Fort Greene Park faces an existential crisis; with each rainstorm, a little bit of the park washes away. Our park’s hill has been eroding ever since it was formed by glacial deposits of silt and debris some 20,000 years ago. The erosion accelerated on Feb. 16 when an inch of rain fell, including an unusually heavy amount in the late afternoon. Coming right after snow and in late February when the park has little vegetation – on the ground or in trees – to intercept the rain, we were especially vulnerable. Layers of silt and debris coated sidewalks, tennis courts, steps, and paths. Thank you to the many volunteers and Park workers for mobilizing in the days after to ensure safe travel conditions.
The challenge of keeping our park from ending up in the middle of DeKalb and Myrtle Avenues is nothing new. In 1892, just 20 years after the Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux-designed park was completed, it was noted that extensive repairs were needed to pathways because of erosion and heavy usage. We have photos of workers topsoiling slopes in 1909. Foot and paw traffic as well as the compaction caused by past pathways long since removed challenge the survival of vegetation such as turf grass and other spreading groundcovers. Plants struggle to sink roots, which would otherwise break up the soil and create spaces for water absorption. Roots also hold on to the soil so it doesn’t wash away. Much of our park is shaded, which makes it challenging to get things growing as well.
If the water can’t seep into the soil, it has to go somewhere. And on our steep slopes, the water obeys gravity and moves downhill, picking up speed and taking soil, rocks, gravel – all that stuff left by glaciers – along for the ride. The heaviest rains carve up so much soil they leave channels or gullies in their wake. The Feb. 16 storm was a classic gully washer. Manmade drainage systems such as catch basins and vaults would ordinarily divert lot of the surface water underground into the surrounding stormwater sewer system. But over the course of our park’s 165+ year history, many of those drains have failed. The last full survey shows ample drains in the park but next to several of them one finds the abbreviation N.F.I.F. or “Not Found in Field.” They may have been paved over, buried by soil erosion, or they may be clogged beyond repair.
What We Are Doing
If you walked through the new Willoughby Avenue entrance area after the storm, you saw what working drains and aerated soil (from being fenced offed for so long) can do. A far cry from a couple years ago when that entrance was a mucky mess after rain. Thank you Nancy Owens Studio for designing the project and Fredante Construction for executing the plans.
We are lucky that more construction money – $3M from Borough President Eric Adams and Council Member Laurie Cumbo – is headed our way to modernize drainage in other parts of the park. This money will address the chronic “lake” that obstructs the path along Washington Park above the Farmer’s Market. It will also bring new drainage to paths heading toward Myrtle Avenue. The Fort Greene Park Conservancy is advocating for more money for future phases of capital improvement to bring modern drainage to the park's other watersheds.
What then about the other parts of the park that need construction money but don’t have funding yet? Walking around the park, you’ve probably seen areas fenced off with new turf and wood timbers. These efforts — the result of Parks staff and volunteers coming together to confront this age-old challenge — mitigated the damage from last week’s gully washer by slowing the speed of runoff and providing porous spaces for water to absorb into the soil. Expect to see more of these green infrastructure projects this year. Further, the Central Park Conservancy’s Five Borough Crew will continue to visit with aeration equipment to relieve soil compaction.
What you can Do
When enjoying the park, minimize your impact on soil compaction by sticking to park paths as much as possible, especially when the ground is wet. If you have a dog who likes to run and fetch, move around the park to avoid over-compacting one particular area. And please prevent hole-digging. We don’t pretend to be able to fix a centuries-old problem for good; rather our aim is to reduce the impacts of gully washers like last week's. Suggestions and volunteer help are always welcome. Please e-mail us at email@example.com with ideas and thoughts.
Director of Fort Greene Park