with the ecological schedule. Planting pearly everlastings and pussytoes in the fall, for example, enables them to grow bigger the following spring and better tolerate the herbivory of American lady butterfly caterpillars, a species of native butterfly that has adopted the park, and whose larval stage depends on these two plants for food.
Just as this park disproves the popular conception of what a city park can be, it also disproves another common idea, that to enjoy nature we must travel to some remote spot. Brooklyn Bridge Park — and McMackin — remind us that actually, all that is involved is creating an opportunity in our landscape and our lives. Nature is out there waiting. That’s as relevant to suburban and country dwellers as it is to urbanites.
McMackin and three other leaders will discuss resilience in the wake of the climate crisis, at Berkshire Botanical Garden’s 6th annual Rooted in Place Ecological Gardening Symposium at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 14. The in-person conference also has an online-only option, available Nov. 21 through Jan. 1, 2022. For more information and registration options, visit berkshirebotanical.org.
In the meantime, you can get a preview by logging onto a conversation with McMackin on the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Growing Greener podcast, at thomaschristophergardens.com.