Designing for New York’s Shifting Shoreline- Gateway National Park

Julieta Philippa Cardenas
4 min readJul 2, 2021

Once Lenape grounds in which 40-foot canoes traversed the bay for fishing, and oysters, clams, scallops, and whelk were gathered, Gateway National Recreation Area remains an important estuary site supporting at least 300 species of birds, seals, diamondback turtles, and red bats.

The Dutch colonizers saw the marshlands and deemed them agriculturally unproductive and aesthetically displeasing. So ‘De Baye’ was drained and filled to look more like the grazing plains of Holland. By the 1860s, the perspective on the site had not changed, and Gateway suffered at the hands of developers who dumped rubble from Central Park into the marshes. The bodies of hundreds of thousands of working horses were disposed of as well, so many that the area remains hauntingly named Dead Horse Bay.

Gateway: Visions for an Urban National Park is a collaboratively published book chronicling the challenges for designing a future for 26,000 acres of shoreline that has had a history of uses, neglect and which is at the frontier of the climate crisis in New York City. It showcases proposals for Gateway submitted to a 2016 competition honoring the National Parks Service centennial. As a national recreation area, it is under the directive of preservation to leave the park “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” However, as the park loses 50 acres per year, what exactly future generations will be enjoying is murky.

The park is made up of three distinct units; Jamaica Bay, Staten Island, and Sandy Hook. Though the Jamaica Bay Unit can be reached using public transportation, the walk from the subway is 15 minutes through a residential neighborhood — a task deemed intimidating to those unfamiliar with the area. All other units can only be accessed by private car. With these constraints come the blessings and curses of semi-abandoned spaces. A former airfield for the U.S. Postal Service, Floyd Bennet Field is now used for recreational group activities like flying model planes, drag racing, bike races and is also the site for NYC’s largest community garden. Potential for use, or what architects call “programming,” is unhindered and left for the shared imaginations of local residents. In the essay “Who Goes There?” Former deputy director of the US National Park Service, Dennis Galvin, points out that Gateway is the second most visited National Recreation Area with 8.4 million visitors per year. However, unlike most National Park Service sites, a large chunk of visitors to Gateway were habitual, visiting more than 10 times.

In contrast, other NYC parks may be easier to get to, but their programming is more constrained. Interests of developers and politicians perhaps vibe well with the ideological motivations of designers like Frederick Law Olmstead, known for Central Park, or more contemporaneously, Diller Scofidio and Renfro, known for the High Line. Those parks look nice, are funded through special public-private partnerships, and their appeal also helps sell real estate. They may also be thought of as what landscape architect and founder of SCAPE Studio, Kate Orff calls “surface treatments.”

Gateway has had an inconsistent relationship with various government entities managing it, from the municipal to the federal level. In 1938 Robert Moses changed the park's jurisdiction from the Department of Docks to the Parks Department. He aimed to bring more recreation and public housing, and thus, the park gained areas for picnicking, boating, and public bathing. By 1972 when legislation made Gateway into a National Recreation Area, there was a political optimism that the federal government would be moved to address the “deteriorating social and economic condition of the nation’s cities.” The optimism has come and gone with the tides and with it the perspective that for Gateway and any design proposal of it to be a success, it must be able to withstand the changes of the next 10, 40, 80 years. As severe storms happen with more frequency, biodiversity loss increases due to poor water management. As natural and man-made erosion continues on our shorelines, we are reminded that New York City is an island. Gateway’s shorelines could be a buffer, but they will also be the first witness. If the city is to learn, adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change, it is critical to observe and study the changes at Gateway.

Large-format photographs by Laura McPhee of Gateway give a sense of nature overtaking history. The design proposals for the competition show the potential for the area. Some look to reconcile navigability and access to the park as part of the design. Others took to filtration solutions to manage the sewage outpour the area receives from the city. Design proposals have an aesthetic language of their own, and as such, the book might best be enjoyed by those who have experience looking at architectural drawings. That said, the book’s editors have added simplified maps and historical images that give a sense of life to the place — a feat which is sometimes difficult to imagine when looking at the clean lines of architectural renderings.

The winning design, “Mapping the Ecotone,” by Ashley Scott Kelly and Rikako Wakabayashi, aims to make the changing habitats, landforms, and program of the park immediately legible to visitors. This is achieved by constructing walkways and a system of jetties and piers that reintroduce tidal waterways into the landscape and add sediment that has been lost due to erosion. An aerial rendering of the proposal looks like a collection of staggering straight lines, a kind of thin rib on a marsh belly that becomes more pronounced as the shoreline shrinks.

The Jamaica Bay Nature Reserve trails meander around West Pond and provide relieving views for weary city eyes. Go on a foggy day, and a narrow sandbank makes for the sublime observation of birds. In the future that “Mapping the Ecotone” imagines, the same walk would provide different scenes across the span of a lifetime: the sublime marshland will recede beneath their feet, making visitors witnesses of climate change close to home.



Julieta Philippa Cardenas

Julieta Cárdenas is an artist-writer-designer in NYC. Their work is increasingly focused on non-human animals and living through the sixth mass extinction.