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Manhattan Waterfront Greenway and Hope for L.A.

This is the third in a series of Green Justice reports on cities that are revitalizing urban waters, including Madrid, New York, Los Angeles and Habana.

I biked with my son along the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, which wraps 32 miles around the island. The ride made me realize some of the best times of my life I have spent biking with my three sons.

I was stunned by the views of the Hudson River on the West Side, and of the East River on the, well, East Side. The greenway lined with parks and green streets invites people to bike, walk, jog, blade, kayak, sail, soar, read, sit, talk, kiss, hold hands, do nothing -- and play. The greenway transforms what was a long-ignored and derelict waterfront into a green attraction for recreation, wellness and commuting, generates economic benefits and promotes conservation values in the dense urban setting of New York City. People from all walks of life reflecting the diversity of Manhattan were everywhere along the greenway. I lived in Manhattan for many years, practicing international law at a large firm, defending people on Death Row, and prosecuting public corruption, drug, and organized crime cases as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York. It is astounding how much the Greenway has transformed the waterfront and adds to the City and the experience of being in it. The Manhattan Waterfront Greenway is a best practice to revitalize rivers and inner cities across the nation.

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West Harlem Piers

The Hudson River Greenway is (almost) one continuous esplanade from the George Washington Bridge on the north, south through Harlem, past the Hudson River Piers and the site of the World Trade Center to the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan, with large and small parks and green streets along the way. Up the East Side, biking was more of a challenge following the not-yet-prime-time path from the Staten Island Ferry past the Fulton Fish Market and the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges along the East River Esplanade past Stuyvesant Town to the United Nations. Biking in Manhattan traffic can be less serene than riding on the dedicated greenway. The Manhattan Waterfront Greenway when complete will continue along the Harlem River back to the George Washington Bridge.

Hudson River Greenway looking north towards George Washington Bridge

The Manhattan Waterfront Greenway is open for biking year round, with bike rentals conveniently available along the greenway and on the web through Bike New York and Bike and Roll. Los Angeles does have an annual L.A. River Ride (scheduled for June 10 in 2012). L.A. looks forward to the day when there are continuous scenic spots and bike rentals along the River. (L.A. currently plans a private bike share program in four upscale areas starting in December 2012.)

New York City has been piecing together existing walkways, esplanades and streets into one pathway. The Department of City Planning (DCP) has been active in the planning, design, promotion and implementation of new greenways since 1993, when it produced A Greenway Plan for New York City. The planning department and the New York City Department of Transportation also produced The New York City Bicycle Master Plan in 1997, which incorporated the Greenway Master Plan's goal of 350 miles of recreation and commuting paths throughout the city into a 900-mile citywide network of on- and off-street paths and bike lanes. Click here for the 2012 New York City Cycling Map. The Manhattan Waterfront Greenway continues these efforts.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg pledged in 2002 to have the Manhattan loop bike built, according to the New York Times. He did it. L.A.'s mayor promised to plant a million trees. Maybe the next mayor will get it done.

Distinctive green signs with the NYC Parks Leaf point the way through city streets and along the dedicated greenway. (The type of leaf has never been officially identified; it resembles the leaf of a maple, sycamore maple, sycamore or London plane. It is known as "The Parks Leaf.") The NYC Parks Historical Signs Program tells the story of parks along the greenway. A historical sign is a 24" x 36" wooden sign, installed in a prominent location in a park or playground, that explains whom the park is named after and why, as well as the history of the site. NYC Parks partnered with college students to research and write signs for every named park across the five boroughs. What a great idea for other cities like Los Angeles to carry out.

East River Park Esplanade

New York City, the most urbanized region in the nation, remains the national leader in urban greening, with its unsurpassed urban parks tradition. New Yorkers know great parks are part and parcel of a great city. Frederick Law Olmsted, who created the field of landscape architecture, created Central Park as his first park, and Prospect Park, which he described as his best park. (Actually Central Park is better. I still consider Central Park my neighborhood park, and do not visit Manhattan without returning to it.) Robert Moses created the foundations for the New York City park system (and much of the other infrastructure for housing and roads in the city and state, despite his significant shortcomings in democratic participation and equal justice). Jane Jacobs in her classic Life and Death of Great Cities noted that safety is not an issue if people use parks when parks meet the needs of the people. The Manhattan Waterfront Greenway reflects the full diversity of New York with no apparent safety concernsThe Manhattan Waterfront Greenway is linked to the National Parks of New York Harbor.

The firm started by Olmsted's sons proposed a network of parks, playgrounds and beaches for Los Angeles, but civic leaders killed the Olmsted vision in 1930.

New York City, like Madrid and Los Angeles, is revitalizing urban waters. The city and county of Los Angeles have long term plans to green the 52-mile Los Angeles River. Progress has been made through community struggles for Rio de Los Angeles State Park, Los Angeles State Historic Park, and multibenefit clean water and park projects. The Department of Interior has also named the L.A. River one of seven urban waters priorities across the nation. President Barack Obama has designated the greening of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers as one of the top 101 priorities across the nation for his America's Great Outdoors initiative, out of only two per state. Greening the San Gabriel River is actually much further along, providing a scenic 40 mile biking and hiking route from the mountains to the ocean.

We salute the Mayor, NYC Parks, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, the planning and transportation departments, and the people of New York City for a job well done, and for creating a park experience that serves every neighborhood in Manhattan. The challenge remains to continue creating parks and greenways that promote equal justice, democracy and livability for all throughout the five boroughs.  The Manhattan Waterfront Greenway is a great start.  Let's hope Los Angeles and other cities can do as well!


Click here to see a slide show of the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway by The City Project.

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Top: Brooklyn Bridge. All photos by The City Project.

About the Author

I am a civil rights attorney. Fighting for the simple joys of playing in the park and school field for children of color and low income children is the hardest work I have ever done.
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Great writeup, very useful update for the ongoing park / greenway planning conversation in LA.