Plan to beautify Belt Parkway could revive local ecosystem

Narrows Botanical Garden
Narrows Botanical Garden is proposing growing native plants in the green higlighted area along the Belt Parkway.
Narrows Botanical Garden

A local greenspace guru is looking to beautify a stretch of the Belt Parkway in Bay Ridge with an assortment of native plants to give drivers a dazzling display of wildlife during their commutes.  

“These would be all kinds of flowers that were pollinators for our native insects, aesthetically beautiful as you drive by, making it an absolute wow factor than what it is right now,” said James Johnson, the co-founder of the neighborhood’s Narrows Botanical Garden. 

Located on a 4.5 acre plot of land near Bay Ridge Avenue, Narrows Botanical Garden is separated from the busy Moses-era highway by a 20-to-30 foot grassy patch that’s infested by mugwort — a meddlesome plant attributed to hay fever, which can be costly to maintain as it requires regular trimming, Johnson said. 

“It has no aesthetic qualities, and no value for wildlife,” Johnson said. “There is a high cost in mowing it down and trying to keep it maintained. It’s just sucking money up for absolutely no reason at all.” 

Now, Johnson is looking to expand his beloved garden onto the mugwort-infested territory, which would adorn the northern roadside with decorative flowers and shrubbery. 

“We would really like to expand green space onto the Belt Parkway along the edge there,” Johnson told Community Board 10 at last month’s joint Environment and Transportation Committees meeting. 

The landscape designer proposed planting grasses tolerant of salt, wind, and floods, as well as other native flowering plants in the space, which would make the area both more visually appealing and cheaper to maintain after only a few years of intensive care under the Botanical Garden’s stewardship.

“We would mix [native grasses] with meadow flowers,” Johnson said. 

And on top of the other benefits, Johnson said he expects the native plants to bring back some of the wildlife once common in the area — like the state Bluebird, swallows, butterflies and other insects. 

“These are the guys that would really benefit from it,” Johnson said. “If we increase native plantings, native habitat — these guys would come back.” 

The board’s committee members unanimously voted to support the project, which Johnson suspects will be handled similarly to Adopt-a-Highway, where organizations sign on to maintain a section of the highway as an act of goodwill. Now, the city Department of Transportation will ultimately need to render its approval.

The board’s liaison from the DOT expressed enthusiasm for the idea, and told community members he would bring it back to the decision-makers for review. 

“Personally, I think it’s a great idea…to be able to look at something that is aesthetically pleasing, to be able to do something that will be able to help the environment is great,” Leroy Branch said. “And, what’s even better, is if the city doesn’t have to pay for it. 

Johnson found inspiration for his proposal from highway beautification efforts in other areas of New York and nationwide, and said he would like to see Bay Ridge be the leader of this initiative in New York City as it gains popularity. 

“You’d drive by to the right would be water and to the left would be beautiful plantings of native grasses and wildflowers,” Johnson said. “I would love for Bay Ridge, our community board, to start this off so that we create a chain reaction.”