Abandoned factories, idle smokestacks, unused railroad tracks, and other traces of the industrial past – an estimated 425,000 brownfield sites – are located across the U.S. today. Public and private efforts to transform these sites are underway – a process complicated by the presence of contaminants, and related costs and liabilities.
Oftentimes these sites are returned to industrial uses. But many municipalities are now looking at ways to clean up these sites and open them to the public. Parks and recreation areas are in great demand, but pristine land is scarce and expensive. Leading landscape architects are rising to the challenge by reimagining former industrial centers as 21st century leisure grounds.
The precedent for many of these projects is Seattle’s award-winning Gas Works Park. In the 1970s, the City of Seattle hired local landscape architect Richard Haag to create a master plan for a 20-acre park on the former site of the Seattle Gas Light Company, which operated on the banks of Lake Union from 1906 to 1956. The city purchased the site, along with its extant industrial structures, in 1962.
Haag’s progressive proposal recommended “cleaning and greening” the park, not by removing the polluted soil from the site, but rather by remediating it through the installation of specially selected plants that would help reduce or even remove the contaminants from the soil. Haag also proposed incorporating the gas structures into the design of the park, citing their historic and aesthetic value. The city agreed to the idea and the park opened to the public in 1975. The historic boiler house is now a picnic shelter, the exhauster-compressor building is now a children’s play barn, and the lawns and open spaces have hiking and biking trails, as well as a place for kite flying.
Haag’s ideas for on-site soil remediation and incorporation of industrial features have been replicated elsewhere. Concrete Plant Park in the Bronx, New York City incorporated the site’s historic silos, hoppers, and conveyors into the park design; Discovery Green in Houston, Texas has restored ecological life to a former industrial site; and in Butte, Montana city planners and preservationists are working to create a heritage trail and park that incorporates infrastructure from the historic copper mine heads.
Removing industrial blight has been shown to increase property values as far as 2,000 feet away. And numerous studies show increased property values around parks. Combining the two – turning brownfields into parks – is even better. Discovery Green in Houston cost $125 million, yet this brownfield-to-park project spawned $500 million of private development close by. And Gas Works Park is a Seattle icon, drawing tourists and residents alike.
Are there derelict industrial properties in your neighborhood that have been sitting vacant for decades? Perhaps it’s time to look at these eyesores with fresh eyes.