Ulises Rivera, a Bushwick resident, has been visiting the Ridgewood Reservoir, a natural gem and former water source within Highland Park, for over 40 years. On this particular morning, he rode his bike and was getting exercise by doing laps around the park’s track. Rivera, who is 76, said he’s shared his enthusiasm for nature by taking both his children and grandchildren to the park through the years. 

Highland Park’s reach is vast, with an emblematic central reservoir that makes you feel far from the city. This is surprising, given that the park is surrounded by major boulevards and highways, including the Jackie Robinson Parkway. 

To facilitate access to the park among these busy roads, the city is installing pedestrian infrastructural improvements at the intersection of Vermont Place and Highland Boulevard, a key pedestrian access point. After receiving specific complaints and support from local community boards, the Department of Transportation (DOT) is installing a series of improvements at the intersection. According to DOT’s planning report, three people were seriously injured in car accidents at the intersection between 2014 and 2018. 

These improvements include a concrete sidewalk, which DOT is finishing up by the end of the year, as well as crosswalks and adjustments to traffic signal changes, which DOT plans to install by summer 2022. According to Queens Community Board 5’s 2021 community needs statement, parks are a fundamental need for residents in a crowded city.  Given this reality, activists and government officials want to work on expanding and improving park access for all New Yorkers. Understanding that safe access to parks and nature is fundamental to the general well being of its residents, the city is taking steps to improve pedestrian access around the Ridgewood Reservoir.

Progress building the sidewalk construction.

Built in 1858, the reservoir was historically a part of Brooklyn’s water supply and was used for that purpose until 1959. Now, the area is a park where you can find one of the three original basins forming a five foot-deep reservoir pond. In 2018, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation named it a protected wetland and the National Registry of Historic Places added it to its listings.

Today, the reservoir is a destination for birders as well as for residents like Rivera, who appreciate the space as a natural respite from the city.

“The pandemic made it strikingly clear that greenspaces like Highland Park are critical infrastructure. They touch every facet of our city and play a role in health, safety and community development,” Megan Moriarty of the NYC Parks Department wrote in an email. 

The reservoir is a New York State Department of Conservation protected wetland.

NYC H20 is a nonprofit organization that seeks to educate and inspire New Yorkers through water ecology, starting with educational programs based at the reservoir. Part of the group’s mission includes advocating equitable access to the space, which has led them to support several initiatives related to transit and pedestrian access.

Even after a major win in 2018, the installation of a pedestrian crossing on Vermont Place between Highland Park’s main parking lot and the main entrance to the reservoir, NYCH2O Executive Director Matt Malina wanted to keep improving access to the park. The Highland and Vermont intersection was the next large-scale pedestrian priority.

“We had our sights set on this particular crossing, because it is particularly dangerous. There aren’t pedestrian markings. There isn’t a pedestrian traffic signal,” said Malina.

NYC H2O leaders and other activists are most concerned with improving pedestrian and cyclist access to the park, considering that most New Yorkers don’t get around by car. 

According to John Maier, a community associate from the Queens Community District 5 Community Board, the Ridgewood Reservoir is highly revered as a natural gem in the community, as demonstrated by its consistent inclusion within the top 10 priorities of the district’s annual needs statement. 

The Highland and Vermont project, Maier said, wasn’t a controversial proposal and there were no delays. In fact, all parties were in consensus that adding better pedestrian infrastructure was a step in the right direction to prioritize people. Moriarty of the Parks Department wrote that, anecdotally, the department has observed an increase in reservoir visitors since 2018, when the park received both protected and historic status. Additionally, since the start of the pandemic, the department has observed a general and significant increase in visitors across all city parks – all the more reason to prioritize safe access.

NYC H2O has spent many years supporting people-centered planning initiatives, like the installation of a Citibike station to improve bike access to the reservoir as well as a campaign to have a bus stop added near one of the park’s entrances. Peter Frishauf, president of the NYC H2O Board of Directors, said that these initiatives are “key to our desire to improve the safety and accessibility and equity for communities around the Ridgewood Reservoir.”

According to Laura Shepard, cases like the Ridgewood Reservoir are symbols for how the city should prioritize safe and equitable access to its resources. “They are key destinations that people will go to whether they’re safe or not,” said Shepard, who is a former volunteer and current Queens organizer for the transit advocacy nonprofit Transportation Alternatives.

DOT is also considering adding formal pedestrian infrastructure that leads from Cypress Avenue to the park. 

For Ulises Rivera, getting to the reservoir by bike and accessing nature safely contributes to his general wellbeing. He appreciates the infrastructure improvements, commenting that “anything that’s good for humanity is a thing well done.”

Rivera will keep returning to the reservoir as he always does to enjoy the middle basin, the body of water that he affectionately calls, “el laguito,” or “the little lake.”

Ulises Rivera, a Bushwick resident, appreciates the reservoir’s nature and surrounding infrastructural improvements.  

All images: Tasha Sandoval

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