Connecting with Our Waterways: Public Access and Its Stewardship in the New York – New Jersey Harbor Estuary

By Kate Boicourt, Robert Pirani, Michelle Johnson, Erika Svendsen, Lindsay Campbell, [Oliver C. Stringham as GIS Specialist] in Reports

June 1, 2016



The New York – New Jersey Harbor Estuary is the biggest public space in the nation’s largest metropolitan area. Access to its waters – whether for swimming, boating, fishing, or just enjoying the spectacular views – is an amenity that impacts quality of life and drives spending and investments by residents, visitors, and businesses. Park access and use have been positively correlated with physical activity levels and public health. Further, access is critical for fostering a connection with and stewardship of the estuary, especially for young people. For all these reasons, ensuring and improving access is an important goal shared by federal, state, and local governments throughout the estuary.

The last twenty years has seen an extraordinary transformation of the waterfront. Cleaner water, the opportunity posed by available industrial sites, and the desire by people for outdoor activities has resulted in new public parks and other public spaces being created or refurbished all along the waters of the Harbor Estuary (Figure 1). From 2009-2014, over 500 acres of new parks or public spaces on the waterfront were opened to the public. In some cases, this access includes the ability to safely touch the waters of the estuary for swimming, boating, or other purposes. In other places, access is limited to the shoreline by physical conditions, safety concerns, poor water quality, a lack of facilities for boating or swimming, and/or other management considerations.

To document this progress, and recognize and address new challenges to public access, the New York - New Jersey Harbor & Estuary Program, in partnership with the USDA Forest Service and a Public Access Work Group of key public agencies and private organizations, has characterized public access and its distribution around the Harbor Estuary, the relationship of these parks and public spaces to socioeconomic need, and where and how civic organizations are providing stewardship and programming at the waterfront. The assessment was accomplished by compiling and mapping existing parks and other waterfront access opportunities, and analyzing this information relative to socioeconomic indicators and the activity of civic organizations derived from a harbor-wide assessment of stewardship.

Key Findings

These parks and public spaces are not evenly distributed across the estuary, especially when considered in the context of differing socioeconomic characteristics of the estuary’s waterfront populations. Twelve waterfront areas, from the Bronx to the mouth of the Raritan River, are identified as higher need waterfront areas due to the limited number of parks, densely developed housing, or an otherwise disadvantaged population. In the Passaic River watershed, for example, 50% of people living within one half mile of the waterfront lack access. Along the shores of the Harlem River in the Bronx or Northern Manhattan are some of the lowest income populations among all waterfront areas. In northern engage people with the Harbor Estuary, primarily through community organizing, public outreach, and volunteering or employment. Particularly relevant to waterfront activities, 22% of these organizations offer boating, swimming, or fishing programs. About one third conduct climate change education programs or projects critical to building social resiliency. But as with physical access, the location and the capacity of this network is not evenly distributed. Stewardship turfs, the specific areas identified by these organizations as their area of focus, are more concentrated in some areas than others (e.g. Manhattan).

Public access by the numbers:

  • Total length of waterfront in the Harbor Estuary: 1,592 miles
  • Publicly accessible waterfront: 595 miles (37%)
  • Waterfront with limited access due to park construction, sensitive wildlife, or other considerations: 50 miles (3%)
  • Inaccessible waterfront: 947 miles (60%, 2% of which is due to security zones)
  • Amount of waterfront parks and public spaces: 41,078 acres
  • Total number of waterfront parks and public spaces: 539
  • Total population within one half mile (or about a ten minute walk of the water or a waterfront park: 5.3 million
  • Percent of population within a half mile of waterfront and currently lacking access: 17.1%
  • Population living within one half mile of the water or a waterfront park and with higher need for public access: 513,037
  • Total miles of waterfront in these higher need areas: 260
  • Total miles of publicly accessible waterfront in higher need areas: 24 (9%)


This assessment is intended to serve multiple purposes. The New York – New Jersey Harbor & Estuary Program (HEP) will use the information to better identify priorities, allocate resources, and refine and track progress toward public access and stewardship goals established by the upcoming HEP Action Agenda and the Hudson-Raritan Estuary Comprehensive Restoration Plan.5 HEP and its partners in its bi-state management conference will use this information as a guide for fostering stewardship capacity in areas of higher need, addressing physical gaps in access, and improving the quality of existing access.

The geographic data used to create the need and stewardship assessments will also be made available to the public via an online platform, enabling government officials, civic organizations, and the public the means of utilizing this information for their own needs, such as creating municipal public access plans in New Jersey or identifying priorities for budgeting processes in New York City.

Posted on:
June 1, 2016
4 minute read, 844 words
access to water environmental planning GIS
See Also:
Effects of Land Development on Water Resources of the Pinelands Region