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Underneath, Overlooked

Landscape Architecture Magazine Ι February 2017

In 2002, the Design Trust for Public Space published Reclaiming the High Line, a critical voice of support that helped jump-start the growing momentum to preserve that rusting hulk of a rail bed in Lower Manhattan. Now a city- and pedestrian-scaled outdoor art walk and landscape, the High Line is likely the most influential urban infrastructure renovation of the past 30 years. In another 30 years, it will probably still be.

But what if the High Line weren’t a spectacular one-off that left cities from coast to coast scrambling to replicate it? What if what the High Line is, and how it came about, could be codified and planned as easily as train track rails or the concrete columns hoisting up miles of elevated freeway?

The Design Trust thinks it could be. For the past several years, the organization has been researching ways to improve the public space in, around, and especially beneath actively used elevated transit infrastructure. Its report, Under the Elevated: Reclaiming Space, Connecting Communities provides a tool set to understand the basic types of elevated transit infrastructure, and offers numerous case studies on how these places can be made more inviting, multifunctional, and sustainable. Most important, it addresses the ways these renovations can be supported by the municipal bureaucracies that control them. There are prescriptions for how to install art and community performance spaces under the shadow play of brawny subway rail lines that are every bit as Gotham chic as the High Line. But there are also ideas for how to replant elevated highway cloverleaf interchanges recognizable in any exurb with plant species that boost biodiversity by attracting more pollinators. One proposed project would install artist studio space and runoff-filtering bioretention modules channeled from the Gowanus Expressway overhead into a neighborhood where artists are being priced out. Another potential retrofit envisions an electric taxicab charging station under the Queensboro Bridge, with cabbie “comfort stations” with toilets flushed by stormwater runoff collected from the bridge.

The Design Trust, which works with grassroots community groups, government agencies, and the private sector to improve New York City’s built environment, has completed two pilot projects already. But its ultimate goal is creating a single shop within the New York City Department of Transportation that could coordinate the ballet of bureaucracy needed to turn monofunctional infrastructure into public playscapes and commercial workhorses.

When the Design Trust started looking across New York City for pilot opportunities, it discovered a wealth of community groups already looking at the discarded and foreboding spaces underneath elevated infrastructure in much the same way, asking why these areas can’t do more than just ferry cars and trains from one place to another. It’s a measure of the growing comfort that people have with asking that their urban fabric do more than one thing at a time.

Design Trust Executive Director Susan Chin, Honorary ASLA, counts 138 miles of elevated train tracks in New York City (mostly in the outer boroughs) and 700 miles of elevated transit infrastructure in total. But across the country, she says, the number is increased by a factor of 10: 7,000 miles. She spoke with LAM about this omnipresent, yet hidden, opportunity for infrastructural landscapes.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Why is now the time to reevaluate how elevated infrastructure works? Is this a result of climate change, or the lack of willingness or ability of municipalities and states to invest in improved infrastructure? 

Yeah, that’s a reality. New York is projecting a million more New Yorkers by 2040. We’re also projecting by 2020 to have 67 million tourists. That has a huge impact on our neighborhoods. Our infrastructure has to be much more multifunctional. It can’t just serve a single purpose. We have to blur the boundaries between one infrastructure and another. And the Design Trust always thinks about sustainability and resilience, and incorporates that as a piece of our projects.

The other concern I have is that [this infrastructure] was built 60 years ago. A lot of this needs to be either torn down or renovated and brought up to current transportation standards. That was the other driver. How do we find new approaches for dealing with this infrastructure?

I think that with shrinking resources, we’re going to have to find some new solutions. We’re going to have to fund locally. [In terms of] public–private partnerships, we’ve talked with the city DOT about maintenance agreements with our partners and asked, “Could you concession some of these spaces?” If there are millions of square feet, not all of it needs to be publicly controlled. Could you have restaurant spaces? Could you have manufacturing spaces? Or studio space so there are other methods of using this real estate? Could you use these as a way to fund and maintain these city assets?

What’s the role of tactical urbanism here? You cite as precedent skateboarders “claiming” otherwise disused spaces under bridges, and bringing added urban vitality and energy to them. How far can you go with this approach?

People are always looking for surprises and new ways of using space. In the case of the skatepark, a lot of adolescents need places for active recreation and to do risky things. And you can’t always get the bureaucracy to go along. It takes a lot of energy and time to convince them. I think those kinds of pop-ups are actually pretty magical. My partner at the DOT would not be so happy, but I [remember during the holidays], under the BQE [Brooklyn-Queens Expressway], some people hung some Christmas trees upside down, and it was pretty fantastic. It reinvented the space. People can envision what the possibilities are. For us, Under the Elevated has captured people’s imaginations, because they think, “Hey, this is space that belongs to everybody, and it belongs to nobody, and this is how we can make it productive.”

How do you move these projects past the pure novelty of well-designed, programmed space under a big, ugly highway? How do you make sure it’s not just an upside-down Christmas tree under the BQE that you Instagram once and forget about? 

What’s differentiated the Design Trust from our colleagues is that we’re not just focused on programs. We’re really concerned about policy change. We’re concerned about changing the system. That can be in terms of the way agencies design, the way they operate or maintain the infrastructure and public space, or thinking about a replicable model or tool. In Chicago, I’d love for people to steal our stuff! You have so much elevated infrastructure! So how do you do that? [We also] think about building a constituency. Is there a voice in the community that is going to speak up to city officials [and say], “Hey, let’s do it in my neighborhood.”?

What’s the next frontier for this idea? What are we not looking at now that we should be looking at? Green sewer aqueducts that you ride your bike in? 

You can use your imagination. The challenge for us with the city DOT is that many architects and engineers, primarily engineers, are so used to thinking just about transportation infrastructure. And I totally appreciate that. And getting them to think outside the box is to say, “This could incorporate landscape. This could incorporate lighting for pedestrians, not just vehicles.” That’s a whole different way of thinking. Breaking down the silos within city government and the bureaucracy, as well as breaking down and blurring the boundaries in the public realm, is the next frontier.

What do we actually know about the social utility and equity of these kinds of infrastructure renovations? In some ways, they seem like city-equity slam dunks, but all we really know for sure is that things like the High Line and the 606 are a boon for property owners and developers. 

What intrigues me is that the High Line and the 606 used to be privately owned property, but now they’re open to the public. So the issue is about access to public space. It’s where all people are welcome. So in terms of making our cities equitable, [they’re places] where everybody can gather, a mixing chamber of all classes, and that’s so important. Those experiences give value to the community adjacent to them, and also, all of these people congregating provide economic value. So it’s not only about putting dollars in developers’ and property owners’ pockets. I go back to Frederick Law Olmsted’s thoughts and desires for Central Park and the mixing of the classes, and I have that idealistic vision for some of these networks of space.

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