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How NYC’s rooftops are used as recreational space

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In a city that is bursting at the seams, rooftops function as important spaces for play

Max Touhey

New York City is home to more than 1,700 public parks, playgrounds, and recreation facilities, but with more than 8 million people clamoring for places to relax, getting creative with public space is necessary. One way that people are doing this: By looking up, to the city’s rooftops.

Using roofs for recreational space isn’t new; during the Gilded Age, they were used for all sorts of activities, and were even home to elaborate gardens and theaters. Observation decks were also a popular way to get above the city—and you can still visit one rooftop observatory at Top of the Rock, high above the city on 30 Rockefeller Center. As the urban landscape grows ever more dense, rooftops remain a viable option for parks, playgrounds, and more.

It can be difficult to know exactly what’s happening on city rooftops—recall the Tribeca building hiding a glassy penthouse, or the hidden cottage house in Greenwich Village—so what can you do on tops of NYC buildings? Take a look.

Rooftop playgrounds

Several schools have placed playgrounds—some of which have pretty wacky amenities—on top of their buildings. On the Upper East Side, the all-girl’s private school Nightingale-Bamford has a rooftop playground complete with turf, trampolines, and a slide (and yes, there’s a protective barrier, too).

The All Souls School on Lexington Avenue and 80th Street tapped architecture firm Gran Kriegel to construct a playground that features wooden basketball hoops, a wooden playhouse structure, big block sets, and landscaped areas.

Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cantor Roof Garden

The Met’s rooftop garden is one of the museum’s most popular spaces in the summertime, and for good reason: It overlooks Central Park and gives stunning view to Manhattan’s skyline. The museum also commissions site-specific installations, which overtake the space in warmer months.

The seasonal display has welcomed work like Cornelia Parker’s “Transitional Object (PsychoBarn)” in 2016 and Adrián Villar Rojas’s “The Theater of Disappearance.” This year, artist Huma Bhabha’s “We Come in Peace” aims to address the themes of “colonialism, war, displacement, and memories of place.”

Courtesy the Met Museum

Bhabha’s installation consists of two sculptures—a 12-foot-tall five-headed intersex figure with five heads and an 18-foot-long prostrate figure named Benaam—that are “carefully oriented toward each other as if they have just landed on The Met’s Cantor Roof.” It’s on display through October 28.

Rooftop movies

Elaborate rooftop theaters were popular during the Gilded Age, but these days, entertainment is more likely to come in the form of movie screenings. One of the biggest purveyors of these screenings is Rooftop Films, which has grown into one of the city’s most wide-ranging outdoor film series. The annual summer series showcases independent films from directors of all experience levels at rooftop venues across the boroughs.

Rooftop Cinema Club (which has branches in other cities like Los Angeles, Houston, and San Diego) is another one that hosts events on a regular basis. You can check out their summer screening line-up here.

Rooftop farming/gardening

If you live in New York, then you’re probably aware of the limited opportunities for having your own farm—or even a garden, in many cases. Luckily, it’s easy to find at least one urban farm in every borough, many of which are housed high above ground level.

Brooklyn Grange has two rooftop farms—one in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and one in Long Island City—that together produce more than 50,000 pounds of organic produce annually. The Long Island City location is the city’s largest rooftop farm, spanning 65,000 square feet. Both venues also serve as place that brings folks together through events like evening yoga, food festivals, farm tours, and a variety of workshops.

Other rooftop farms can be found at places like JetBlue’s T5 Rooftop at John F. Kennedy Airport, the Eagle Street Farm in Greenpoint, and Gotham Greens atop Whole Foods Gowanus.

Rooftop fitness

The city’s park are prime spaces for fitness activities when the weather is warm, but those aren’t the only outdoor options available.

In 2015, SPOT YOGA co-founder Mike Lundberg told Racked that after running into issues obtaining the proper permits to host fitness workshops in city parks, he turned to rooftops as an alternative to indoor yoga studios.

Last summer, Tribeca’s Aqua Studio rolled out a new “Rooftop Sunrise Aquacircuit” that consisted of 45 minutes of high-intensity cardio and strength training.

And it doesn’t stop there: After launching its NYC flagship in Times Square last fall, Moxy Hotels debuted a rooftop fitness series at the location shortly after. Soho’s Arlo Hotel also compensates for its abensce of an indoor gym by offering guests (and the public) rooftop fitness that is “surf-inspired” and presented by SurfsetNYC.

Daily rooftop fitness is in full swing for the summer! : @surfsetnyc

A post shared by Arlo Hotels (@arlohotels) on

Rooftop amenities

Though these spaces aren’t typically open to the public, more and more developments are outfitting their rooftop spaces with amenities that go beyond the norm. Instead of the typical rooftop lounge and barbecue, various residential developments are offering more higher-end amenities that expand the recreational possibilities. For example, in Long Island, ARC, a 10-story luxury rental building, includes perks like a 70-foot saltwater rooftop pool accompanied by bocce courts.

Williams New York

In Downtown Brooklyn, Extell is bringing a bit a drama to its rooftop recreation space at Brooklyn Point—a 700-foot skyscraper and the firm’s first Brooklyn project—by deciding to crown it with a 27-foot-long saltwater infinity pool that will be the highest rooftop pool in the city. Perched 680 feet above ground, the sky-high pool area will also include landscaping, lounge chairs, space for dining alfresco, its own stargazing observatory, and there will be open-air movie screenings.

Times Square

Broadway & 7th Ave, New York, NY 10036 (212) 768-1560 Visit Website

Brooklyn Navy Yard

63 Flushing Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11205 (718) 907-5992

Brooklyn Navy Yard

141 Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11205 Visit Website

Central Park

, Manhattan, NY Visit Website

Metropolitan Museum of Art

1000 5th Ave., New York, NY 10028

30 Rockefeller Center

30 Rockefeller Center, Manhattan, NY 10020

Brooklyn Grange

37-18 Northern Boulevard, Queens, NY 11101 Visit Website