Great Plans for the Great Falls

When President Obama signed into law the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, a group of very interested faculty and students at Rutgers rejoiced along with a happy assortment of New Jersey residents, business leaders, legislators, and nature and history buffs. The act established the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park, a crucial step in a long-pursued dream to capitalize on the historic and natural tour de force that is the Great Falls of Paterson. The park will be New Jersey’s third National Historical Park.

A Winning Master Plan

As the park becomes a reality, Rutgers plant ecologist Steven Handel and his graduate students, Brooke Maslo and Elena Tartaglia, will be able to say they helped reclaim acres of degraded urban outdoor space, creating a special natural environment for exploration, relaxation, and learning. Handel was the urban ecologist on the team that won a national competition to conceive a master plan for reinventing the struggling Great Falls district as Great Falls State Park.

The master plan, which was commissioned by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, will be the basis for the new National Historical Park—and Handel will be there to ensure his vision is fulfilled. Both Maslo and Tartaglia worked with Handel to survey the ecology of the site and to plan for its rejuvenation. “It’s a great honor to have worked on a restoration for a National Historical Park,” says Tartaglia. "The Great Falls is a unique landform and definitely worthy of permanent preservation."

  • The Great Falls and the Great Falls Power Plant.
    Spot Check: Researchers Survey the Paterson Great Falls

    Approaching the Great Falls from Haines Overlook Park in Paterson, the natural beauty and industrial power of the 77-foot-high falls are immediately obvious. The building to the left of the falls is the still-active Great Falls Power Plant—one of the nation's first hydroelectric plants—that today produces 11,000 kilowatts of clean energy per hour.

  • Steven Handel, urban ecology world expert.
    Spot Check: Researchers Survey the Paterson Great Falls

    Steven Handel, who directs the Rutgers/Brooklyn Botanic Garden Center for Urban Restoration Ecology, is a world expert on urban ecological restoration. Among many other projects, he designed the new Orange County Great Park in California, for which he received the American Institute of Architects 2009 Institute Honor Award for Regional and Urban Design.

  • Brooke Maslo and Elena Tartaglia.
    Spot Check: Researchers Survey the Paterson Great Falls

    Brooke Maslo, left, and Elena Tartaglia, both graduate students in Steven Handel's lab in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources, spent part of a year identifying and inventorying flora around the Passaic River, home to the Great Falls. Maslo says the purpose of bringing in urban ecologists is to "make functioning ecosystems, not just pretty places."

  • Handel with master plan.
    Spot Check: Researchers Survey the Paterson Great Falls

    Developed by landscape architecture and urban design firm Field Operations, in collaboration with Rutgers' Center for Urban Restoration Ecology and others, the master plan envisions the new park as "Paterson's New Outdoor Living Room," with sections, or "rooms," devoted to nature, recreation, history, archaeology, and entertainment.

  • Sky Room as it exists today.
    Spot Check: Researchers Survey the Paterson Great Falls

    The team surveys the falls from what will be the Sky Room, where ecological improvements will include the creation of roosting sites for birds along the river and falls, installation of canopy trees for shade, and soil erosion control. "Our primary goal is the preservation and conservation of native habitats … and the integration of the parcel into the surrounding habitat," says Maslo.

  • Sky Room envisioned in the master plan.
    Spot Check: Researchers Survey the Paterson Great Falls

    A view of the falls from the Sky Room as envisioned in the master plan. The room is expected to be a main tour stop for geology and natural resource groups. "It would be wonderful to see such a unique place preserved forever," says Tartaglia. "Because of its unusual geology, the area is rich in diverse flora. And it has historic value as well."

  • Virginia creeper and elderberry.
    Spot Check: Researchers Survey the Paterson Great Falls

    Handel says successful urban ecological restoration "involves reintroduction of native plants and animals, invasive species control, water management, and controlled plant-animal interactions." Tartaglia created a database of plants and recommended invasive species for removal and native species for reintroduction. Virginia creeper, left, and elderberry, right, are native to the area.

  • A spontaneous teaching moment.
    Spot Check: Researchers Survey the Paterson Great Falls

    As Tartaglia examines a butterfly found while crossing the lawn plateau, a group of visiting schoolchildren stops to take a look. It's a true "teaching moment," as the Rutgers researchers deliver a spontaneous lesson on the park's ecology.

  • The Forest Room/Valley of the Rocks.
    Spot Check: Researchers Survey the Paterson Great Falls

    Over two semesters, Maslo conducted background research on historic site conditions, prepared lists of restoration target species, identified invasive plants, and created restoration strategies. Here, the team assesses the Forest Room/Valley of the Rocks, which will be an intensive nature area featuring hiking trails, bird-watching venues, and a butterfly meadow.

  • Maslo with turtle at River Beach Park.
    Spot Check: Researchers Survey the Paterson Great Falls

    Maslo spots a turtle at River Beach Park. It's the type of scene the team hopes will be repeated many times over as visitors explore the park's wildlife. "We strive to promote a stewardship of the land through public outreach and education, like nature trails and guided tours, so the restored land remains a viable and sustainable habitat," says Maslo.

  • Passaic Valley Water Commission.
    Spot Check: Researchers Survey the Paterson Great Falls

    The park's planners remain mindful that the Great Falls district still plays an essential role in the civic infrastructure of Paterson and neighboring towns. The Passaic Valley Water Commission manages a booster pumping station at the Great Falls that pumps potable water from the Little Falls Water Treatment Plant.

  • River Beach, NJDEP on master plan.
    Spot Check: Researchers Survey the Paterson Great Falls

    The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection says of the master plan, "[it] outlines this pivotal opportunity to recover the Great Falls, a portion of the Passaic River, and the various surrounding landscapes and cultural industrial heritage sites, and to reassemble these presently disconnected places and multiple interests into one spectacular new public space."

  • Visitor Center.
    Spot Check: Researchers Survey the Paterson Great Falls

    Paterson's Great Falls Historic District Cultural Center at 65 McBride Avenue Extension offers educational services, including historic interpretation and guided walks of the district's industrial architecture, history, and current projects. "Paterson has a colorful history and is now a rich, multicultural city," says Maslo. "I'm glad our project will add even more to the city's identity."

  • Tartaglia and Maslo and their doctoral work.
    Spot Check: Researchers Survey the Paterson Great Falls

    Today doctoral student Tartaglia, right, studies plant-insect pollination. "Pollination ensures reproduction in plants," she says, "so if we want to restore ecosystems, we need to focus on these interactions. We can't just install a bunch of plants and call it finished." In December 2009, Maslo, center, successfully defended her doctoral dissertation; she hopes to work as a restoration ecologist in private practice.

  • The Great Falls and the Great Falls Power Plant.
    1/14
  • Steven Handel, urban ecology world expert.
    2/14
  • Brooke Maslo and Elena Tartaglia.
    3/14
  • Handel with master plan.
    4/14
  • Sky Room as it exists today.
    5/14
  • Sky Room envisioned in the master plan.
    6/14
  • Virginia creeper and elderberry.
    7/14
  • A spontaneous teaching moment.
    8/14
  • The Forest Room/Valley of the Rocks.
    9/14
  • Maslo with turtle at River Beach Park.
    10/14
  • Passaic Valley Water Commission.
    11/14
  • River Beach, NJDEP on master plan.
    12/14
  • Visitor Center.
    13/14
  • Tartaglia and Maslo and their doctoral work.
    14/14