In downtown Dallas, Texas, a 5.2-acre park sits on top of a sunken freeway. Underneath the green expanse, eight lanes of traffic carry cars around the city and into the suburbs. Open since October 2012, Klyde Warren Park has joined other similar deck parks around the country that are connecting neighborhoods previously divided by busy freeways—and literally creating community green spaces out of thin air.
The Woodall Rodgers freeway in Dallas was a prime location for this kind of park project. On one side of the freeway, businesses and families were moving into Uptown, a thriving, walkable neighborhood. On the other side sat the downtown arts district, encompassing a symphony, opera, museums, performing arts venues, and sculpture gardens within its 68 acres. Yet “the freeway created a moat that separated those two neighborhoods,” says Tara Green, president of Klyde Warren Park. “No one wanted to walk over it.”
In 2004, the city established a downtown master parks plan to create more green space and to revitalize its urban core. Klyde Warren was envisioned as an anchor of this plan, providing a crucial link between downtown and Uptown. A private donation provided a seed grant, and a unique private-public partnership (modeled on New York City’s Bryant Park) shared equally the remaining cost of the $97 million project. The city owns the land, and a private company maintains the park, which “allows us to be nimble and creative and try new things,” Green says, without having to go through public bureaucracy.
Working with plans from landscape architect and design firm The Office of James Burnett, a complicated structure of concrete beams, columns, and slabs was built over the existing freeway. Oak, cypress, and birch trees sway in light breezes, planted in topsoil over the concrete infrastructure, along with thousands of native plants and shrubs—all of which, in addition to providing natural beauty and shade for park goers, also reduce storm water runoff and help ease soaring Texas summer temperatures.
Designed as a series of 13 “rooms” that host different year-round activities for visitors, the park has become a vibrant locus for the city—and a partner with the neighboring arts organizations. An average of 15,000 people stop by the place every week, and “it’s really a cross-section of Dallas,” says Green. “There are people of all ages, ethnicities, and socio-economic status.” In a reading and games area, seniors peruse a lending library or play chess. Kids splash through spinning water features in the children’s area. Office workers try out the putting green or grab sandwiches from the food kiosk during lunch hour, and on balmy evenings, thousands show up to listen to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra or watch the Texas Ballet Theater perform.
Deck parks themselves aren’t new; the first green space to cap a freeway was Manhattan’s Carl Schurz Park, built in the late 1930s over the FDR Drive. Some twenty other parks now exist in places such as Phoenix, Duluth, MN, Seattle, and Boston, and proposals are now on the table in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. Despite the high price tags of making these parks, it’s the economic and urban development in places like Dallas that legitimate their creation. “The green movement wants more parkland, and the development community wants a beautiful, quiet park instead of a noisy freeway to build residential or office buildings around them,” Peter Harnik, author of Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities, has said. “The payback in … economic value is high enough to make the whole thing worthwhile.”
That is certainly the case for Klyde Warren Park, whose impact extends far beyond the boundaries of its green space. Area museums are seeing increased attendance over the previous year, the local trolley system’s ridership has increased by 70% since the park opened, and restaurants are reporting better business. Indeed, Green says new class A office buildings are now being built adjacent to Klyde Warren, and property owners are reporting that rents are increasing as much as $3/square foot within a block of the park. “All of the numbers are better than anticipated, and people are making the park part of their regular life,” says Green. “It validates our assertion that green space matters.”
Klyde Warren Park, which sits atop a sunken freeway, has succeeded in linking two Dallas neighborhoods. Suburbs around the country are crisscrossed by at-grade thoroughfares that act as moats separating communities (check out the Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s annual list of most dangerous roads for pedestrians in the New York metro area). While deck parks aren’t right for every area, there are other solutions to bridge roads in the ‘burbs. For one, retrofitting thoroughfares as boulevards creates green space and safer connections between neighborhoods.