The Impact of the Bronx River Parkway

The Bronx River Parkway was the nation’s first public parkway designed explicitly for automobile use. Initially conceived as a river reclamation project that would also provide flood relief, land was leased or transferred to adjacent municipalities that developed recreational opportunities along a motorway that was considered highly advanced for its day. BPC engineer Jay Downer noted that at the time the parkway was created, the commission’s primary goal was to restore and preserve the Bronx River. The motorway, he insisted, was considered to be of secondary importance. The parkway was to be a scenic area that could also be used for numerous recreational opportunities including swimming, walking, skating, bird-watching, and various organized athletic activities. The significance of the motorway became increasingly apparent as the development progressed.(305) While the parkway drive was intended to offer pleasure-driving opportunities and serve as an important connection between New York City and Westchester County’s rapidly expanding park system, the roadway’s appeal was not limited to its recreational potential. Commuters soon flocked to the attractive and efficient motorway, which provided a convenient link between suburban residences and Manhattan offices.

There was no doubt that the Bronx River Parkway was tremendously popular, both as a pleasure drive and as a commuter thoroughfare. If anything, the parkway was too popular. Disappointed motorists wrote letters to the park commission complaining about weekend traffic jams. Commuter traffic also grew rapidly and soon exceeded the parkway’s handling capacity. Thanks in part to the improved transportation, more and more city dwellers bought homes in the Westchester suburbs. In 1910, Westchester’s population was 283,055. By 1920, when parkway cleanup and construction were well underway, the county’s population had increased by 21.7 percent to 344,436. After the BRPR was dedicated in 1925, Westchester’s population increased by 51.2 percent to over a half million residents, which was more than double the growth rate from the previous decade. The increased population eventually transformed the parkway from a scenic drive used primarily for pleasure-driving into a major commuter thoroughfare. Over the next two decades, growth slowed to a rate of 10 percent, but pressure on the parkway continued to grow as an increasing proportion of residents owned cars and used them to commute. Real estate assessment records also suggested that the BRP added significantly to Westchester County’s prosperity. Between 1910 and 1918, real estate assessments along the BRPR rose less than 100 percent. By 1932, the county tax assessments from these areas had risen by more than 1,178 percent.(306)

The BPC had emphasized regional planning and maintained that the Bronx River Parkway would open an entirely new phase in developing the park system of the New York Metropolitan area. One of the most significant developments in this regard was the creation of the Westchester County Park Commission (WCPC) in 1922. The WCPC was created in response to a number of factors, including the increased demand for recreational amenities and improved commuter roads caused by the growing trend toward suburban living. The primary impetus for the park commission’s genesis, however, was the Bronx River Parkway’s conspicuous success as an example of environmental rehabilitation, civic improvement, landscape design, and motorway development. Building on the example set by the Bronx River Parkway, the WCPC embarked on an ambitious program of park and parkway development. By 1928, the WCPC had created 33 miles of parkways and acquired nearly 16,000 acres of land and nine miles of beaches. Its aggregate spending for parks during the period was more than $54 million.(307)


(305)Evening Sun, September 22, 1912; Downer, "Public Parks in Westchester County," 970.
(306)Wallace Odell, letter to Jay Downer, March 14, 1927; United States Census Bureau, webpage, December 7, 2001,; Westchester County Park Commission, Report, 1933, 27.
(307)Westchester County Park Commission, Report, 1924, 39; WCPC, Report, 1926, 7; Jay Downer and James Owens, "Translating Theory Into Practice in Regional Engineering," Engineering News Record, September 19, 1929, 446.