Civil engineers, urban planners and green activists alike all seem to point to the redevelopment of New York City’s High Line train tracks into a 2.3km long public park in 2009 (expanded again in 2011 and 2014) as the pinnacle of modern, urban utilitarianism. Inspired by Paris’ Promenade plantée – a shipping route transformed into a park over 15 years earlier – it’s no surprise why New Yorkers and visitors alike hold it in such high regard; with over 4 million annual visitors and constant art programming, it’s become a case study on urban ingenuity (that is, of course, if we look only at the benefits through a placemaking lens, and disregard the subsequent waves of gentrification). However, though it might be the most high-profile instance of creative use of abandoned, unused or underutilized public space and infrastructure (it is the Big Apple, after all), there are certainly more unlikely and ingenious urban adaptive reuse successes and future plans across the world.
Under Gardiner Park – Toronto, Canada
When Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway was built, cutting through seven neighbourhoods, there was almost immediately chatter about tearing it down. Scheduled for completion in 2017, however, is a creative new plan to repurpose the empty space under high way into an inter-neighbourhood park. Given the innate infrastructure of the elevated route, the space takes on a unique configuration of what designers Public Space are dubbing ‘rooms’ and each of these rooms will serve a different function as the developers consult with residents on what they’d like to see. Proving that public space and infrastructure can be used for movement and as a destination in itself, the project is bound to inspire more cities.
Wunderland Kalkar – Kalkar, Germany
In 1972, in the height of nuclear ambition, West Germany began the construction of a $4 billion nuclear power plant in a project that would take 10 years to complete, but never open. Delays and citizen concerns diverted the operation of the facility and it wasn’t until 1991 when it would be repurposed by Dutch developer Hennie van der Most who redeveloped the grounds and buildings into a business, leisure and hospitality hub, gaining its own amusement park in 2001. Kernies Family Park opened in 2001 and has over 40 attractions that swing and slide around the reactor, with their signature ride operating in a cooling tower. With nearly half a million annual visitors – far exceeding the municipality of Kalkar’s 15,000 residents – it certainly changed the area’s urban history.
Paddington Reservoir Gardens – Sydney, Australia
Originally a reservoir operated to accommodate the water needs of an ever growing population in the late 19th century, after only 20 years the facility ceased supplying water in 1899. A few repurposes later (it was once a gas station and a garage), in 2009, the reservoir was redesigned into a Roman-esque public park, retaining the original structure – barrel vault roofs and all – and some of its original purpose; Australia is a leader in water preservation and thus the park has been intelligently designed to collect and preserve rainwater.
A8ernA – Zaanstad, the Netherlands
What happens when a highway cuts a town in half? The sense of civic engagement that Zaanstad residents had was also cut in half in the 1970s, after River Highway A8 split the urban tissue leaving the town chapel on side of the elevated road and city hall on the other. A multi-stakeholder urban intervention came into play where residents collaborated with city officials to repurpose the space under the highway and by 2003 the derelict areas were activated with a skate park, breakdancing stage, a graffiti arena, multi-sports pitches, a mini-marina for rowers, and tens of loveseats for, well, lovers.
Avenida de Fuerzas Armadas – Caracas, Venezeula
While many adaptive reuse projects are spearheaded by governments, design labs and corporations (often intrinsically underlined by millions in capital), some of the most interesting, practical and truly public placemaking initiatives come organically from the residents and frequenters of space themselves. Nothing shows this more vibrantly than the spontaneous second hand book market that emerged under the Avenida de Fuerza Armadas Flyover, bringing with it a generation of hip readers and elderly intellectuals alike. With the market picking up pace and the area quickly regarded as one of leisure and recreation, in 2011 a $1 million project funded by the Caracas city council revamped the area and formalized the market after nearly 30 years of informal operation.
Growing Underground – London, UK
London’s unique subterranean network of subways, tunnels and stations were the scene of refuge during WWII and are now experiencing a Michelin-starred renaissance as two entrepreneurs and celebrity chef Michel Roux Jr have taken over an ex-bomb shelter, under London Underground’s Northern Line tracks, for the British capitals fist subterranean urban farm. Supplying local restaurants with vegetables and herbs, its eco-friendly sophisticated set up grows crops with minimal water and lighting.
Freedom Park – Lagos, Nigeria
We assume the irony of turning a colonial prison into a public leisure facility that celebrates freedom wasn’t lost on the firm that undertook the transformation of Lagos’ Broad Street Prison. Built to last (England imported thousands of pounds worth of bricks to fortify the facility), it wasn’t until 1976 that the prison was pulled down and by 2010, Freedom Park – the brainchild of creative architects and urban planners committed to commemorating Nigeria’s modern freedom without whitewashing the past – was well and truly alive. Today the park hosts an amphitheatre, a food court, a museum and exhibitions, as well as copy of a cell block, used as an informal co-working space thanks to internet connections.