Greens Farms Academy is a PreK-12, coed school in Westport, CT

Cities Class's Field Trip to Brooklyn Bridge Park

Cities Class's Field Trip to Brooklyn Bridge Park

By Chris Meatto

Field Trip to Brooklyn Bridge Park


On a beautiful recent fall day, members of the Cities class, an elective in the Upper School History & Global Studies Department, traveled to Brooklyn Bridge Park for a walking tour with Matthew Urbanski, a landscape architect and one of the park’s chief designers. This interdisciplinary course trains students to see themselves as urban planners by exploring city life from a variety of perspectives. This semester, we’re investigating the forces that shape urban development and imagining how to build future-ready cities that are inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable, in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. To apply and deepen their understanding, students are also researching ways that four local cities–Bridgeport, Fairfield, Norwalk, and Stamford–might add to their official sustainability plans; at the end of the term, they will present their ideas to a group of urban planners from each city in an evening symposium held at GFA. 

Our excursion to Brooklyn came at the end of a unit where we’d been studying what makes cities inclusive and accessible. In our case study analysis of Brooklyn Bridge Park, we wanted to know more about how this urban success story was conceived, designed, and built, as well as its connections to public life in the area. Perhaps there could be lessons to apply to our own work.

With this in mind and GFA-issued bagged lunches in hand (thank you, Scott, Genaro, and your whole team!) we happily boarded a crowded rush hour train, found seats where we could, and, in an inversion of the title sequence of The Sopranos, traced the history of American urban development in reverse by riding from the exurbs into the city center. We emerged in Grand Central Terminal beneath the great celestial mural on the ceiling and made our way to the subway. From Borough Hall, it was a short and pleasant walk through bustling Downtown Brooklyn and stately Brooklyn Heights–often referred to as America’s first suburb–to the waterfront park.

As we entered the park through its pier 6 entrance, the city receded behind us and we were immediately drawn along a broad walking path surrounded by greenery and pocket playgrounds. We continued walking and met up with Matt, our tour guide, and for the next 90 minutes, we explored the park while he conducted a wonderful, far-ranging discussion on the history of the Brooklyn Waterfront; deindustrialization; New York politics; “third spaces,” social cohesion, and quality of life; partnering with community members in the design process; the virtues of different plant species; self-sustaining funding mechanisms; affordable housing; coastal floods and storm surges; incorporating found materials; and the deliberate combination of the industrial with the natural. We took notes and pictures, asked questions, and tried to keep up with the views and amenities that revealed themselves at each turn.

Covering 85 acres and about 1.3 shoreline miles, Brooklyn Bridge Park is built on piers and waterfront acreage left over from the area’s shipping past. We learned that Matt’s work involved masterfully combining elements of this past with a bold and distinctive vision for the future centered on what he termed boundless expanses and post-industrial nature. Built atop and among these piers are meadows and grassy pastures, athletic fields, picnic areas, a marina, walking paths, intercoastal channels, and a sweeping promenade. The park manages to offer something for everyone while also protecting adjacent neighborhoods from the new realities of climate change, storm surges, and sea-level rise. As we walked, students engaged with Matt and took in the sights and sounds, and we soon found ourselves as subjects within the case study itself, interacting with each space in all of the planned and spontaneous ways the park’s designers sought to cultivate.

Our tour concluded in DUMBO and we   parted ways with Matt. When asked   how he and his design partners pulled it all off, he told us: “To make something   unique, do something hard.” We hustled to the subway and back to Grand Central in time for snacks and our departing train. Afterwards, students used questions and photos (some of which are shared here) to reflect on their takeaways and how they might apply what they learned to their own research.

Our visit to Brooklyn reflects two of the course’s goals: to connect students with professionals in the field and to learn through authentic experiences. Later this semester, another architect will visit class to share more about his work and offer students an informal review or “desk crit” of their project designs. Toward the end of the course in January, we will welcome urban planners from across Fairfield County for an evening event at GFA: students will present their research findings and plans to our guests for feedback before having a joint conversation about urban design and future-readiness. It should be a lively and educational evening, and we hope you can join us for this fun event.

Thank you to the GFA Upper School and the History & Global Studies Department for supporting our trip; to Dr. Daniel Jump for joining us as an intrepid and knowledgeable chaperone; and to Matt Urbanski for spending a morning with a curious group of students. We had a blast!