When most New Yorkers think of the land beneath the elevated trains, highways, and bridges that run for 700 miles in the city, they think of dark, noisy, and oppressive spaces that divide neighborhoods–basically the definition of blight, often concentrated in low-income, minority communities.
They’re not wrong. Those are the reasons that 1930s reformers campaigned to demolish New York’s “el” trains and build the underground subway. In much of Manhattan, they succeeded, which is why property values on 6th Avenue, where a train used to rumble overhead, are what they are today. For similar reasons, in 1962, activist Jane Jacobs went head-to-head with authoritarian highway builder Robert Moses to stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway and save Greenwich Village. This is why we have Bob Dylan.
But many have also found inspiration in these parts of the city, which take up an area nearly four times the size of Central Park. The 168 miles of elevated train tracks alone (mostly in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx) cast light in fascinating patterns, inspiring the work of artists and poets. The stunning arches beneath the Manhattan Bridge help make the DUMBO neighborhood the creative hub it is today. Skateboarders thrive under many of these structures, and directors film iconic car chase scenes that make movie history.
Now, with real estate at a premium and the city’s population expected to increase by 1 million residents in the next 25 years, New York is looking at how it can reclaim these spaces and remake them as community assets. A new report, presented this week by the nonprofit Design Trust For Public Space and the New York City Department of Transportation, represents the first attempt of any city to study these spaces and present a comprehensive strategy to tranforming them.
“Everybody is so focused both on how rapid urbanization and increasing mobility is shaping the future of cities. This, to me, falls into that category of ‘what’s the next frontier?’” says Design Trust for Public Space Executive Director Susan Chin.
The report inventories and categorizes the city’s “under the elevated” space and shares the results of seven case studies and two pop-up experiments undertaken over the last two years. It also describes a collaborative process for experimenting with these spaces–from “pop-up” to pilot to permanent projects–which may require involvement from multiple city and state agencies.
Project ideas are aimed at creating well-lit, clean spaces and reducing noise–as well as providing additional elements to add value to a space. That might mean an electrical vehicle charging station under the Queensboro Bridge, art studios and outdoor training facilities in Highbridge Park, or food trucks and stormwater-absorbing bioswales below the Gowanus Expressway. Upgrades in lower-income neighborhoods, such as Brooklyn’s East New York, could boost businesses and local housing proposals, the report says.
The trial pop-up installations showed how it could work. In one, working with Chinatown Partnership, the city installed better lighting and seating on Division Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown, in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge. To make it a public space where people might linger, the Design Trust surveyed local residents and decided to create a colorful community bulletin board, where people could post events and comment on their surroundings.
“Oh my god, that space was so loud,” says Chin. “But still, you put seats out, and people immediately sat down.”
The group hopes the work inspires other cities to look at new options for these neglected spaces. Around the nation, the report estimates there are 7,000 miles of space under elevated structures. Syracuse, New York, for example, is considering tearing a highway down–but even if it doesn’t, it could develop the space underneath, she says. For New York, says Chin, a key next step is to create a city program that would be a one-stop shop for coordinating these projects.
Perhaps the most famous New York City public space involving the innovative use of an elevated structure is the High Line Park, where, over the last decade, the city has created an park out of a decommissioned rail line. Consequently, the space beneath the rail line has also bloomed with new stores, art spaces, and residences. The lesson for Chin is that “not every community needs a High Line, but community spaces can happen at all levels.”