Ridgewood Reservoir


Ridgewood Reservoir is a part of Highland Park in Brooklyn, New York. The reservoir is connected to Forest Park through the cemeteries and Jackie Robinson Parkway. Highland park wasn’t always as peaceful and beautiful as we see today. The city took quite a while to purchase all the pieces of the park and maintain it to the current manifestation.

View of Ridgewood Reservoir from one of the rare "viewing points"

In 1856, the City of Brooklyn purchased the first piece of Highland Park from Snediker’s cornfield. The purpose of thisacquisition was to build a reservoir that would provide water for the increasing number of Brooklyn residents. The reservoir was then built in 1858 to hold 154 million gallons. The land around the reservoir was finally purchased in 1891, which would soon be known as Upper Highland Park.

Ridgewood Reservoir is about 50 acres and is divided into 3 basins. It functioned as a water supply for Brooklyn from 1858-1859. However, in 1917 to 1936, two tunnels were completed to bring water from north of the city with help of the Catskill aqueduct. As a result, two of the three basins were drained and the last basin was used as a back up water supply.

In 1990, the Department of Environmental Protection decommissioned the reservoir completely. Now it sits, snugly, in the northern region of Highland Park, enclosed from human contact due to the fences built around it. Nonetheless, the Ridgewood Reservoir still invites those who desire to see the amazing story behind the reservoir and the natural interactions that currently take place within. 1

The pictures below show a glimpse of the history behind Ridgewood Reservoir. The first picture is a map of Ridgewood Reservoir from 1909. If you look carefully, you can see that the rest of the park is not yet developed but the Ridgewood Reservoir’s three basins have already been constructed. The second picture is actually a painting of how Ridgewood Reservoir was designed to look like. The final picture is a bird’s eye view of Highland Park in 1911. You can tell that much of the residential areas are still present.

Ridgewood Reservoir 1909



Water Pump Building

Brooklyn’s Ridgewood Reservoir is what some call “an accidental wilderness.” Left abandoned in 1989, nature took over and now the 50 acres basin is teeming with wildlife. A recent survey of the area showed that the reservoir is home to tens of thousands of different species–from plants to trees and turtles to songbirds.


According to the National Audubon Society, an astonishing 137 kinds of birds, including eight rare species, use the reservoir as a migration pit stop (Thompson and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.).

The Ridgewood Reservoir continues to fascinate ecologist and researchers. It is hard to believe that in New York City, there could be such a pocket of land flourishing with life. In 2007, Heidi Steiner, the Bird Census Coordinator for the Brooklyn Bird Club, went on a mission with 15 other environmental enthusiasts to count how many different kinds of birds use and live in the reservoir. Their findings shocked them.

According to Steiner, in less than 30 hours of observation, they were able to record up to 101 species. Many were simply migrating through but some were found to be breeders, or birds that use the reservoir as their home. These breeders include Warbling Vireos and Yellow Warblers, as well as Black-capped Chickadees and Baltimore Orioles. The numerous migrating birds that use the reservoir as a pit-stop on their journey to warmer weather included Ring-necked Duck, Ruddy Duck, and Fox and White-throated Sparrow. There are also many other birds who nest nearby but still use the food and water source present in the reservoir as a means for survival. These species includes Chimney Swifts, Red-tailed Hawk, Common Nighthawk. Rare species that Stein and her group found were Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Indigo Bunting.

In the Spring of 2007, Rob Jett, one of the proponents for preserving the Ridgewood Reservoir, along with other environmentalists went to the Ridgewood Reservoir early in the morning to see what they could find. Below are the pictures taken from their blogsite.

Yellow-bille Cuckoo 4

White-eyed Vireo 5

Pied-billed Grebes 6

Unidentified Raptor 7

The National Audubon has made its own strides towards researching the kinds of bird species that utilize and thrive in the reservoir. On a website called eBirds, Audubon and Cornell Lab of Ornithology have already compiled an impressive list and data regarding their findings. To see their list of birds, click here.


The Ridgewood Reservoir has also sparked noticeable scrutiny from Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Uli Lorimer, the curator of Native Flora at BBG, recently published her thoughts on the reservoir’s flora ecology. According to Lorimer, the Ridgewood Reservoir is undergoing what is called, “forest succession in an urban environment.” Forest succession is defined as  “the process whereby formerly wooded areas, which were cleared by man, attempt to return to their natural forest state” (Lorimer).

Native Flora

Lorimer’s findings show that the basin already displays early forest succession. The first generation of plant species to try to revitalize the area are Red Maple (Acer rubrum), Grey Birch (Betula populifolia), Pin Oak (Quercus palustris), and Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua). Other successive flora found at the reservoir are Willow (Salix sp.) and Poplar (Populus sp.) as well as an expanding group of perennial herbs and grasses. Other species include Woolgrass (Scirpus cyperinus) and Soft Rush (Juncus effusus) along with Showy and Licorice Goldenrods (Solidago speciosa, Solidago odora), Violets (Viola sp.), and Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannibinum) (Lorimer).

The following photos are also from Jett and colleagues’ blogsite.

Autumn Olive 8

Climbing Bittersweet 9

Grass Florets 10

Pink Honeysuckle 11

The reservoir is still undergoing tremendous turmoil, Lorimer states. Whether or not these native species can survive is questionable. Because the reservoir is only a tiny piece of land in the midst of a busy city area, invasive species have already started to crawl their way into the fences guarding the reservoir.

Invasive Vines Taking Over the Fence

Some of the invasive species include Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbicularis), Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris), Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans *), and Porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipeduncularis) among others. These invasive plants are most noticeable around the rim of the reservoir (Lorimer).

Aquatic Life/Insects

The Ridgewood Reservoir is also home to various insects. Robb Jett has amazing photos of rare Blue Dashers and the Damselfly on his blog. On our visit to the site, we also encountered a dragonfly.

Blue Dasher 12

Damselfly 13

By far, the most mysterious element of the ecology of the Ridgewood Reservoir is the species that live in its waters. Long has the pipes feeding the water closed, but rainfall continues to replenish the basins. Furthermore, due to the semi-steep climb down from the rare viewpoints to see the reservoir, no one has ventured so far in to examine the aquatic life in the reservoir. On a nice day, one can clearly see dragonflies and ducks. But if one is lucky, one can also find an abundance of amphibians and invertebrates (Waldamn). To this day, the species of fish that inhabit the waters and feed the ducks still need further investigation.

Another terrific find at the Ridgewood Reservoir is the rare non-native Italian Wall Lizard. Audubon Magazine published an exclusive look into the reservoir and the abundance of unique wildlife found there (Leber).

Italian Wall Lizard at Ridgewood Reservoir 14

Needless to say, the Ridgewood Reservoir is truly nature’s gem, tucked away behind Highland Park. As a result, many New Yorkers are unaware of this natural wilderness, and if the city gets its way, some may not get a chance too.


In 2008, the New York City Parks Department introduced a $50 million project to turn the reservoir into athletic fields and facilities. The Parks commissioner cites that the extra athletic fields would help combat the childhood obesity that is plaguing young adults (Thompson and Robert Kennedy Jr.)

Brooklyn residents and environmentalists responded to the proposed plan with outraged. Led by Ridgewood Reservoir preservation community members like Rob Jett, Brooklyn residents have petitioned their local elected officials to lobby the Department of Environmental Conservation to keep the reservoir a wildlife preserve. Environmentalists want the Ridgewood Reservoir to be designated as a wetlands area (Colangelo).

No drastic move as been decided as of May of this year. The city has halted the proposed “renovation” project and the debate for the area to be set aside as a preserved wetland is still up in the air. Recently, the only changes that have been made to the land is the clean up of the track surrounding the enclosed space and the stationing of strategic lamp posts.

For now, the future of Ridgewood Reservoir is still remain undecided.

Here’s video of us exploring the beautiful reservoir.


Through all we learned about the ecology of New York City, we believe that the bill to turn the reservoir into athletic fields should not be passed. Instead, we must urge New Yorkers to take note of this amazing natural area that is just sitting unnoticed in their backyards. We believe that one just needs to go there, see all the wildlife, hear the songbirds, and breathe in the fresh air to realize just how precious the Ridgewood Reservoir is.

From our observations, however, Ridgewood Reservoir cannot simply be just left alone to run its course. The invasive species have already taken over the rim of the area, binding with the dilapidated fences, and blocking the view to the reservoir.

The question, therefore, is how do we maintain this natural area without disturbing the wildlife within?

It is without a doubt that animals are thriving in the reservoir because there is so little human disturbance. The fences and mix of plants within prevent excessive human interaction. To ensure the wildlife’s well-being, we propose that we keep the fences intact. However, the invasive species along the fences and gates must be trimmed or cut down. New fences should be put up, stronger ones that can hold and won’t give away from branches’ weight.

In order to invite people to take a look at the beauty in the reservoir, we propose that we open specific sites along the basins so that people may come in (legally) and breathe in the fresh air. This means opening up parts of the fence and clearing and constructing safe platforms for observations. To protect nature while we expand human interaction with the reservoir, we propose that the water-pumping buildings be renovated and used for security to keep a look-out for potential violators and environmentalists to conduct further research.

To get into the reservoir itself, we propose guided tours by knowledgeable ecologists from the neighborhood.

Furthermore, the track around the reservoir should be cleaned up. With the maintenance of invasive species on the fence, the runners around the track can finally look into the reservoir.

Map of Forest Park/Ridgewood Reservoir

Our project is on Forest Park and the Ridgewood Reservoir, and therefore, we also propose a joint project on both areas. Right now, the two areas are separated by a string of cemeteries in between. If we can leave the edges of cemeteries fairly natural and unattended, wildlife can move between Forest Park and the Reservoir. By doing this, we believe we can increase the variety of species in Forest Park and the Ridgewood Reservoir.

These projects will be costly, but in the end, it will be beneficial for both the wildlife and humans. It is possible for humans and wildlife to live side-by-side in harmony. And with the increased awareness on once abandoned parks and reservoirs, we can finally show the environmental community just how vibrant New York City ecology really is.

Finally, here is a video presented by The Newton Historical Society in an effort to raise awareness about the issues concerning the Ridgewood Reservoir.


  1. http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/highlandpark/highlights/19651
  2. http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_M5ONzKgUqbc/RnikyifBILI/AAAAAAAAAHg/yHsAUbvR8_8/s400/Reservior.jpg”
  3. http://www.tapeshare.com/HP/HP_birdseye_1911.jpg”
  4. "Yellow-billed Cuckoo." The City Birder. Web. 17 Nov 2010. . ”
  5. " White-eyed Vireo." The City Birder. Web. 17 Nov 2010. .”
  6. "Pied-billed Grebes." The City Birder. Web. 17 Nov 2010. .”
  7. "Unidentified Raptor." The City Birder. Web. 17 Nov 2010. .”
  8. "Autumn Olive." The City Birder. Web. 17 Nov 2010. .”
  9. "Climbing Bittersweet." The City Birder. Web. 17 Nov 2010. .”
  10. "Grass Florets." The City Birder. Web. 17 Nov 2010. .”
  11. "Pink Honeysuckle." The City Birder. Web. 17 Nov 2010. .”
  12. "Blue Dasher." The City Birder. Web. 17 Nov 2010. .”
  13. "Damselfly." The City Birder. Web. 17 Nov 2010. .”
  14. http://www.audubonmagazine.org/webexclusives/ridgewoodreservoir-webexclusives.html”

One Response to Ridgewood Reservoir

  1. Jason Munshi-South says:

    This section is very good. Again, however, I think you could provide more information on the excellent historical imagery, and provide more visuals on the wildlife aspects.

    The non-native Italian wall lizard would also be worth a mention. There have been a few studies on this species locally. I could help you find the papers…just send me an email or ask me in class.

    There are a huge number of videos on Youtube about the Ridgewood Reservoir, primarily about the controversy with the Bloomberg administration. It may be worth posting links to a few of the more informative videos (especially if they address ecological aspects of the site).


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