Green Giants

How urban planners are turning industrial eyesores into popular public spaces

Image courtesy of Quadrangle Architects LimitedImage courtesy of Quadrangle Architects Limited

The most impressive thing about the High Line, the former elevated industrial rail track running along the west side of Manhattan, is how quickly it transports you to a different place. Climb a simple metal staircase up from the grimy streets of the Meatpacking District, as honking cabs compete for attention with nightclubs, meat lockers, and biker bars, and you arrive at a lush green park where the soundtrack of the city is muted. Long, linear pavers slice through thickets of grasses and flowers, occasionally peeling up from the ground to form benches. Walking from the south, the hulking steel railway viaduct offers a view of the Hudson River before cutting through a former National Biscuit Company factory, built in 1932. Along the way are public art installations and concession carts offering cookies and coffee. A little farther along is a public amphitheatre that tilts down toward Tenth Avenue, where visitors congregate on bleacher seating. Instead of a stage, it features a broad window that frames the cars and trucks coursing along below, turning traffic into urban theatre.

The High Line is the rare public project that actually delivers on the promise of the initial planning process. The real thing works just as well as, if not better than, the artistic renderings unveiled five years ago. Yet it almost didn’t happen. In the 1990s, the track was slated for demolition, but a community group named Friends of the High Line formed to preserve it, noticing that nature was already turning it into green space. They enlisted the help of celebrity supporters such as Kevin Bacon, Edward Norton, and Diane von Furstenberg, and eventually succeeded. Commissioned to design the park were landscape architecture firm Field Operations and architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

“Our whole philosophy was to amplify the found conditions,” says James Corner, principal of Field Operations. “We made it a space that offers an exciting and distinctive public experience, but in a way that captures the original post-industrial character.” Today people are using the High Line in more diverse ways than he ever imagined. While it was originally conceived as a relatively simple “strolling garden,” the park offers spots for family picnics, bikini-clad sunbathing, and taking in cabaret shows staged on the fire escape of an adjacent apartment building.

The High Line serves as a prime example of a new kind of park taking shape in countries such as the United States, Germany, Mexico, and Canada—one that uses the abandoned infrastructure and artifacts of industry to create distinctive public green spaces. Where we once understood parks to be the manicured places of respite envisioned by legendary landscape architects like Frederick Law Olmsted, creator of Manhattan’s Central Park, they increasingly reflect recent urban history, seeking to create a positive legacy for what were once polluting structures.

One of the reasons for this change is economic: it’s typically less expensive to reinvent industrial ruins than to remove them. Another is that cities are simply running out of green space. “With Central Park, the land was acquired when Manhattan’s growth was still very much on the tip of the island; same pattern with Golden Gate Park in San Francisco,” says Julia Czerniak, director of the Upstate design centre at the Syracuse University School of Architecture, and co-editor of the book Large Parks. “Now we’re going back into cities and finding military bases or old factories, and cobbling together vacant land, typically brownfields,” she notes, referring to contaminated sites. It’s not that landscape architects enjoy cleaning up degraded sites, says Czerniak —“That’s just what we get.”

The movement to integrate decaying structures into parks and gardens actually began centuries ago. “In the eighteenth century, with landscape gardens in England, [builders] would sometimes fabricate ruins to lend meaning, richness, and intrigue,” says Czerniak. “The ruins added to the ambience of the picturesque landscape.” At the same time, these gardens (and the parks that followed decades later, including Central Park in 1859) established naturalistic landscape design as the standard for public green space. Faux Gothic ruins and other scaled-down buildings were sometimes integrated into these places, but the supersized blast furnaces, factories, and gas storage tanks being erected in conjunction with the Industrial Revolution weren’t exactly part of the plan.

As urban economies began to shift away from manufacturing in the latter half of the twentieth century, though, designers started considering new possibilities for abandoned industrial husks. One of the first projects to reclaim this kind of infrastructure for recreational use was Seattle’s Gas Works Park, designed by American landscape architect Richard Haag and opened in 1975. The site had previously hosted a plant that made gas out of coal from 1906 to 1956. Needless to say, the soil was contaminated when the City of Seattle began purchasing the land in 1962, but it was partially cleaned up through bioremediation, then capped with clean fill to prevent contact with chemicals. Believing that the industrial machinery had historic and aesthetic value, Haag decided to keep and reuse the dormant giants left behind by the gas company. The former boiler house became a picnic shelter, and the exhauster-compressor building became a children’s play barn featuring vividly painted pipes and machinery.

Even more influential has been the Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord, located about thirty kilometres from Düsseldorf and designed by German landscape architect Peter Latz. Substantially completed in 1999, the park tames a range of intimidating industrial beasts on the site of a decommissioned 200-hectare Thyssen iron production facility. Bunkers that once stored coke and ore have been cleaned out and now host climbing walls. An elephantine former gas tank has been filled with water, an artificial reef, and a wrecked yacht to welcome scuba divers. Seventy metres above the ground, atop the old blast furnace, sits a viewing platform. The blower house and engine house are now event spaces for everything from concerts and dance performances to trade fairs and gala dinners. A visit to Duisburg-Nord isn’t just an exploration of the past; it’s an interaction with an otherworldly play space—the Gas Works model on steroids. At Duisburg-Nord, “The body has different relationships to the ruins, which go beyond the idea of simply looking at them,” says Czerniak.

The design philosophies explored at Gas Works, Duisburg-Nord, and the High Line are now starting to be implemented in public parks around the globe. In 2007, in Monterrey, Mexico, the Horno3 museum of steel opened up inside a former blast furnace, as part of the popular Parque Fundidora. Essen, Germany, is implementing a master plan by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas to transform the Zollverein mining complex into a destination for industrial heritage, arts, and culture. And Rotterdam, Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Jersey City are all contemplating their own elevated parks on former rail lines.

In Canada, the most groundbreaking example of the trend is the Evergreen Brick Works project in Toronto, which is transforming the Don Valley Brick Works along Bayview Avenue into an environmental education and community centre. The city filled in a former quarry on the sixteen-hectare site and created a nature park there in the ’90s, but the brick-making facilities have remained largely untouched until now. Restoring and renovating the buildings is Evergreen, a not-for-profit organization that aims to make cities more livable by bringing nature back into urban spaces and schoolyards. It hopes to have the Brick Works structures ready for public use by May 2010.

“I was lucky enough to visit Duisburg-Nord, and I was just blown away by the place,” says Brick Works lead architect Joe Lobko, a partner at du Toit Allsopp Hillier, the architecture firm responsible for the project. “The contrast between everything you imagined had been there once upon a time and what it is now, green and silent, was very poetic. There’s a sense of nature coming back in and reintegrating with this industrial environment.”

Lobko’s visit influenced many elements of the Brick Works project. For starters, much of the original machinery will remain in place. “There are these giant machines that were used to crush the shale, and then the dust from that process was captured in another machine that is this beautiful creature with arms and legs,” he says, clearly smitten. “It’s still there, along with the giant hoppers and conveyer belts.” Another building, home to two ninety-metre-long kilns originally used to fire bricks, will be restored and turned into an event space. Evergreen’s environmental mission will further translate into a native plant nursery, food gardens, and a farmers’ market. And for adventure-seekers, Outward Bound Canada is planning a rope course and a climbing wall. The site “has a kind of aura and magic,” says Lobko.

A somewhat more audacious proposal came forth in June of this year from Les Klein, a principal of Quadrangle Architects. Klein made headlines when he proposed to furnish Toronto’s much-loathed Gardiner Expressway with a new top deck that would hold a park. The elevated highway is routinely blamed for cutting off downtown neighbourhoods from the waterfront, so the city has been gradually trying to demolish it.

Klein argues that that’s a mistake. When construction began in 1956, the Gardiner “was viewed as a symbol of progress and growth—of Toronto having arrived,” he says. “Over the years, we’ve let it become a symbol of the opposite.” He believes the expressway only appears to be a barrier to the waterfront because its underbelly has grown uninviting after years of neglect. “If you look at it with the eyes of the past and maybe the future, you see that it’s actually a magnificent piece of urban architecture and engineering,” he says. “There are parts of it where you really get a sense of that majesty.”

Klein’s so-called Green Ribbon would add new columns and a second deck about eight metres above the existing roadway. The seven-kilometre-long park would be populated with grasses, trees, cycling lanes and footpaths, and photovoltaic panels and wind generators to power lighting systems. He estimates that his plan would cost $500 million to $600 million for full implementation—significantly less, he points out, than the $1.2-billion to $1.8-billion price tag for destroying the entire Gardiner and replacing it with at-grade and underground roads. When he introduced the proposal at Toronto’s ideaCity conference in June, he received a standing ovation and national media attention. Since then, he has been pitching city councillors and Waterfront Toronto. Decision-makers appear to be taking Klein seriously, and he believes he knows why: “The High Line is really lending some credibility to the Green Ribbon.”

Cities around the world are cluttered with relics, from rusting factories and disused rail lines to abandoned military bases and former dumps. In Canada, the industrial real estate vacancy rate recently rose to 7.4 percent, a figure expected to continue climbing, according to real estate consulting firm CB Richard Ellis. Given the preponderance of raw material and the potential for inventive, economically viable public spaces, the choice to reuse these sites, retaining their original gritty character, would seem to be a logical one. So why, then, haven’t more of these post-industrial parks been popping up across Canada and elsewhere?

For one, most industrial sites are privately owned, and parks are public spaces typically funded by public money, so gaining control of those lands can be difficult. (In the case of the Don Valley Brick Works, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority expropriated the site back in 1987.) Further, city planning and permitting processes are set up to serve very specific functions, and officials may not know how to handle what are still leading-edge proposals, making political intervention important. Many citizens also have safety concerns related to toxins and the general state of decay at the sites. Finally, the equation of “industry” with “eyesore” remains.

As a handful of projects have demonstrated, though, it can be done. High Line designer James Corner believes his project, which was pushed through by a powerful not-for-profit organization that encountered a willing city government, is “a great model for other cities to consider.” Many North American cities “have residues from the nineteenth or twentieth centuries” that they’re not sure how to deal with, he says. “There’s no reason that other cities can’t, through both investment and creative design, create amazing, distinctive, and unique public spaces.”