The Ecological Value of Greenways

What’s In A Greenway? 

What makes a “greenway”? How are greenways different from ‘parks’ or ‘bike lanes’, and why does that matter? What benefits do greenways – as individual green spaces and as elements of a connected network – create in an urban landscape like NYC?

In this series, BGI curates posts from specialists, professionals, and community organizers across the field exploring the unique nature of greenways in urban spaces.

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The Ecological Value of Greenways

Guest Author: Kerissa Fuccillo Battle, Founding Director of Community Greenways Collaborative

A bee perched on a red flower


Greenways are much more than linear spaces designated for recreational purposes. They represent a rich, multi-functional ecological infrastructure hidden in plain sight – and have a unique ecological potential which can complement and amplify the benefits of other types of urban greenspaces.

Individual Urban Greenways Provide Big Benefits with Little Land

Kent Avenue, Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway

Urban greenways (when designed and managed with regard to natural processes) can provide great economic and environmental return with relatively little land, in part by decreasing dependency on the expensive infrastructure often used to address urban environmental issues.

For example –

  • Greenways reduce air pollution by offering an alternative to automobile travel, while the vegetation simultaneously creates oxygen and filters carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, and airborne heavy metals.
  • Greenways improve water quality by filtering pollution from runoff and create natural buffer zones for other waterways.
  • Greenways absorb excess stormwater, prevent soil erosion, decrease wind speed, add moisture to the soil and air, reduce air temperatures, and mitigate the impact of urban heat island effect – all functions essential to climate change resilience in the urban landscape.


Networks Amplify The Potential Of All Urban Greenspaces

(Big, Small, New, and Old)

Just as different parts of the landscape fulfill different ecological roles, different urban greenspaces create distinct (and complementary!) ecological benefits on both the local and the landscape level. Greenways function as conduits and can increase connectivity between greenspaces (like parks and waterfronts) throughout the city.


Brooklyn Greenway Initiative New Home Banner 05May-2021


  • These conduits aid dispersal (the movement of animals and plants) across our typically fragmented urban landscapes.
  • Connectivity allows for different populations to mix – increasing genetic diversity, which is critical to species survival.
  • Greenways can provide habitats in and of themselves (though the quality and utility depends upon size, location, proximity to other greenspaces, and diversity of vegetation cover)
  • Even relatively small greenways can provide critical foraging or nesting habitat for small organisms such as pollinators.


With coordinated vision and planning, a system of urban greenways (like, for instance, the proposed five-borough NYC Greenways Network) can evolve into a dynamic living network capable of providing far-reaching ecological and social benefits across the urban landscape.

Map by Anna Kemeny, El Barrio Bikes


It’s Already Happening

This isn’t just a potential future – as greenways and urban greenspaces across the city (and country) are developed, these ecological benefits are increasingly evident.

  1. In New York City alone, we’ve already seen park-greenway connections that show a high diversity and abundance of pollinators and other wildlife – and even picking just a few examples, we see them across all five boroughs.

In the Bronx, look at Van Cortland Park and Concrete Plant Park along the Bronx River Greenway. In Manhattan: Fort Tryon Park along the Hudson River Greenway and JohnV. Lindsay and Carl Schurz Park along the East River Greenway.

Fort Tryon Park

In Brooklyn: Brooklyn Bridge Park and the Naval Cemetery Landscape along the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway. In Queens, we have Alley Pond and Forest Park; and in Staten Island,  Latourette Park and William T. Davis Refuge along the Staten Island Greenway.

Naval Cemetery Landscape (Entrance)

2. Connected networks like these also support urban agricultural efforts by allowing the movement of pollinators between urban gardens and other greenspaces. Not only that, many of these particular sites also have rare species such as the Golden Northern Bumblebee, or special-interest species such as the Monarch butterfly, Chimney swift and Ruby-throated hummingbird.

Monarch Butterfly

3. Investment in the ecological capacity of greenways can also facilitate target conservation goals. Seattle’s Pollinator Pathway effort and Boston’s Pollinator Ribbon planting are examples of coordinated efforts which have created and connected new and existing greenway habitat.

4. And finally…greenways create much-needed avenues for social-ecological connectivity by offering opportunities for nature connection, which in turn can inspire a deeper sense of place and interest in conservation.   

What Now?

Strategic local design can translate into sustainability at the landscape scale. With ecologically sound design, greenways can help to protect some of the essential functions usually performed by natural ecosystems. Investing in greenways adds a critical piece to the overall strategy of urban green infrastructure – moving us towards a sustainable future. With coordinated effort, we have the opportunity to design and manage greenways to fulfill their ecological potential and allow our cities to thrive in the face of rapid global change.

Given the proximal nature of our various greenspaces across the city and the increased public interest in green infrastructure and urban agriculture, New York City has the opportunity to build robust connectivity and serve as a model in the emergent field of urban green design.

Add our growing coalition of partner organizations ready to roll up their sleeves and you have a city primed for successful implementation!


About the Author:

Kerissa Fuccillo Battle, PhD – Founding Director of Community Greenways Collaborative (501c3)

Kerissa Fuccillo Battle is a research ecologist and social entrepreneur whose work is focused on social-ecological connectivity, network resilience, community science and plant-pollinator conservation. She founded and currently manages the New York Phenology Project and works as a strategic advisor for organizations seeking to build capacity in the fields of conservation and education.

About the NYC Greenways Coalition:

The NYC Greenways Coalition is a collective of greenway-aligned groups focused on completion and continual enhancement of an equitable greenway network in New York City. 

New York City has a 400-mile network of greenways on paper. About 300 miles of greenways run through every part of the city. But today, they rarely connect to each other, older segments require upgrades, and new parts of the network are still too few and far between.

Connecting disparate, isolated greenways will create a citywide open space and transportation network that will be essential infrastructure for an equitable and sustainable future.

About Brooklyn Greenway Initiative:

Brooklyn Greenway Initiative (BGI) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to the development, establishment and long-term stewardship of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway – a 26-mile protected and landscaped route for pedestrians and cyclists of all ages and abilities that, when complete, will connect Brooklyn’s storied and iconic waterfront, parks and open space, commercial and cultural corridors, and new tech and innovation hubs for 2.65 million Brooklyn residents, over 1.1 million people who work in Brooklyn, and more than 15 million annual visitors from across the City and around the world.

For more information:


BGI website


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