Cities, towns, and villages throughout the United States are filled with unused and deteriorating infrastructure. From bridges to railroads to waterfront piers, many are engineering marvels and historic assets. When successfully repurposed, they can have catalytic effects on communities through the creation of dynamic new public spaces that serve the local community and attract visitors.
The High Line project in New York City set a precedent for the adaptive reuse of urban infrastructure. Constructed between 1929 and 1934, the elevated tracks bridged streets and sliced through buildings, removing dangerous trains from the streets of Manhattan’s west side. Train traffic on the High Line halted in 1980 and the structure, largely abandoned, was later threatened with demolition.
In 1999, the Friends of the High Line was created to preserve the entire historic structure and transform an essential piece of New York’s industrial past into a city park. Designed by landscape architects James Corner Field Operations, with architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the old industrial conveyance is now an elevated promenade that provides spectacular views while highlighting the history of the structure. The walkways are constructed of concrete planks that are reminiscent of the former rail lines, and the plantings are “inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew on the out-of-use elevated rail tracks during the 25 years after trains stopped running,” per the website of the High Line and Friends of the High Line.
The success of the High Line project lies not only in the beauty of this new public space, but also in the economic development it spurred. In a New York Times article, former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg noted that the High Line “generated $2 billion in private investment surrounding the park,” drawing attention to the new luxury apartment buildings, art galleries, restaurants, and boutique stores that opened in adjacent areas.
In addition to New York City, other communities in the United States and abroad have begun to look for ways to breathe new life into abandoned infrastructure. In New York State’s Westchester County, the Croton Aqueduct has been re-engaged as a pedestrian trail. Old waterworks are being celebrated in Boston, where the condominium conversion of the 1880s Chestnut Hill pumping station included a museum to interpret the unique stories of one of the country’s first metropolitan water systems. In Cincinnati, an unused art deco train station, Union Station, was adapted for use as a history museum. The European Route of Industrial Heritage – comprising more than 850 sites across 32 countries – has turned the multinational history of big industry into an engine for tourism and economic development. On Long Island, the former Mill Neck rail station now serves as a post office, Village Hall, and police station. Elsewhere in the region, train stations, small-scale industrial waterfronts, and airfields lie dormant – waiting for public and private partners to invest in the future by repurposing the past. Who will lead the charge?