Serenity...in the Least Likely Location

What’s the least likely place for a park that you can imagine?

Next to a busy freeway perhaps? On top of a rubbish dump?

How about next door to a sewage treatment plant?

The Newtown Creek Nature Walk in Brooklyn not only ekes out a sliver of public access to a contested waterfront, but brings visitors face-to-face with the biggest sewage treatment plant in New York City.

George Trakas was engaged to bring an artful approach to developing the nature walk.  A distinguished artist with significant experience working in complex waterfront sites, Trakas has twice received National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and is a medal winner for sculpture from the American Society of Arts and Letters, which honoured his unique “vision of landscape”.

Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant is a dramatic and exciting assembly of pipes and tubes and shiny things, lit an otherwordly purple at night, and all dominated by four enormous pieces of industrial-Faberge-chic. These are the symbolic and literal centrepiece of the plant: referred to in the industry as ‘digestor eggs’ this is where the business end of sewage treatment takes place.  They loom over the waterway, linked together at the top with a glass-walled walkway, like a setting from Metropolis, or Gattaca, and the public applies in droves to see the eggs up close whenever the plant advertises tours.

Image by joevar. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0). Retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/57462257@N00/4006853382/in/photolist-775aV1-775aME-7758U7-775bso-775867-775ba3-771c1n-771eAv-771gYz-771cfX-771eVX-7758p9-771dFX

Image by joevar. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0). Retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/57462257@N00/4006853382/in/photolist-775aV1-775aME-7758U7-775bso-775867-775ba3-771c1n-771eAv-771gYz-771cfX-771eVX-7758p9-771dFX

If the treatment plant looks like a vision from the future, the park opposite references a time past, one where Newtown Creek flowed fresh and clear, as it did when the indigenous Lenape people made their home here.  Trakas’s artwork is multilayered and comprehensive.  Particular plant species were chosen for their cultural or historic significance, which is relayed on small plaques. 

Other interpretive signage informs visitors that rubbish bins are made in the shape of old water barrels, steps down to the water reference geological epochs... 

...as do rocks placed amongst the planting.

Newtown Creek Nature Walk is tough and robust, like the gritty waterfront precinct it fronts.  Yes, there are some trees in place now, but the overwhelming view is of industry:  big barges with cranes on them moving crushed up metal onto smaller barges with old tyres round their waterlines; big light towers, the undersides of big bridges, big billboards, big warehouse buildings - everything big and muscular. 

The detailing of the Nature Walk responds to this muscularity, with big concrete steps, sheet piling and massive bench seats. 

Within this tough exoskeleton, moments of delight are to be found.  A circular gathering point invites groups to stop by the edge...

...planting creates tall green tunnels...

...and flowers and foliage appear more brilliant against the grey stone and concrete. 

Retracing their path to the entry visitors pass through the swollen concrete walls of George Trakas’s 51 metre-long Vessel. Holes punched through the walls allow glimpses of the mechanical equipment and processes going on behind. The view straight down the centre of Vessel aligns with the Empire State Building, seemingly a world away from the unexpected tranquillity of this park-like space next to the sewage treatment plant. 

Now it’s over to you.

What do you think of the idea of public parkland in such an unusual location? Do you think the artistic overlay has resulted in a more engaging space? Leave a comment below letting me know.

If you know someone who’d enjoy reading this article be sure to share it, and check back soon for more from the wonderful world of parks, gardens and landscapes.

Details

This article is an edited extract from my book Future Park: imagining tomorrow’s urban parks, released this September by CSIRO Publishing.

The Newtown Creek Alliance is a "community-based organisation dedicated to restoring, revealing, and revitalising Newtown Creek".

The Visitor Centre at the  Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant is open by appointment.

The Treatment Plant was open as a part of Open House New York 2012.  Listings for OHNY 2013 will be released at the start of October.