Take them or leave them, elevated freeways are a mainstay of cities all over the world. The spaces beneath those overpasses are often underutilized – or utilized in ways illegal or undesirable. However, many cities are now realizing the potential of these dead spaces.
“In a city as concentrated as San Francisco, how do we creatively and innovatively use space that is kind of dead and inviting to a lot of negative activity into open, creative, vibrant spaces.” San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.
San Francisco is among the urban areas which are transforming the spaces beneath its overpasses into parks, joining the ranks of New York and Miami, among others.
Progress Park sits in the shadow of Interstate 280 in San Francisco's burgeoning Dogpatch neighborhood, a community park that just a few years ago was a fenced California Department of Transportation property filled with rocks and debris. The space used to be a magnet for homeless camps and illegal dumping. Now neighbors head there to play bocce, owners bring their dogs to the canine play area, and workout groups gather at the open space's foam matting and exercise bars.
And now because of the passage of AB 857, the City will be able to lease up to 10 more parcels, now mostly serving as parking spaces or storage areas underneath highways, from the California Department of Transportation at 30 percent below market rate to create parks and open spaces for the public.
Not only do the transformed spaces create parks and green spaces, they also open connections between neighborhoods. Underground at Ink Block is the successful transformation of an 8-acre underpass located between Boston’s South End and South Boston neighborhoods into an active urban park, cultural attraction and parking amenity. Landscaped pedestrian boardwalks and bicycle paths along the Fort Point Channel have created new connections between communities previously separated by highway infrastructure. Visitors enjoy amenities such as world-class street art, a dog park, curated retail, fitness, food and beverage experiences.
Underpass Park was built beneath a complex of existing highway overpasses in Toronto’s downtown. The area was a forgotten and derelict parcel of land which has been transformed into an active public park providing diverse recreational and social opportunities while also connecting new and existing local neighborhoods and nearby parks. Underpass Park is home to Mirage, a public art piece designed by award-winning Toronto artist and architect Paul Raff. It features 57 octagonal reflective stainless-steel surfaces applied to the underside of the overpasses. With more than 50 overpass columns, colorful LED spotlights light the space in the evening, highlighting the park’s unique architecture and ensuring safety throughout the day.
And it’s not only parks popping up under freeways these days. Cities are also using these spaces for public art installations, community gatherings, marketplaces, and even mixed-use developments.
The Bentway is an ice skating path under the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto. In the summer, it serves as a concrete roller-blading and walking path. It is surrounded by the “bents” — the inverted-W-shaped concrete pillars — that hold up the highway. The result is a cozy space framed by the square geometry of the infrastructure. The park is close to condo buildings whose residents will use the park as their new backyard.
In keeping with the "Keep Portland Weird" motto, Burnside park, located underneath the Burnside Bridge on the east side of the Willamette River in Portland, was a grassroots project built without permission by skateboarders. It eventually was approved by the city as a public skatepark. Burnside serves as a preeminent example of grassroots action. Burnside and its creators are true pioneers, setting the stage for community-built skateparks across the country.
And in Seattle, dubbed “The Most Progressive City in America”, I-5 Colonnade is the first ever urban mountain bike skills park. It's part of a City of Seattle park, but was funded and constructed by the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance . The park, primarily under the elevated spans of I-5, features a novice area - the Tqalu Trail; an intermediate and advanced area - Limestone Loop; a dirt jumping section; pump track; trials area and more. This space also helps link the Eastlake and Capitol Hill neighborhoods.
These spaces can also get creative facelifts with art. The Noma Parks Foundation is working on a plan to improve the condition of some of Washington, D.C.’s underpasses by adding art installations to beautify the spaces. Rain, an installation which will use LED lights inside hundreds of polycarbonate tubes to look like a thunderstorm will bring a “light-filled art park” to the M Street Underpass Art Park.
And at the L Street Underpass, “Lightweave” will feature LED lights that float from the ceiling. Throughout the day, the lights will only be at 50 percent power. When there is movement in the underpass, the lights will temporarily increase to 100 percent.
These spaces could also be temporarily activated and serve as places to have events. Under the Freeway Flea Market is a 3-Day Event held every Labor Day Weekend in Wallace, ID. Hundreds of flea market peddlers show their wares to thousands of shoppers. Booths are set up under the raised I-90 thoroughfare and right on the Trail of the Coeur d’Alene’s cycle path.
And projects are also being created under public transit systems which also have an abundance of unused dead space. New York City’s High Line is one of the most well-known projects that converted an unused rail system into a public park. Now, Miami wants to follow New York’s lead by transforming a rundown trail below the MetroRail—the city’s elevated rapid transit system—into an urban park.
The Underline envisions a 10-mile walking and biking path that will act as the foundation for Miami’s larger 250-mile pedestrian infrastructure network. The Underline will connect communities; improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety; create over one hundred acres of open space with restored natural habitats; encourage a healthy lifestyle and active transportation; create a mobility corridor that integrates transit, car, biking and walking; connect people to place with engaging art and programming; facilitate sustainable development along the corridor, and generate significant economic impact.
So, the next time you are driving over a freeway in your city, you may want to envision whether the space under it could potentially be transformed into a vibrant place for the community to gather.