On May 19 2007, Highbridge Park was filled with kids on bikes, grandstands in the streets, and a palpable sense of community pervading New York City's first bike park. "Just a few years ago, parents would tell their kids to stay away from this park," IMBA Representative Mike Vitti recalled, "because it was too dangerous."
This century old Washington Heights park had once been on the order of Central Park, but years of deterioration and neglect turned the it into a refuge for drug dealing, prostitution and illegal dumping. By stressing the ability of trails to replace negative use with a positive form of recreation, Vitti's vision of a community bike park led to a partnership between IMBA, the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, the New York Restoration Project, and local mountain bike clubs, CLIMB and NYCMTB.
In a testament to how treacherous the park had become, volunteers removed over 1200 used hypodermic needles, several tons of garbage, and even unearthed an old crime scene. IMBA's Trail Solutions brought in dirt jump and trail specialists to design a multi-discipline bike park that would appeal to the entire community. "The park needed a variety of ways to ride, because not all of these kids have mountain bikes, and not all of them want to ride trails," said Vitti. Dirt jumps and technical trails, which are especially appealing to young riders, were a crucial part of the design. By complimenting advanced features with progressive skills development areas, like a beginner trail and pump track, the park became a place entire families could enjoy.
Working with environmental analysts, IMBA and local volunteers took advantage of an opportunity to combine recreation and habitat conservation. The trails were designed to be sustainable, but also act as firebreaks to deter invasive plants from entering areas of native vegetation. Allow natural resource specialists easy access to densely vegetated areas, the trails became an invaluable tool in stifling the spread of the tree-killing Porcelain-Berry vine. Also, by providing a legal place for dirt jumping, the rampant illegal building that endangered sensitive native understory plants at nearby Inwood Park was immediately quelled.
Procuring community buy-in was essential to the project's success, because if the public didn't take ownership of the park, it would degenerate back into what it was. "Once we began moving the dirt, it became like a magnet for kids," Vitti continued, "They'd come after school to help out, and each time we'd tell them that this was their park, their responsibility." It became apparent the lessons were taking hold when a young local was tauntingly asked why he was working for free, and confidently answered, "Because it makes you feel good and it helps the community."
Even before opening day, the success of the Highbridge Park was inspiring similar projects across the boroughs. In the years since it's opening, the park has provided a model for using trails and bike facilities to reclaim urban parks. Most importantly, Highbridge's success demonstrates the power of a bike park to engage and inspire an entire community.
This report was made possible by a grant from Shimano.