Atlantic Cities

Transforming Blight Into a Destination

Transforming Blight Into a Destination
Courtesy SWA

Alleyways. Drainage canals. Electricity transmission corridors. Spaces like these exist in cities all over the world, and almost always they are only exactly what they seem: alleyways, drainage canals, electricity transmission corridors. But in a physical sense, they offer many more opportunities. That alley could be a stormwater absorption area. A drainage canal could become a waterfront. A transmission corridor could become a linear park.

More and more cities are starting to think about their infrastructure in this way, demanding more utility from the utilitarian structures that have for so long served solely their own specific roles. It’s a design concept increasingly explored by landscape architects, who’ve gradually embraced the idea as “landscape infrastructure.”

It’s playing out in Chicago, where the city’s alleyways are being converted to better absorb rainwater back into the ground instead of funneling it into the sewers for expensive treatment. Five separate freeway cap parks are proposed for Los Angeles and are currently in environmental reviews. The city of Minneapolis is hoping to revive its riverfront infrastructure and turn a 5.5-mile section into a better used networks of public parks.

A new book from international landscape architecture firm SWA Group, Landscape Infrastructure, highlights this emerging concept in the field, focusing on a handful of recent case study projects that illustrate ways infrastructure can serve double duty, or more. Cities are flush with opportunity, according to Gerdo Aquino, co-editor of the book and a president at SWA Group’s Los Angeles office.

"There are all these underutilized corridors like transmission corridors, alleyways, remnant spaces around freeway on- and off-ramps," Aquino says. "They serve a municipal function, but they could also be more multi-functioning."

He says the concept has been kicking around for about 15 yeas, but has only recently begun to catch on and play out in actual designs. It’s a two-birds-with-one-stone mentality that’s become more politically feasible as funding gets tight and infrastructure continues to crumble.

"If you look at the discussion today, it’s all about multiplicity," Aquino says. "What more can it do, how can it perform for ecology, for people, for habitat, for communities."

And the community aspect is significant. Take, for example, the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Aquino says that of its 10 million people, only 14 percent live within a half-mile of open space. That leaves 86 percent – about 8.6 million people – living in park deserts.

"You start to analyze the demographics and you realize that the majority of the population are of ethnic background, and they just don’t have access," Aquino says. "And guess what’s all around those communities? Infrastructure. Alleyways, abandoned railroads, freeway on-ramps, underpasses. That’s their landscape. So the notion of getting to these spaces and doing something about it is really exciting."

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But it’s not all about social equity. The potential of this approach can have far-reaching impacts for cities and their various and diverse communities, as well as their environments.

In Houston, rains can hammer down and inundate the city with more than a foot of water a day. And with its location near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, the city is also routinely subject to hurricanes and flooding. A series of natural bayous run through the metro area, and have served as drainage canals during heavy storms. Like many similar waterways, some of Houston’s bayous were channelized and lined with concrete in an effort to improve their ability to take these extreme amounts of water and flush them out into the gulf as quickly as possible. But this crusade for efficiency has effectively turned the bayous from natural amenities into concrete ditches – places few in the city would think to visit.

Landscape architect Kevin Shanley had a different idea. Beginning in the 1980s, he and some colleagues at the Houston office of SWA got involved in an effort to rethink the city’s approach to water management and flood control. Buffalo Bayou is an 84-kilometer river that runs through the heart of the city before emptying into the gulf. Activists in the 1960s had prevented it from being channelized and lined. And while it wasn’t just a concrete ditch like other bayous in the area, it was similarly avoided. The area included a few scattered parks, but lacked cohesion. When hurricanes hit, the bayou was a flood bowl. And with a knot of freeways and interchanges towering overhead, the bayou area was less than inviting. For Shanley, this was an asset needing a facelift.

The Buffalo Bayou Partnership formed from a group of designers and concerned citizens. They released a master plan for the bayou in 1986, and over time built out new elements of the bayou into park spaces. In 2002, the master plan was rewritten. Through a series of focused projects, Shanley led the redesign of a portion of the bayou next to downtown Houston, adding new planting schemes and sloping to better accommodate periodic floods, creating more access for residents and integrating a system of interconnected bicycle paths and walkways to connect the city back to the waterway.

"Public money is so scarce these days that any time you spend public money to solve a problem you need to be solving other problems, too," says Shanley, who’s now CEO of SWA Group.

He argues these sorts of spaces are too often thought of as just places where water can drain to in extreme weather events. They are that, he says, but they’re more.

"These are incredible amenities. They’re no longer this ugly hole hidden out back," Shanley says.

And while the main point of the project may have seemed to be about improving the bayou’s ability to handle flooding, it was really about creating a greater connection between the people and their forgotten landscape. Shanley says it’s a common disconnect in cities, and oftentimes there are simple ways to make necessary improvements and also redraw that connection.

"I think the opportunity exists wherever you are," he says.

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This sort of coupled approach to infrastructure projects is being undertaken in other U.S. cities, as well as in places like the emerging megacities of China. New U.S.-based projects are currently in the bidding or design competition phase, including a redesign of Waller Creek in Austin, Texas. Another competition recently concluded for the Minneapolis riverfront redesign. Aquino says these projects are increasingly calling for the multi-faceted "landscape infrastructure" approach. Even the requests for proposals are starting to sound the same.

"When I see these competitions from city agencies and they read almost exactly the same tells me that these people aren’t just sitting around," Aquino says. "They’re travelling to different parts of the U.S., they’re seeing what’s going on, they’re seeing how these underutilized corridors can revitalize their neighborhoods and their communities and bring a new economy to what may have formerly been depressed, and they’re acting on it."

Many of the most successful parks projects these days are successful because of the participation of an active community, often in the form of a "Friends of" group. In New York, the Friends of the High Line were instrumental in pursuing that project and eventually convincing a skeptical Mayor Michael Bloomberg to get behind the idea. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership is similarly involved in that park, and helps to ensure its long-term viability and finances to pay for maintenance.

"Every one of these big public spaces that I can think of has a 'friends' component to it," Aquino says. "And the longevity of those kinds of organizations is critical. They can’t just be excited for three years. They’ve got to be excited for like 30 years."

But Aquino concedes that making sure people stay interested for the long haul is not easy or ensured. A community of nearby real estate developers and property owners tends to play a big role on this front. They know that their properties will gain in value if they’re near a major new park or a neglected infrastructure space that’s being converted into a public amenity. That vested interest, along with the city’s eagerness to increase its tax base, helps shepherd these types of projects along. It also helps to make sure the project is maintained and continues to act as an amenity as opposed to an eyesore.

It can make things a little uncomfortable when projects like these are only greenlighted because of the shrewd eyes of investors. The benefit they may bring to a place, though, sometimes outweighs the uneasy feeling that can come with projects that directly benefit a small handful of people. But Aquino argues that the scale of these projects and the interventions they can create in terms of rethinking a city’s infrastructure will often have a significantly larger benefit for the community. Making sure that happens can be a challenge.

“The strategy is how to integrate the entire community so that in the end they feel that it is theirs, that they own it. The city and the developers start to fall away in the background. If that happens then you’ll probably have a successful project.”

Aquino says that these strategies haven’t really been figured out yet. Public-private partnerships seem to be important for maintaining new parks, but initial funding can be hard to come by. When infrastructure projects are necessary, Aquino says the money will come through. Making that money work harder to create more than a new alleyway or drainage canal is a strategy more cities are likely to take.

Top image of the Buffalo Bayou Promenade in Houston courtesy SWA Group

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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