June 9, 2010

As the United States moves into the post-industrial era, it’s the rare city that doesn’t find itself with too many abandoned factory-age relics and too few parks. After fits and starts around the globe, a spate of landscape architects have lit upon a potential solution to both problems: Turn the industrial parks into plain old parks.

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The suggestion sounds wildly counterintuitive. Aren’t those wastelands
of blackened steel mills, rusted rail lines, smelly landfills, and debris-strewn waterfronts far too contaminated to be easily transformed into public playgrounds? Certainly, that old acid-neutralizing basin requires a good scrubbing before the local park board can convert into a swimming pool. But landscape architects are becoming wizards at phytoremediation, a technique that enlists sunflowers and other plants as part of a detox campaign. There’s a strange beauty in industrial ruins, and it is brought out by their juxtaposition with nature.

Such industrial sites are often the biggest and best-located pieces of unused land available to older cities. But the transformation from belching factory to pristine parkland isn’t something that can happen overnight. Seven years after the City of New York hired James Corner, founder of the firm Field Operations, to remake the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, the project is still in the remediation stage. The firm’s conversion of an abandoned railroad trestle in Manhattan with architects Diller Scofidio and Renfro—–the High Line Park—–has proceeded more swiftly. The park, which hovers 18 to 30 feet above the streets of Chelsea, opened last year to glowing reviews. It provides that swish gallery district with a quiet refuge from the art hordes while preserving a vestige of New York’s industrial heyday.

Now, it seems, every city longs for its own High Line. There’s certainly no shortage of elevated railroads awaiting some TLC, along with plenty of old power stations, dead malls, and waterfront piers. Let the remediation, and the renewal, begin.

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