Our community has a lot to celebrate as the year draws to a close. The completion of the entrance landscape above Willoughby Avenue and Washington Park marked the highpoint of the year. The new drainage system, plantings, and paths are just the beginning of a major wave of improvements coming our way. In just the last two years, elected officials and NYC Parks have allocated $13 Million for future improvements—the greatest investment in Fort Greene Park since the 1930s.
The efforts of your park maintenance team and over 1,400 volunteers drawn from schools, faith-based organizations, corporations, and local residents also made a noticeable impact across our 30 acres in 2016. Landscape planning focuses on protecting our park’s distinct natural features—its trees, steep slopes, gardens, and lawns—and modernizing the pathways, entries, and drainage systems. These efforts are all the more urgent as we face an exploding population around our neighborhood. In Downtown Brooklyn, 6,000 apartments are under construction in addition to the almost 7,000 completed in the last decade. Before we jump into 2017, here’s a reflection on a year of landscape changes at Fort Greene Park.
Remember wading through the inches of muck and debris at the Willoughby Avenue entrance a couple years ago after heavy rains? The installation of a functional drainage system as part of the $2.6 million Phase 1 Willoughby Avenue Entrance project makes that chore seem like a distant memory. In June, our community cut the ribbon on the project, funded by Council Member Laurie Cumbo and Borough President Eric Adams and designed by Nancy Owens Studio. The new drainage system uses man-made features as well as natural filtration systems to mitigate stormwater runoff. Thousands of shrubs, trees, and perennials help prevent erosion, provide habitat for wildlife, and offer color and blooms all year long. Pathway renovations and an entrance ramp add needed accessibility improvements for wheelchairs, strollers, and bikes. The new lawns and benches create spaces for relaxation and contemplation beneath the shade of some of the park’s grandest trees.
In August, the Fort Greene Park Conservancy under the guidance of board member Ted Johnson completed its first park construction project, the renovation of 550 feet of Washington Park sidewalk north and south from the Willoughby Avenue entrance. With funding from the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the new sidewalk enhances connectivity between Myrtle and Dekalb Avenues and creates safer passage for a busy sidewalk that hosts our Saturday Greenmarket.
Our park’s lawns have benefited from a partnership with the Central Park Conservancy’s (CPC) Five Borough Crew since 2014. In the first two years of the program, CPC crews carried out much of the restoration and maintenance work. Last year, enabled by CPC’s training, the Fort Greene Park maintenance team initiated several restoration projects to curb erosion and provide lush turf for passive recreation. The new grass requires frequent mowing and irrigation compared to other, weedier areas of the park. In June, at the recommendation of CPC, NYC Parks purchased a new Scag mower for the park, doubling our mowing capacity. Throughout spring and summer, most of the park’s lawns were mowed every couple weeks or even weekly by park worker Andres Pagan, an incredible upgrade from the previous monthly rotation. This fall, Andres used the Scag as a mulching machine, recycling leaves back into the park to nourish the soil.
Beyond mowing, we are focused on applying the best practices for turf management—aeration, overseeding, and instituting temporary closures or use restrictions in a few key areas. The first joint NYC Parks-CPC project involved the restoration of the four lawns on the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument Plaza. During summer 2015 we took a conservative approach to opening the lawns by maintaining the fencing so we could close them on wet weather days. We restricted pets in response to feedback from patrons who wanted a clean area for kids and toddlers. This spring we opened two of the monument lawns completely to see how they would fare compared to the restricted-use lawns. After large summer events, the two open lawns showed signs of thinning and balding. This fall we aerated, seeded, and closed the monument lawns to help them rebound for spring 2017.
The newly seeded lawn in the center oval of the Willoughby Entrance area offers an instant retreat into a space that evokes a woodland in the midst of a busy urban area. We opened the lawn in July with restrictions about pets and active recreation to protect the the numerous plantings bordering the lawn. The lawn became a popular spot for groups and families to picnic and relax this summer and fall.
We continue to focus our resources on stabilizing steep slopes. After a major storm event in February 2016, I wrote about the park’s existential crisis; with each heavy rain, a little of the park washes away. Grass is not an ideal groundcover for what Walt Whitman called our “ample hills.” Its shallow root structure is easily compacted and water that would help lawns recover from foot traffic obeys gravity and washes off. Shrubs, trees, and dense groundcovers fare far better, with foliage that deflects the rain and deeper roots to hold soil in place. These plantings are in use in many parts of the park (like the new Willoughby landscape) but they require considerable fencing. This fall we experimented with path rush seed on the slope below the visitor center. Once established, the rushes won’t need to be fenced, and are able to tolerate foot traffic and mowing. In other areas, we limited the fencing to the upper portion of the slope to reduce foot traffic through the lawn while still allowing sitting and use on the slope itself.
In April the Fort Greene Park Conservancy launched the Volunteer Gardener Program to channel the enthusiasm and knowledge of our surrounding neighborhood residents into developing and maintaining our park’s many garden beds. Committing a minimum of 90 minutes as week, our Volunteer Gardeners watered and weeded over the summer and initiated a wave of plantings this fall under the guidance of Parks worker Eric Thomann. Eric and the volunteers planted 6,000 daffodil bulbs around the monument plaza and another 1,500 at entrances. They also planted more than 2,000 perennial flowers, grasses, and shrubs to fill in gaps in existing garden beds around the park where substantial swaths of bare soil have become havens for weeds and erosion. Following the example of the Willoughby landscape design, we selected plants that will attract birds, butterflies, and other beneficial insects, withstand drought, and provide color and visual interest during all four seasons.
We employed this planting strategy along the 100-foot edge of the tennis courts in October. Local landscape designer Mackenzie Younger and his partner Johnny Kunen of Native NY Gardens volunteered their design services and developed a plan incorporating 40 species of plants native to the region. Using Conservancy funds, Mackenzie, Johnny, and the Volunteer Gardeners installed the border and mulched it with decomposed park leaves from last fall. Monarch butterflies and bumblebees honed in on the plants as they were unloaded from the truck! We welcome new green thumbs to the volunteer gardener program for 2017—interested individuals should email email@example.com to learn more.
Our Urban Forest
Park designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux envisioned a series of “shady walks” when they laid out the park in the late 1860s. Our park has significant canopy cover thanks to their foresight as well as the addition of trees in later phases of development in the 1930s and 1970s. Trees are a defining feature of our landscape. We are lucky to have over 30 elms, a high number of conifers, and some distinct specimens of Amur cork and Osage orange trees. We celebrated this extraordinary diversity by updating the 2007 Fort Greene Park Tree Trail in time for Arbor Day in April. The new trail, designed by Julian Macrone of the Fort Greene Park Conservancy with funding from NYC Parks and the National Environmental Education Foundation forms a circuit along the eastern side of the park, and includes botanical information as well as interesting “Did you Know?” facts. For instance, did you know that the acorns of the Bur oak (found at the Dekalb Ave and South Portland Ave entrance) are the largest of any North American oak? Grab a brochure at the Visitor Center and take in all 19 Tree Trail stops.
Many of our signature trees show signs of age and disease. Some of the pines on the slopes along Myrtle Avenue are turning a rusty brown from a disease affecting the needles. A handful of perimeter sidewalk horsechestnuts—a signature feature of the original Olmsted and Vaux plan—have been removed, and more show signs of stress given the compacted soil and limited growing room common to street tree pits. Trees, like people, have a lifespan. And since many of these trees were planted during the same eras of park development, it seems like a lot of trees are dying or showing signs of old age at the same time. I often hear “What’s going on!?” from patrons after a major limb falls or a tree is removed. In a forest, trees are allowed to decay and fall, helping nourish the next generation. In a busy urban park, safety prevails. That’s why NYC Parks, after in-depth testing and analysis, removed a few of the giants earlier this year. A silver linden between the hospital and tennis courts was tagged for removal because it was completely hollow in its trunk. Nearby, a tulip tree was removed because of irreversible decay.
The loss of these trees leaves a void in the canopy cover of the park and in our hearts. Many long time patrons have come to mark the passage of time through our trees. They are places you climbed as a kid, had a first kiss under as a teenager, and maybe even got married under as an adult. As park patron Scott Reiburn wrote on Fort Greene Park’s Facebook Page:
“Our old friends, those majestic giants of Fort Greene Park, remind us how nothing lasts forever, and life is precious...each loss is heartbreaking.”
I recommend the still relevant 2004 Fort Greene Park Urban Forest Management Plan if you want to learn more about park trees. The Plan discusses how in a healthy northeastern forest, one would expect to find a greater distribution of smaller, younger trees to ensure there are replacements to the canopy when the giants die. At the time of the Plan’s publication, however, our trees fell largely into two age-ranges: those planted in the 1930s and those in the 1970s. There was no next generation. In light of the science, NYC Parks planted 90 trees at the start of this decade. Volunteers installed temporary fencing around the trees this spring to protect them from vandalism, mowing equipment, foot traffic, pet urine, and fitness bands, among other hazards. Even the slightest nick can create an entry for disease since a tree’s living tissue lies just under its bark. Tree protection also focuses on relieving the extreme soil compaction that deprives tree roots of oxygen, moisture, and nutrients. This spring, Parks Forestry technicians decompacted the root zones of two of the oldest elms in the park, using compressed air to blast several holes outward from the trunk, loosening the soil. The holes are then filled with fluffy compost, which helps retain moisture and feeds the roots as it breaks down. We will continue this practice as resources allow.
What’s next for Fort Greene Park? Design is nearly complete on renovations to the path between Willoughby Avenue and the Dekalb Avenue playground to address the “Lake Fort Greene” rain ponding. The project will also build new drainage systems and an accessibility ramp at the entrance at Myrtle Avenue and Washington Park. Additional funding has been allocated by Council Member Cumbo and Borough President Adams to reconstruct the uneven staircases along the Brooklyn Hospital border at St. Edwards Street and at Dekalb Avenue and Fort Greene Place. Thanks to FGPC’s advocacy and our community’s votes, we learned in May that the park would receive funding from NYC Parks’ Parks without Borders Initiative, which will focus on creating inviting and accessible entries along Myrtle Avenue and opening historic views.
As construction and design staff undertake these improvements, I urge you to please continue providing feedback or volunteer in a number of capacities to improve your neighborhood backyard. I am grateful for the 1,400 volunteers who gave more than 5,000 hours of service this year—the equivalent of 2.5 additional full time workers. From picking up decades-old glass shards along the running trail to keeping dogwood shrubs at the Willoughby Avenue entrance alive during a scorching summer, volunteers make our park thrive. I am confident we are moving toward a park that can bounce back after a busy summer Saturday, withstand torrential rains, and balance sports and fitness with reflection and relaxation.
- David Barker, Director of Fort Greene Park