Miami isn’t known as a city where it’s particularly easy to walk or bike. But underneath the city’s elevated rail line–which stretches 10 miles from downtown to the southern end of the county–a new park is beginning to counteract decades of car-centric design.
The Underline, which broke ground today, combines green public space with paths that connect to transit stations, fully separated from the adjacent street, where 100,000 cars drive by each day. (The plan was a finalist in the Fast Company 2017 World Changing Ideas Award.)
“Miami-Dade County is one of the most dangerous places to walk and bike in the country,” says Meg Daly, who started a nonprofit to champion the project after walking under the rail line–a dimly lit, dirty, unwelcoming area, surrounded by heavy traffic and hard-to-cross streets–and seeing its potential. “We’re not just moving in our cars because we’re car-centric, we’re in our cars because we feel safer.”
A simple path already exists under the rail line, but it was rarely used. The new design will fill the space with people, by building a dog park, playground, gym, and other outdoor “rooms.” Lighting and native landscaping will surround the path, which will be reshaped to improve visibility. Each intersection along the path will become safer. “The biggest change is how we’re getting people across the street,” says Daly. Crossings will be wider and painted bright green, and cars won’t be able to turn right on red at each street. A slight ramp leading to each intersection will slow down cyclists as they approach. Flashing beacons will warn drivers about people crossing.
“It’s really common sense, if you’re prioritizing people on foot and on bike, of what needs to be done,” Daly says. “It’s just a different lens and it’s a different kind of playbook.”
The design team, James Corner Field Operations, also designed New York City’s High Line, but started the Miami project with no preconceptions. “One of the most important things we did was listen to people first before we started designing,” says Daly. In a series of community meetings, neighbors who live along the path suggested ideas like a 50-foot long communal table and a community stage. People from the city’s Little Havana neighborhood suggested adding tables for dominoes and chess. Others wanted a gym and public art. “Literally everything we have in our master plan was an idea of the community.”
The local Department of Transportation, rather than the Parks Department, is leading the project along with Daly’s nonprofit, Friends of the Underline, with funding for construction from donors, the city, county, and state. Developers will also pay for some stretches of the park next to new buildings (the city is pushing to add more housing next to public transportation in a broader effort to cut down on traffic).
Like the High Line, which was criticized for triggering rapid gentrification in New York, there’s a chance that the park’s desirability could push up rents in adjacent neighborhoods. Daly’s nonprofit, Friends of the Underline, is a member of the High Line Network, an organization founded to help other cities considering similar parks avoid some of the problems that it faced.
“What’s lacking in the plan, in our opinion, and what we’re going to start working on, is a real, concerted effort to add more workforce and affordable housing,” says Daly. They’re learning, she says, from examples like Atlanta, which is protecting single-family homes along its BeltLine park, but is also finding ways to add new density and housing.
Ultimately, the new bike and pedestrian path is intended to act as the spine of a broader network. On each end, the park will connect to other trails, so it will eventually go 22 miles. It’s likely that it will also inspire other new bike lanes and pedestrian safety projects nearby. “We are focusing heavily on how existing and future bike plans connect, because a lot of times these plans are siloed,” she says. “We’re trying to get this very holistic approach.”