New Community Natural Area Opens in the Brooklyn Navy Yard

Former naval cemetery transformed into vibrant public space, design pays tribute to veterans.

A new 1.7 acre public open space on the site of a former Naval Cemetery on the Brooklyn waterfront has opened to the public. The project is designed to create a space that will honor the history of the site and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and provide public access to a community resource for the first time in 90 years. The new open space reimagines the site as a public place for passive recreation and an immersive experience in native ecology that provides visitors with an escape from the urban environment.

The Naval Cemetery Landscape is the first open space created as part of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway, spearheaded by the nonprofit organization Brooklyn Greenway Initiative (BGI) in partnership with the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (BNYDC). With the addition of this green space, the Yard continues to make the campus more accessible to the surrounding community at key locations. Marvel Architects and Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects thoughtfully designed the site to be respectful of its history as a burial ground—with a landscape symbolic of the renewal of life in nature.

The site is one of six nationally funded by TKF Foundation where the importance of nearby nature to human resiliency is being studied in order to build on the growing body of scientific evidence that immersion in or just views of landscapes has a profound effect on human well-being and ability to recover from physiological, social and psychological stresses. A research team led by Denise Milstein, Director of Columbia University’s Masters degree Program in Sociology, is conducting this study focused on students of the Brooklyn Green School and on residents of Brooklyn Housing and Community Services.

“After 90 years, the transformation of this space will create a place where the community can come together,” said Brooklyn Navy Yard President & CEO David Ehrenberg. “As we approach Memorial Day, we are reminded of the significant military history of the Yard, and through the thoughtful landscape design, we hope to honor those roots.”

“We hope this site will provide many area residents with the opportunity to step out of the city momentarily and immerse themselves in natural surroundings that provide relief from stress and help restore focus, attention and personal resiliency,” said Milton Puryear, BGI’s co-founder and director of project development. 

“This sacred space embodies how the human-nature connection can be realized in cities,” stated Tom Stoner, TKF Foundation co-founder. “It is an excellent example of how green space can foster social cohesion and the research being done here should offer insights for other city planners on the value such spaces bring to cities and their residents.”

"With our design of the Naval Cemetery Landscape, we endeavored to create an experience of landscape and planted form that offers retreat, remembrance, and engaged observation while honoring the layered, 200 year history,” explained Thomas Woltz, principal of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, who led the project. “We wanted visitors to have an immersive experience that would engage them in the importance of pollinator habitat in the urban environment, while symbolically attracting many forms of life to a place that has historically commemorated death.”

"We are proud to have helped develop Brooklyn Greenway Initiative’s first public space project. Connecting the Brooklyn waterfront, encouraging the relationship between the Brooklyn Navy Yard and greater New York and creating more public space are important and exciting foci of our work in the city,” said Jonathan Marvel of Marvel Architects.

The former Brooklyn Naval Hospital Cemetery site is located in the southeast corner of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Established on the shores of Wallabout Bay, the Navy Yard served as America’s premier Naval shipbuilding facility from 1801 until 1966. Today the 300-acre industrial park is owned by the City of New York and managed by BNYDC. The Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at Building 92 celebrates the past, present and the future of the Yard through exhibits, tours and programs. It is open to the public Wednesday through Sunday from 12-6 pm.

In 1824, the Navy purchased nearby land to build the Brooklyn Naval Hospital, which included the cemetery site. Opened in 1838, the Hospital became a leading center of medical innovation, developing new techniques in anesthetics, wound care, and physical therapy. The hospital closed in 1948, but the property remained in use as a Naval receiving station until 1990.

The Brooklyn Naval Hospital Cemetery was active from 1834 to 1910 and was the burial site for more than 2,000 people, most of them officers and enlisted men of the US Navy and Marine Corps. Among those buried were two Congressional Medal of Honor winners, a Fijian Chief and individuals from more than 20 different countries. In 1926, the Navy sought to remove all remains and inter them at nearby Cypress Hills National Cemetery.