New York is a city that likes to forget it’s surrounded by water. Each spring, as the sidewalks thaw and we re-emerge, blinking, into the natural world, there are plenty of opportunities to rediscover the city’s ample waterfront: New York City’s 520 miles of shoreline (almost half as much as Hawaii!) features dozens of public parks, offering everything from the sports facilities and re-created salt marsh of Brooklyn Bridge Park to the beaches and hiking trails of Pelham Bay Park, allowing you to take in the rivers, estuaries, and ocean that prompted the Dutch to put New Amsterdam here in the first place (and the Lenni-Lenape to put Lenapehoking here before them).
Oh, yes, that ocean. While it makes for a great spring getaway (Look, kids! It’s not full of ice floes anymore!), it’s also possibly New York’s greatest long-term menace. As a February report by the New York City Panel on Climate Change revealed, New York’s sea level is rising twice as fast as the global average, thanks to the perfect storm of melting ice caps, expanding warmer ocean water, and “glacial rebound” from land that bulged up in advance of the Ice Age ice sheets. If the local sea level rises six feet by the end of the century (as one scenario in the February report has it), then much of the New York City waterfront, from the Rockaways to Red Hook, could be inundated. The bigger worry, though, is less a matter of average waterline than of how far water would rise during storms: “By the 2080s under the middle range, the historical 100-year event is projected to occur approximately 2 to 4 times more often” — or, in English, some New Yorkers alive today might see a Flood of the Century every 25 years.
New York’s waterfront parks are a great place to see the climate catastrophe in action, and maybe even help fight to prevent it, or at least keep it from drowning too many of us when it arrives. Here are some ideas for spring excursions to take in local parks before nature’s wrath at the carbon you burned driving there puts the whole thing underwater.
Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge/Gateway National Recreation Area
At 18,000 acres, Jamaica Bay is by far the city’s biggest public park, and one of the most secluded from the urban environment. Visitors can kayak, bike, and hike their way through what the city boasts is “the only national wildlife refuge accessible by subway,” featuring a major stop for birds on their Atlantic Flyway migration route.
It’s also disappearing at an alarming clip. Thanks to encroachment from development (JFK Airport took about one-fifth of the marsh), paving of nearby land that once shed sediment into the bay, nitrogen-increasing pollution, and sea-level rise, the once-expansive wetlands that help soak up carbon and sop up storm surges have been shrinking for more than a century, a trend park officials are racing to reverse. “We may be able to reach a stabilization maybe twenty years down the line,” says Don Riepe, the former National Park Service official who now serves as the American Littoral Society’s Jamaica Bay guardian. Sea-level rise, though, is “going to be a major problem” in getting there, he admits.
Flushing Meadows-Corona Park
With not one but two names honoring an ash heap (the old Corona Ash Dumps, best remembered today for their role in The Great Gatsby), Queens’ largest city park features two lakes, the underrated Queens Zoo, the giant steel globe known as the Unisphere, and some of the city’s busiest public soccer pitches. Built to host the 1939 World’s Fair, it performed an encore in that role a quarter-century later (the occasion of the Unisphere’s debut).
You can take it all in this Saturday, March 28, when Forgotten New York historian Kevin Walsh leads a walking tour of such detritus of history as World’s Fair mosaics by Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol and a time capsule set to be opened in the year 6939.
The park also features a tidal stream called Flushing Creek, dammed in the last century to turn the marsh into parkland. Flood maps indicate that the sea will reclaim much of the park as soon as the sea level rises by a meter or so, which means by 6939 our time capsule will be at the bottom of Long Island Sound. On the bright side, the Unisphere will look pretty dang impressive to Planet of the Apes fans.
One of the city’s oldest parks, Battery Park has grown steadily over the centuries through landfill: Castle Clinton, the sometime performance space (and former immigration-station precursor to Ellis Island) in the middle of the park, was built in 1811 to jut out into the harbor. Though hardly bucolic, the park offers outstanding views of New York Harbor, plus occasional concerts as part of the annual River to River festival.
Get your fill of Battery Park’s current incarnation now, because if the architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group has its way, the site could soon look very different. A flood-prevention device BIG calls the Big U would wrap the entire south half of Manhattan in a seven-mile-long earthen berm, protecting the island’s inhabitants when the next Sandy arrives. The firm’s renderings show a raised section wending its way through the park, dividing it into a floodproof section and one that can be submerged in the Hudson when needed. Castle Clinton gets consigned to the watery part, but with eight-foot-thick sandstone walls, it’ll probably be the last piece of Manhattan to crumble into the sea.
Just off the Belt Parkway east of Sheepshead Bay is a tiny exit that leads to Plumb Beach, one of the weirder city parks: a strip of beach squeezed between the highway and Rockaway Inlet. It draws a small but steady stream of kiteboarders, tidal-flat explorers, and, when horseshoe crab mating season starts at the end of April, fans of invertebrate nookie to goggle at a beach covered in coupling arthropods.
Plumb Beach was originally Plumb Island before a creek was filled in, and home to a shantytown that was wiped out by the Great Hurricane of 1938, the Sandy of its day. The Army Corps of Engineers has ever since been busily replacing sand as it erodes away, but with its back against the highway, there’s nowhere for the beach to migrate if sea levels get too high.
Great Kills Park
Staten Island is home to more than 12,000 acres of parkland — enough room to fit nearly twenty Central Parks (if you had twenty Central Parks and wanted to ship them to Staten Island). Just south of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the South Beach Boardwalk traverses the site of the old Happyland amusement park, where New Yorkers thronged in the early years of the twentieth century. And just past the boardwalk’s southern end lies Great Kills Park, a national park that offers a scenic cove, views of Sandy Hook and Coney Island, and the city’s only osprey nesting site.
Great Kills Park also features a brand-new marina, opened last year after the old one was completely destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, along with many of the houses along Staten Island’s East Shore. Some of those neighborhoods have been taken over by the state as possible future parkland — so there may be even more beachfront property for visitors to enjoy…while it lasts.