Water Garden, Brooklyn

On my previous visit to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I reported on its historic Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden. From this exotic-looking lake, a constructed brook flows through the garden through the Bluebell Wood, Rock Garden, Plant Family Collection, and the Water Garden. At its terminus, the stream first enters a forebay pond before pooling in the Water Garden pond.


Completed in 2016, the Water Garden pond provides an environmentally sustainable solution for managing the garden’s flow of water. It was designed by prolific landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, whose works can be found across the country, incorporating waterways into postmodern park landscapes. Above is a photo of Tupelo Point which juts into the pond.

Where it Flows

There are three entrances to Brooklyn Botanic Garden: Eastern Parkway, Washington Avenue, and on Flatbush Avenue at the southern tip of the garden. It is near this last gate where the Water Garden can be seen. On the map below, that’s at the far left tip.

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For most of its history, the end of the garden’s internal brook was known by a functional name: Terminal Pond. Most of this brook’s water originated from the city’s aqueduct and drained into the city’s sewer system after leaving Terminal Pond.

At the turn of the 21st century, the garden’s administrators sought to make the property environmentally sustainable. In 2010, landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh was selected to redesign the brook and its Terminal Pond. He is best known locally for his redesign of Federal Plaza, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Chelsea Cove, Teardrop Park, and most recently Hudson Boulevard at Hudson Yards.

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Van Valkenburgh’s design team worked  with engineers, hydrologists, and the Garden’s staff to address sustainability goals for the brook. In the redesign, the catchment area was more than doubled to reduce reliance on the aqueduct and instead collect more rainwater. The Terminal Pond was renamed the Water Garden, with most of the pond’s water filtered and piped back to the Japanese Pond for recirculation. The project reduced the Garden’s reliance on city water by 21 million gallons annually. The amount of water going to the sewers was reduced from 27 million gallons annually to seven million.

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As with the lake at Prospect Park, the southern side of Water Garden has an earthen berm with a trail atop overlooking the pond. Without these berms, water could flow out of the pond and continue flowing south on the gently sloping coastal plain that is southern Brooklyn. The waterway of Prospect Park and the brook at Brooklyn Botanic Garden have their start atop the glacial terminal moraine and flow downhill towards the plain below.

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The pond is only 1.5 acres in size but its outline and features lend themselves to naming. A tip of land is Tupelo Point and there’s also Sumac Island. The garden’s formal name is Shelby White and Leon Levy Water Garden, in honor of its top philanthropist and her late husband, who contributed $7.5 million to the project.


A few yards upstream from the Water Garden the brook flows beneath a stone bridge that evokes the crossings of Central Park. The brook flows into a small forebay pond that traps sediment, filters through a rocky weir and finishes its course at its terminal pond. The design of this forebay and pond are identical to the Staten Island Bluebelt ponds, which fulfill the same purpose of catching runoff and reducing the burden on the sewer system.

Brooklyn Botanic History

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In my search for the oldest map of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the September 22, 1912 edition of Brooklyn Daily Eagle shows the garden as an ideal counterpart to the Brooklyn Museum. Like many of New York’s great landmarks, the museum is an unfinished masterpiece, with only one of its four sections completed. Instead of a grand rear entrance, that area is a parking lot and there is no direct path from the museum to the garden.

Nevertheless, the rectangular lawn flanked by the Cherry Esplanade was completed, a design of the Olmsted Brothers. The garden’s first completed section opened to the public on May 13, 1911. The gate at Flatbush Avenue was later relocated further to the right at the tip of the property.

Before the Garden: As told by historical maps


The oldest detailed map of the site is the 1861 layout for Prospect Park submitted by Egbert Ludovicus Viele, putting Mount Prospect Reservoir in its center with Flatbush Avenue slicing through the park. The northern limit of the park would have been Prospect Place, and Eastern Parkway would not have had its monumental start at Grand Army Plaza.


Olmsted and Vaux were troubled with Flatbush Avenue bisecting the park in its unnaturally straight path and made Flatbush Avenue as the park’s eastern border. A portion of Viele’s eastern half of the park later became the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and the Prospect Heights neighborhood. On the above 1865 Benjamin D. Frost survey of the site, the red line indicates Viele’s park borders while the shaded areas show where the park was extended by Olmsted and Vaux.

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The 1869 Dripps Atlas shows the completed Prospect Park and viele’s triangular superblock that never included in the park. At the time, the landscape here was broken up into a grid but it was still largely farmland with paper streets marking the eventual expansion of the city.

At the time, Flatbush was not yet part of Brooklyn, and the town border followed the glacial terminal moraine between Prospect Park and East New York. The Town of Flatbush was absorbed by Brooklyn in 1894, and in turn by New York City in 1898.

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The border ran across the southern end of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a few feet from the Water Garden Pond. Memories of municipal independence persisted for decades after annexation.

In 1934, members of Brooklyn Botanic Garden sponsored a plaque and brass line on the walkway where the border used to be. It’s not the only borderline boulder known in Brooklyn. There’s also Arbitration Rock that divided colonial Bushwichk and Newtown. Traveling on Flatbush Avenue through Prospect Park, it feels like a separation between the downtown of Brooklyn and the former downtown of Flatbush to the south of the park.

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On the 1898 Belcher-Hyde Atlas, Viele’s proposed portion of Prospect Park is marked as East Side Lands, containing Mount Prospect Reservoir and Brooklyn Museum, which was under construction. A year earlier, state lawmakers approved the creation of Brooklyn Botanic Garden. A hint its eventual location is here as the superblock is designated on the map as an arboretum.

Two curiosities on the map above: What became the park’s Vale of Cashmere was a children’s playground with a pond and to its south, a deer paddock with a pond became the Carousel, Lefferts Homestead and Prospect Park Zoo in 1935. Some sources marked that waterway as Wild Fowl Pond.


The zoo has two duck ponds, but unlike those at Bronx Zoo these are manmade with a naturalistic appearance. Queens Zoo also has its naturalistic ponds.

One More Pond

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Near the northern side of the BBG is another pond, designed to resemble a bog. The Native Flora Garden is the oldest part of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It was redesigned in 1931 and expanded in 2013 by landscape architect Darrell Morrison. The photo above is from the BBG collection. I didn’t have time to visit this section of the Garden, but it’s certainly worth seeing.


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