Cough Triangle is a small patch of green with eight benches and four trees shadowed by the sinister peeling green paint and rusted streel of the Gowanus Expressway overpass in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. As its NYC Parks page notes, the name “Cough” is not a local colloquialism based on its proximity to the pollutant spewing cars, trucks and buses of the expressway overhead, but an acronym made from the names of the streets that cut its triangular shape. That is “COUrt Street, Garnet Street and Hamilton Avenue.” However, in spite of the whimsical nature of its roots, the name Cough Triangle is provocative because of its proximity to a significant source of air pollution, the Gowanus Expressway, built by Robert Moses in the mid-20th Century.
Robert Moses, New York City’s master builder over the course of decades, was responsible for building thousands of miles of new roads, Shea Stadium and hundreds of new parks and playgrounds through the metropolitan area. These new parks ranged in scale from the grand, master-planned grounds of Flushing Meadows to tiny playgrounds carved into blocks throughout the city. Many of the parks Moses developed offered him a loophole to build highways under the guise of “parkways,” in the absence of Federal funding for roads. This lead to the development of large, amenity filled parks like Riverside as well as dozens of smaller parks and playgrounds, crammed into fissures in the urban fabric that highways like the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE) wrought.
Though these small spaces offer play and green spaces to neighborhoods that may not have had access to them before, it is important to consider the health implications for vulnerable parkgoing members of the population (in particular children and the elderly). According to the American Lung Association, a panel of expert scientists from the Health Effects Institute “concluded that traffic pollution causes asthma attacks in children, and may cause a wide range of other effects including: the onset of childhood asthma, impaired lung function, premature death and death from cardiovascular diseases, and cardiovascular morbidity. The area most affected, they concluded, was roughly 0.2 to 0.3 miles (300 to 500 meters) from the highway.” In the case of these parks, highways are not just close, but the defining features of their locations.
One mile north of Cough Triangle, following the path of the BQE, is Van Voorhees Park in the Columbia Waterfront District. Expanded to five acres when the BQE was plowed through the neighborhood in 1956, “adjacent” does not quite adequately describe this park’s physical relationship to the highway. The highway’s six lanes as well as three exit ramps cut up Van Voorhees Park into different and distinct sections. Aside from poor air quality, highway traffic entering or exiting the BQE also endangers parkgoers moving into, out of and between the park’s distinct parts.
Further north in Williamsburg, Jaime Campiz playground is situated on a triangular lot between the BQE, Metropolitan Avenue and Marcy Avenue, which serves as an entrance ramp to the highway. The park was initially constructed in 1949, following acquisition of the land for the purposes of building the highway. Though buffered from the highway by dense trees, the presence six lanes of car, bus and truck traffic is inescapable in this small park, which likely suffers both from poor air quality and from the dangers of proximity to on-ramps similarly to Van Voorhees.
In South Slope, adjacent to the Prospect Expressway (a spur of the BQE), is Detective Joseph Mayrose Park. Built on land acquired for construction of the expressway, this park opened in 1956, six years before the road opened to car traffic. Here the expressway is in a trench, rather than on a viaduct, but the effect is no less profound as the sound of traffic echoes off of the subterranean walls. Of the four parks discussed here, Mayrose Park is the only one within a half mile of a major park (Prospect Park to the north east).
Cough Triangle’s unintended link between unfortunate name and even more unfortunate location served as a jumping off point for examining a few of these strange, small parks in New York City that were constructed in some cases as throw-ins for neighborhoods ravished by massive expressways. Each park suffers from the circumstances its creation and location as it users may too.
Though it is beyond the scope of this blog to say whether parks like Van Voorhees or the Cough Triangle cause more harm than they abate, all could undoubtedly benefit from closer looks at how air pollution can be mitigated in site-specific ways. Further, these parks and their proximity to sources of air pollution and particulate matter should serve as cautionary tales to city planners going forward. Even in a city like New York where land is as expensive as it is hard to come by, the green and play spaces that parks offer city dwellers should never be a throwaway add on to other projects. Parkgoers with young and old lungs and hearts deserve carefully sited and designed parks that mitigate air pollution rather than be proximate to it.