Planning History of Marine Park NYC Greatest Unbuilt Park

The Waterfront Committee of the APA NY Metro Chapter and Cornell Art, Architecture, and Planning program joined forces on Saturday July 29 for a walking tour of Marine Park, one of New York City’s great natural areas.

The tour was narrated by Professor Thomas Campanella of Cornell’s department of City and Regional Planning. Campanella is the author of “Playground of the Century: A Political and Design History of New York City’s Greatest Unbuilt Park.” The article tells the micro-history of one of the last substantial open spaces in metropolitan New York, the Gerritsen tidal marsh of Brooklyn. Spared from development on the recommendation of Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett, the Gerritsen estuary was an ecological treasure that nonetheless became a “clean slate” upon which a succession of heroic plans was projected. The greatest of these was Charles Downing Lay’s 1,800-acre Marine Park, intended to be the largest urban playground in the world.

A vast space for exercise and sport that won its designer a silver medal in the 1936 Olympics, Marine Park was the anti–Coney Island, an engine of moral fitness and self-improvement as focused on physical activity as Prospect Park was on promenade and contemplation. It remains a rare example of progressive park design in the conservative “Country Place” era of the 1920s. Designed in the neo-Renaissance idiom then popular for private estates, Marine Park was a vast formal garden for the people.

Campanella led a group of 30 APA members, South Brooklyn neighbors, as well as Cornell students, professors, and alumni around the Marine Park estuary to explore historic site remains. The group learned of an ironic turn of events by which Robert Moses later dismissed the Lay plan in favor of a less invasive park scheme that preserved the salt marsh and enabled its recent ecological restoration as one of New York City’s Forever Wild nature preserves. If you are interested in learning more about planning history from a unique Brooklyn vantage, visit Campanella’s  blog at, you won’t be disappointed!

For those interested in following learning about future APA Metro Chapter Waterfront Committee meetings and eventsemail committee co-chair Max Taffet at to be added to committee email notifications.