Reimaging Spaces Under the Elevated

Reimaging Spaces Under the Elevated

Building on its success in developing research that led to the High Line and the first purpose-built NYC Taxi, the Design Trust for Public Space partnered with the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) on a two-year research project exploring in-depth the 700 plus miles of elevated infrastructure across New York City, and the spaces below. The results of this study have been published in a new book entitled Under the Elevated: Reclaiming Space, Connecting Communities.

The book was developed by Design Trust fellows Neil Donnelly, Susannah Drake, Krisanne Johnson, Chat Travieso, and Douglas Woodward. Together, the team analyzed spaces under bridges, highways, subway tracks, and rail lines as a comprehensive network of underutilized urban space. They envisioned new strategies for developing these sites, as well as a criteria for choosing the most potentially useful ones.

Douglas Woodward, vice president of Design + Development at Edison Properties told AN that the project started in 2001 when the Design Trust recommended that the 33 urban spaces under the High Line should be considered equally important as those above it. Edison Properties wanted to figure out what to do with the plots they owned, so they approached the Design Trust, who put out a call for fellows. "Rather than having an urban designer or architect, we felt we should have a landscape architect," explained Woodward.

Drake approaches urban design with an ecological focus, having previously received EPA grants for pilot projects to improve stormwater management on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. However, this is only one part of the larger equation of Under the Elevated. "We always want to improve underused places, ecologically, culturally and socially," said Drake. "These are places where transit cuts through human scale things."

NYCDOT, a collaborator on the project, has been searching for and realizing innovative urban design strategies in recent years, illustrated by such work as the Plaza Program and the Green Infrastructure Unit. Its mission for Under The Elevated is to empower communities to improve those leftover, underused spaces, and reconnect them to the urban fabric.

What is next for the program? "We are talking to the DOT now, trying to find some sites to kick the program off," said Drake. "We are all committed to it, but until we have something on the street it won’t seem that real to me. We have the pop-ups, but we need something permanent." Without having to abide by the same stringent regulations as most long-term urban design projects, pop-ups have proved to be a good tool for experimentation. The pilot projects, while more permanent, are still recognized as tests which can push the envelope.

The program addresses a range of issues from policy and ownership to simple problems, including measures to reduce noise and increase light. Neil Gagliardi, director of urban design at NYCDOT, says that the information from the study is very useful, and the agency is committed to moving forward with the ideas proposed. (NYCDOT owns, or at least operates nearly all of the spaces.)

"This is the first comprehensive approach. It is good to look at [underused spaces under the elevated] as a system and how they can benefit the city,” explained Gagliardi. “We are testing some solutions over the next few months mainly around lighting, because it is the main complaint we get." NYCDOT has engaged Sam Schwartz Engineering to look at the spaces on Livonia Avenue in Brownsville, and has also sought the expertise of other designers whom the agency has worked with in the past. The goal is to establish a toolkit of tried-and-tested strategies to enhance spaces under the elevated.

NYCDOT has identified pilot sites to inform its larger framework called the EL Space Program. It will address sites in Sunset Park’s Industry City at 36th Street and "Rampland" in Long Island City along Dutch Kills Street—with the hope to get funding for a more comprehensive program. The pilot program is funded through public and private sources and will depend partially on how the Department of City Planning (DCP) rezones these areas. NYCDOT is working with City Planning to incorporate elevated spaces into housing and zoning initiatives. For example, The Jerome Avenue area in the Bronx has been the focus of recent rezoning efforts, and the city has expressed interest in improving lighting in places under the elevated infrastructure as part of its economic development strategy.

The question is whether these improvements will come to fruition.

"I think it’s more real than the High Line," said Gagliardi. "We need comprehensiveness to help plan strategies and plan criteria. What places are best used for industrial operations? Which are best for the pedestrian?"

The ultimate success of this program will likely be the strategies born from this study. These forgotten, underused tracts, however, are not just found in New York City. They are ubiquitous in most cities in post-industrial America. The study has far-reaching potential, and could serve as a lesson in how to exploit and make good use of underutilized spaces.

Under the Elevated: Reclaiming Space, Connecting Communities is available for $30.00 from the Design Trust.