Currently, the Harlem River is a massively underutilized resource for the city, primarily depriving residents of upland communities such as Morris Heights, University Heights, and Port Morris of vast stretches of waterfront due to inadequate access and amenities. Obstacles such as the Metro North’s Hudson Line, the Major Deegan Expressway, and ridges along the water block paths towards the water, and create undesirable and dangerous conditions for most public uses of nearby land. These challenges have prevented heavy industrialization and discouraged construction of high-rise luxury residential towers on the river’s edge, and contributed to the current scenery of vacant plots of land and underserved parks. Harlem River Working Group was formed in 2008 from a cadre of community organizations with the goal of transforming this land into a recreational, economic and scenic resource for adjacent neighborhoods. In order to do so, work had to be done piece by piece.
Over the last few years, Trust for Public Land and other organizations have put much effort into purchasing future parkland at Depot Place, High Bridge, and Regatta Park Greenway. In conjunction with the South Bronx Greenway and others, these pieces of parkland are deliberately coalescing into a major green web throughout the Bronx and Upper Manhattan, providing much-needed vegetation and recreational space to our city’s most asthma-stricken and obese populations. The health benefits that once escaped residents of New York City’s “concrete jungle” are now becoming a reality, but this is dependent upon continuous progress. Thus, a comprehensive community vision of the Harlem River is necessary.
The community visioning process, conducted with the technical assistance of Pratt Center for Community Development and a participatory planning studio at Pratt Institute’s PSPD, combined studies and projects previously developed by MIT and Columbia University students, the NYC Economic Development Corporation, and others into a preliminary plan. A set of common recommendations emerged from these sessions, including: a continuous esplanade or greenway that enhances the value of each waterfront component; safe physical and clear visual connections between the water and upland communities; more efficient use of bridges to connect public spaces and parks on either bank of the river, especially the pedestrian High Bridge; restoration of wetlands and other habitats along the water where feasible; and implementation of accesible water-borne transportation and recreation.
As waterfront access has become a priority for City Hall, some neighborhoods of New York have been prioritized for one reason or another. The Harlem River waterfront presents a set of difficult challenges to access and productive use of available spaces. With the support of organizations such as Harlem River Working Group and its allies, and continuing and expanding input from community residents themselves, a vision for equitable waterfront access throughout our city can be established and executed.