In the last couple of weeks I’ve been walking down some new streets in my Brooklyn neighborhood: thanks to an out-of-control construction site, heading in one direction from my house dead-ends one into an impassable and dangerous stretch of sidewalk (I’ve called the much-vaunted 311 line many, many times, to no avail). Now I head in the opposite direction, then around a corner onto a block I’d almost never traveled before, where I’ve found a favorite sight, or site, if you will. It’s just a vacant lot, surrounded by chain-link fence, but it’s quite tidy. The remains of stone foundations evoke New England stone walls, and a row of ailanthus trees lends the spot a pastoral air. I just can’t get enough of it, though I expect any day to round the corner and find the place disemboweled by earth movers.
Much of my neighborhood’s open space has been filled in the last few years, and much more is headed that way. The hellish construction site on my corner was once a beautiful vacant lot, filled with mature maple trees. Brooklyn has 1,546 acres of “vacant” land, according to the Department of City Planning. That’s four percent of the total land area. Queens, by contrast, has 5,345 acres, 17.4 percent of its total land area. Manhattan has 371 acres still open, which comprises 3.5 percent of its total. While these numbers are declining as vacant sites are developed, density in built areas is also on the rise. In the former flower district, four-story buildings are being systematically replaced by 30-story condos. In DUMBO a massive tower just went up where the old Between the Bridges bar used to be, replacing a business and a couple of apartments with hundreds of residences.
Years ago I read a New York-specific urbanism manifesto that enumerated a lot of far-out ideas, but a few sound ones. One of my favorites was that all open space should be permanently turned into mini parks and, well, open space. If wealthy developers can buy lots to build on, why can’t wealthy philanthropists buy them to turn into public space? Even fenced-off, tiny parks provide oases of air, light, good smells, and pleasant vistas. They also leave room for oxygen-producing and temperature-regulating trees. I hardly need mention global warming, childhood asthma, rising heating and cooling costs and all the rest to justify keeping open land open.
Back in 1831, a man named Sam Ruggles bought the area that is now Gramercy Square Park, and set it aside to guarantee “the free circulation of air” for those who would build around it. Many thought he was nuts, draining a swamp to create a private paradise, but now his vacant lot is one of the best-loved spots in the city. Ruggles quite accurately saw what would make, and keep, part of New York livable and beautiful. Maybe someone else can resurrect that vision…