Walking the Brooklyn Bridge is a rite of passage for New York City tourists, transplants, and locals.
On sunny days during the weekend, it’s mobbed with selfie-takers, but in the evening, when it’s getting dark and the city lights come on, or early in the morning when it’s still cool, you can take your time and appreciate the majesty of the New York skyline.
Now imagine you’re crossing the bridge and you look down and see freshly installed planks of wood making up the walkway. Each plank carries the engraved name of people you recognize – neighbors, friends, local business leaders – but what cause are they supporting?
Nearby, there’s a plaque that tells of the origin of the wood: a rainforest in Uaxactún, Guatemala, sourced through a sustainable community managed timber operation. Each plank funds conservation, maintaining the cultural integrity of the forest stewards.
Suddenly, you realize that the built world around you can play a role in protecting the global environment, and that the infrastructural choices made by governments and private companies shape how we engage with space. That’s the sort of reflection a coalition of nonprofits wants to foster with their plans for reimagining the Brooklyn Bridge Promenade and surrounding parks.
The Brooklyn Bridge Forest, as the project is called, would transform the walking and cycling experience of the promenade, create forests with local plants and trees at both ends, enable educational and civic engagement opportunities, help combat the climate and biodiversity crisis, and signal to the global community that New York is invested in meeting the goals of the Paris climate agreement.
The core of the project is sourcing wood for the walkway from the Uaxactún community in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, which protects an estimated 200,000 acres of rainforest. Anyone would be able to sponsor the planks to support the project and take climate action, which would save the city about $2 million, according to estimates.
The Brooklyn Bridge Forest was first conceived more than a decade ago by the architect Scott Francisco and has earned supporters throughout communities and in City Hall. In 2020, it won the New York City Council and Van Alen Institute’s competition Reimagining Brooklyn Bridge. Mayor Eric Adams signed a public statement of support for it. In 2021, former Mayor Bill de Blasio pushed through the bike-lane improvements that the Brooklyn Bridge Forest proposed, bringing the bridge closer to its potential as an icon of sustainability.
But it still hasn’t received enough political support to actually be fully implemented. The boards on the walkway are meant to be replaced every 30 years and the replacement process is long overdue.
Historically, the planks were sourced in ways that harmed South American rainforests. Adopting the Brooklyn Bridge Forest model would do the opposite — creating a symbol to rally around for a post-pandemic future predicated on climate action, public health, and conservation.
“Every footstep of every New Yorker on this urban landmark, the beloved Promenade, should resonate with the bird songs of a partner forest that will provide the wood across time and generations to come,” Francisco told GLobal Citizen. “This is a bridge between the future of our cities and our planet.”
Here are eight reasons why the city should implement the project.
1. Climate action that inspires other cities
New York has an ambitious climate program as it seeks to reduce emissions by 80% from a 2005-benchmark by 2050, while also transforming every facet of the city to ensure improved air, water, and food quality.
The Brooklyn Bridge Forest would neatly encapsulate the many dimensions of climate action. The forest indicates a commitment to green space, the reduced room for cars shows that low-carbon transportation will be the future, and the sustainably sourced wood shows an understanding of international solidarity and equity.
By carrying out this project in a city as dense, car-obsessed, and knotty as New York could inspire other cities around the world to reimagine their built environments and develop similar partnerships with community stewardship projects.
2. Sustainable economic development
Unless countries begin to approach forest management from the perspective of environmental well-being, then the planet will continue to lose millions of hectares of tree cover annually.
Indigenous communities have long demonstrated that forests can be harvested for timber and other goods, while remaining robust ecosystems for wildlife. The Brooklyn Bridge Forest has an opportunity to support local and Indigenous communities and signal to both the New York economy and the broader global community that sustainable sourcing is always an option and is essential to the future well-being of the planet.
Further, by entering this partnership, the bridge would secure a replenishable supply of sustainably sourced wood, as the initial investments will allow for the community to protect trees and reforest harvested areas.
The Uaxactún community has had extraordinary success through its forest management, reducing deforestation to nearly zero in a part of the world where rapid forest loss is rampant. They do this by harvesting one tree per acre every 40 years, which allows the forest to comfortably regenerate and maintain its size.
This sort of approach, if adopted worldwide, would safeguard and expand the world’s remaining forests, performing an essential role in mitigating the climate and biodiversity crisis.
3. Fight poverty
By establishing a partnership with the Uaxactún community, New York would be able to mitigate poverty in the region, creating a model for other governments to follow, and supporting the United Nations’ Global Goals.
4. Human-friendly design
Central Park is one of the few parks in New York that you can get lost in as you wander the paths and meander through the fields. That’s because it’s 843 acres of land in the heart of Manhattan, a rare oasis in an otherwise concrete jungle. The broad streets that surround the park and cut through its middle remind people that New York privileges asphalt and machines over green spaces and humans. In fact, the city has 12 Central Park’s worth of street parking alone. Three-quarters of the city’s street space is dedicated to the movement and storage of cars.
What would the city look and feel like if some of this space was reclaimed for humans? The city already has plans to reclaim 25% of street space currently dedicated to cars and give it into bike lanes, plazas, outdoor sitting areas, and expanded sidewalks.
The Brooklyn Bridge Forest could be a stylish ambassador for this new version of New York. By expanding walking and leisure space on the bridge, and turning some car lanes into dedicated bike lanes, the bridge will make a bold statement that the reign of cars is over.
5. Reduce pollution
New York City air, especially around bridges and places of heavy car traffic, can get very polluted. For bikers, pedestrians, people sitting outside, or people with their windows open this represents an ongoing health threat.
During the initial shutdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, air pollution levels halved across the city, according to researchers at Columbia University. In the years ahead, the same air quality results can be achieved by phasing out gasoline-powered cars and discouraging car ownership in general.
The Brooklyn Bridge Forest would facilitate this shift by reducing car capacity on the bridge and also introducing more green spaces that can clean the air.
6. Increasing green space for all
More than 1.1 million New Yorkers lacked easy access to green spaces during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, depriving them of an important source of solace and leisure when it was most needed. Green space availability is contingent on how much money you have, with the most expensive apartments next to the most lush parks.
City officials want to plant 1 million trees across the five boroughs by 2030, reducing existing green space deficits in low-income neighborhoods.
The Brooklyn Bridge Forest would be a cornerstone part of this initiative, allowing urban planners to transform what is now dismal concrete and asphalt into lush forest spaces that can serve as community pollution buffers and places to hang out.
Just imagine walking through a forest to get to the bridge’s newly designed footpath and then exiting to find yourself in a new forest — that would be radically different than the swarm of honking cars that greet you now.
7. Improved urban biodiversity corridors
Not only would the new microforests support human well-being, but they would also help to revive local insect populations. Over the past century, human development and pollution have caused insect populations to plummet and their disappearance could unravel entire ecosystems. Their numbers can be partly restored, however, simply providing them with habitats.
While the new microforests around the Brooklyn Bridge wouldn’t be an uninterrupted habitat, it could provide a corridor to larger habitats for insects, allowing them to take a break during their travels to recharge.
8. Educational opportunities
The team behind the Brooklyn Bridge Forest wants the project to be embedded within surrounding communities and they’ve worked to incorporate community opinions into the overall blueprint.
Going forward, its plans to develop educational and civic engagement spaces within the plazas that accompany the park so that kids can learn about the city’s natural environment, sustainability, and circular economies.