What if New Jersey’s Meadowlands were a national park?
A greener Garden State could keep 20 million New York-area residents above water
When you take a southbound train from New York’s Penn Station, a small miracle happens. After you emerge from the dark of the tunnel beneath the Hudson River into the daylight, you find yourself looking at a bucolic terrain of undulating grasses and meandering bodies of water intersected by monumental hunks of industrial engineering. The elevated portion of the New Jersey Turnpike bisects the landscape on epic concrete columns that look like something Romans would have built, and mysterious tanks and spindly steel towers pop up at regular intervals.
The slice of the New Jersey Meadowlands seen from the train window is an unmatched panorama of glorious incongruity. Robert Freudenberg, the vice president of energy and environmental programs for an urban research organization called the Regional Plan Association (RPA), used to commute from his home in New York City to a job in Trenton, New Jersey, where he worked for the Department of Environmental Protection. He’d take the train daily, and “there would always be this moment… I remember sitting on the train in those days, and every so often seeing an egret.”
I’m not surprised, therefore, that this common experience is part of what inspired a wonderfully contrarian proposal, one that would turn the Meadowlands, with its unexpected serenity and its surfeit of industrial detritus, into a national park.
The RPA, where Freudenberg works, is a relatively obscure organization founded in 1922 to try to shape the growth of the New York City metropolitan area, a wonky sidekick to the Port Authority that emerged around the same time to manage the transportation infrastructure shared by New York City and New Jersey. As its name suggests, the RPA issues plans for the future, ambitious compendia released at odd intervals that tend to say more about contemporary attitudes toward cities than they do about what the coming decades will hold, but that have also been quite influential. The first Regional Plan, released in 1929, pitched the rats’ nest of area highways that Robert Moses subsequently took it upon himself to build; the 1996 plan, the organization’s third, called for building a connection between the Long Island Railroad and Grand Central Terminal, a project now well underway.
The Fourth Regional Plan was released at the end of last year and strongly advocated repairing and expanding the subway system, building more affordable housing, and implementing a California-style system of charging fees to heavy emitters of greenhouse gases. Like all of the RPA’s plans, the most recent is progressive, clear-eyed, and just a little dull.
But within this very staid package is one jaw-dropping idea. The Fourth Regional Plan aims to cope with rising sea levels by fundamentally rethinking the New Jersey Meadowlands, with its 14 densely populated towns, its thousands of acres of warehouse and distribution facilities, its highways and rail lines, its stadiums and arenas. In a large section on climate change that mostly deals with ideas that are admirable but not very surprising—“modernize the electric grid” or “upgrade infrastructure to high standards of resilience”—there is a section entitled “Establish a national park in the Meadowlands.”
A national park in the Meadowlands? Crazy. But after reading the proposal, I paid a visit to the RPA’s Lower Manhattan offices and met with Freudenberg, a very nice, rational guy with a background in biology and public policy, who made the crazy sound sensible and maybe even inevitable.
“There’s been very little respect of the natural processes of the Meadowlands,” Freudenberg tells me. “One thing we’re trying to do with this is recognize that, on one hand, we’ve put a lot of important stuff in the Meadowlands. Nearly all of New Jersey transit lines run through the Meadowlands. Not to mention lots of contaminated sites from the industrial past. We’re in this situation where we put so many important things in the Meadowlands, and we’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to adapt a lot of it.
“At the same time, we’re going to have to make decisions about what we can adapt and where we’re going to have to let the water come in,” Freudenberg says.
“We have a very serious task ahead of us,” says Adrian Benepe, the New York City Parks Commissioner under Mayor Bloomberg and now a senior vice president at the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that encourages and assists in park creation, “which is to try and insulate this giant population center from the impacts of climate change, and particularly the impact of storm surges and rising sea levels. Unless you look at it on a regional basis and have regional authorities with the power and the teeth and the abilities to make the big necessary changes, we’re all going to be underwater in just a few decades.”
The big picture problem, he says, requires a top-down solution. “You can’t have small towns making decisions for regional security. It doesn’t work.”
Benepe’s point should be obvious to most informed observers: Climate change requires us to think big—actually, to think huge—and come up with responses that, just like natural phenomena, ignore arbitrary jurisdictional boundaries. The hard question, then, is: How could this be done? How do you turn a complex, intensively developed, sometimes hideous region into a national treasure?
For starters, the 8,400 or so acres of Meadowlands that are currently natural preserves will get handed over to the National Park Service. Then, in coming decades, as sea levels rise, neighborhoods in low-lying towns like South Hackensack or Little Ferry, which can’t practically be protected from floodwaters, and low-lying industrial and commercial tracts, including Teterboro Airport, will be depopulated, shut down, and folded into the park.
Over time, the Meadowlands National Park would transform from a scattered cluster of green spaces to a large, contiguous landscape of wetlands, an expanse of marsh big enough to act as a sponge for the region, mitigating storm-driven floods. Not only would it be a place where visitors could canoe or bird watch, but eventually, later in the century, they could also come to contemplate how rising sea levels have upended their reality: Goodbye Turnpike! Goodbye parking lot! Goodbye eternally unfinished shopping mall! Unlike Yosemite or Yellowstone, this national park would pair natural beauty with a kind of Road Warrior chic.
As it turns out, the RPA has a long history of pushing unconventional approaches to parks. “We recommended the transfer of Governors Island to become a park,” Freudenberg tells me. “We recommended the Gateway Recreation area become a new model of urban national park back in the Second Regional plan in the ’60s. We recommended that the Palisades be protected in the First Regional plan.”
All of those successful proposals had an element of crazy in them. But 21st-century New Jersey is a more complicated place than it was during the Depression, when John D. Rockefeller Jr. stealthily bought up much of the land atop the Palisades and handed it over to the Palisades Interstate Parks Commission.
The Meadowlands area is managed by a state agency that was founded in 1969 as the Meadowlands Development Commission. It was supposed to find an economically beneficial use for what was then regarded as wasteland. The commission spent its early years clearing out the mountains of garbage that over a hundred New Jersey towns had routinely, heedlessly, dumped in the swamps.
In 2001, the agency was renamed the Meadowlands Commission, which, according to environmental activist Bill Sheehan, founder of nonprofit the Hackensack Riverkeeper, “kind of took the word ‘development’ out of their vocabulary.” The official agency, over time, had evolved into a steward of the environmentally sensitive wetlands. Then, in 2015, under Gov. Chris Christie, it was folded into the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, the proprietor of all those stadiums and parking lots. (Many of the state’s environmental offices were shut down, defunded, or otherwise monkeyed with during Christie’s eight years.) In short, when you start talking with anyone on the west side of the Hudson about the concept of a Meadowlands National Park, you immediately find out more than you ever wanted to know about New Jersey’s byzantine political culture.
Sheehan, who has been a force for environmental protection and wetlands restoration since he founded his nonprofit over 20 years ago, and has fought tooth and nail to preserve every square inch of wetland, says this: “I’m interested in the idea. Don’t get me wrong, you know? I think it would be like, after a very, very long battle.”
RPA’s proposal isn’t the first to suggest this sort of restoration for the Meadowlands. A human encyclopedia of the ways things can go off the rails in New Jersey, Sheehan brings me up to date on the obvious precursor, the much-ballyhooed Rebuild By Design “New Meadowlands” project, a winner of the 2013 competition staged by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development in response to Hurricane Sandy.
The project, as it was originally imagined, was majestic. The design team, led by MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism and the Dutch firms ZUS and De Urbanisten, came up with a vision of impeccably restored wetlands (with swimmers in the Hackensack River) surrounding new neighborhoods built to urban densities and protectively ringed by berms. The renderings were mind-blowing because they showed that exact thing you see from the train window—natural splendor punctuated with industrial ruins—but better: the Hollywood version.
The project, much delayed, originally came with an $850 million price tag, obviously inadequate, and received only $150 million in funding. The competition design team was replaced by the engineering firm AECOM, which then worked closely with low-lying communities like Little Ferry and South Hackensack to translate the big picture into something… smaller. The end result was a kit of parts for water management: berms, storm drains, and bioswales. These are things every low-lying town should have, but the transformational vision was dead.
Or, as Sheehan put it, “They were supposed to be looking at resiliency, and all they could get out of their planning process was being able to clean the storm drains on a regular basis.”
The funny thing about those Rebuild by Design renderings, which have been revived as illustrations for the RPA’s Meadowlands proposal, is that they are much more grounded in reality than I’d assumed. There are vistas along the Hackensack that are every bit as lovely as the scenes in those drawings. One day I visited Laurel Hill Park, on the waterfront in Secaucus, where the Hackensack widens as it nears Newark Bay, and I recognized a railroad bridge that, in the Rebuild by Design vision, doubled as a seafood restaurant. Secaucus, as it happens, is also the place you see when you emerge from the train tunnel.
I emailed a copy of the RPA proposal to Michael Gonnelli, the mayor of Secaucus, a suburban town with about 20,000 residents. His first reaction: “It’s kind of farfetched.”
I mistakenly took that to mean that he thought the national park was a bad idea. We chatted for a while about how his town has been coping with climate change. Anyone who builds, he says, has to raise the site’s elevation. “We put up berms all around the river now. We’ve done nothing but flood control since Sandy hit here. That’s all we’ve done.” As the conversation progressed, it became clear that Mayor Gonnelli was intrigued by the national park concept. “I don’t think it’s impractical,” he says. “We’ve got quite a bit of wetlands that we’d be willing to donate for sure.” And he even began speaking in terms of how to move the idea along: “We have a mayors’ Meadowlands committee. It’s something I could certainly bring up out there.”
I like the idea of Gonnelli rallying his fellow mayors, but it’s hard for me to imagine 14 New Jersey elected officials agreeing to a plan that, in some cases, will shrink or eliminate their towns. The key to the plan, the reason the proposal calls for a national park, is that only the federal government (under some future administration) would have the money and the chutzpah to cut through the inevitable infighting and red tape. In fact, that’s pretty much how it happened last time.
“There’s tremendous precedent for doing this going back about 40 years, which is the creation of Gateway National Recreation Area,” Benepe explains. The Gateway National Park, also proposed by an RPA plan, was established in the 1970s and includes bays and seashores in Queens, Staten Island, and New Jersey. So, like the proposed Meadowlands National Park, it preserves and maintains a scattered set of sites. “So, for those who say it can’t happen, it will never happen, there is completely ample precedent for this.”
Landscape architect Susannah Drake, principal of Brooklyn-based DLANDstudio, worked on a competition that fed ideas to the Regional Plan. She speculates that it might be possible to simply enlarge the Gateway National Park to encompass the Meadowlands.
“Really, all you’re doing is kind of expanding the boundaries of the national park to include what is a very ecologically kind of fragile area,” Drake reasons. “I think it also might make the area easier to manage, in a way, going forward, because when you have private landowners who are in a situation of constantly having losses and then, looking to the federal government to repay those losses through FEMA… it may actually be more economically viable to translate it into a national park.”
While adding pieces of the Meadowlands to an existing national park could be an effective shortcut, it lacks the pizzazz of a park that comprises the whole Meadowlands. Establishing a national park, however, is an extended process. Will Rogers, the president of the Trust for Public Land, an expert on transforming private land into public space, cautions, “There’s a high bar in terms of the resource value. It has to be extraordinary. If you look at our national parks, there has to be some compelling either resource or historical or other context that really makes that particular place stand out.
“What happens is first of all,” Rogers continues, “is a place is identified that seems appropriate, and then there needs to be an official study of some kind about whether the place is worthy of national park status.” The study, he says, is “often congressionally authorized, and it would be done in conjunction with the Interior Department.”
The upshot, then, is that strong backing from the state’s Congressional delegation is key. As it happens, Bill Pascrell, the congressman for the ninth district, which covers much of the Meadowlands, was instrumental in creating the Great Falls National Historical Park in Paterson, which is about as unorthodox and urban a park as you could imagine. The focal point of the park is the 77-foot-high waterfalls on the Passaic River, but the park also exists to commemorate Paterson’s role as the nation’s first planned industrial city, powered by water and founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1792. The old mill buildings and gritty surroundings are as much a part of the park experience as the natural splendor.
Congress has to appropriate money to pay for the National Park Service to do a study. “And if it passes muster,” Rogers says, “then you need an authorizing bill that would create the park that has to go through Congress.
“So, needless to say, under the best of circumstances it’s a lengthy process, and depending on the way the political pendulum is swinging vis-a-vis public lands, protections and what they’re used for, there are times when you would say, ‘Well, let’s wait for the pendulum to swing back the other way.’”
While we will have to wait for the national political pendulum to swing, New Jersey’s own pendulum already has. A new governor, Phil Murphy, a Democrat, took office on January 18. Murphy’s press office thought it was too early in his tenure for him to comment on the RPA proposal and suggested, instead, that I check out the environmental positions stated on his campaign website. In short: Whatever former Gov. Chris Christie did, Murphy will do the opposite. For instance, he will have the state rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a consortium of East Coast states that Christie snubbed. “As the most densely populated state in the nation, Phil understands that preserving our open space is essential,” the website reads. Murphy’s support for the park seems, at least, possible.
Of course, turning the big picture into reality is going to require lots of baby steps. Freudenberg is just at the beginning of the process: “We take this idea on the road,” he says. “We start talking to the people we need to talk to, people in the towns. Elected officials in the state. The new governor. The senators and representatives in Congress. We listen to what people say. We wind up on the other side of this with a vision that works, that we keep pushing. We want to keep pushing this along, but let everyone join in. And push this idea forward. Take it to the next step.”
And, as you might expect from someone who works for an organization that exists to blur boundaries, Freudenberg insists, “This is not just a New Jersey thing. This is a Northeast megaregion thing.”
Surely it will take a while for officials at every level of government to wrap their heads around this concept. In a way, that’s the beauty of it. The real power of the RPA’s proposal for a Meadowlands National Park is that it’s big enough to be inspiring. The same quality that makes it quixotic also makes it important. Right now, many of us are hunkered down trying to figure out how to hang on to basic things we’ve long taken for granted: clean water, clean air, public education, reproductive rights, freedom of the press, equal rights… Politics has become a mad scramble. Even existing national parks and national monuments, previously sacrosanct, are under siege. But maybe you don’t have to wait for the pendulum swing to set an agenda. Maybe it’s smarter not to wait.
Editor: Sara Polsky
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