Investing in Underused Infrastructure Is Transforming Communities

underused infrastructure, Buro Happold

The High Line has become one of New York City’s highlight destinations, alongside Central Park, the Statue of Liberty and other mainstays. How quickly it became globally renowned is remarkable, but the High Line’s provenance and development is even moreso: The linear park is the result of phased adaptive reuse of an elevated railroad route, reaching from midtown to downtown Manhattan. Derelict and abandoned by 1980 when trucks supplanted trains for freight, the railroad tracks were an imposing, gloomy hulk, blocking sunlight and sequestering portions of the Chelsea neighborhood. The High Line became a hub of subculture activity during the ’80s, including queer convening and street art, a spark of alternative ethos that grew into a movement for adaptive reuse. Now it’s a vibrant connector, a cultural resource and an accelerator of growth.

The High Line has become one of New York City’s highlight destinations, alongside Central Park, the Statue of Liberty and other mainstays. HIGH LINE PHOTOS: Eric Soltan, courtesy Buro Happold

This is an iconic example of what we at Buro Happold have termed “stranded assets”, defunct or underutilized infrastructure elements that have outlasted their original function but have potential for new uses that benefit frontline communities where they sit. More often than not, stranded assets disproportionately impact low-income communities and/or communities of color, so their repurposing undergirds social- and environmental-justice aspirations.

Through our global Cities Practice, Buro Happold has committed to development of thought leadership around this type of urban strategy: Urban planners, economists, and engineers working with like-minded professionals and multi-stakeholder public-private partnerships. The goal for each is a transformation of the infrastructure for a contemporary need, creating a boon for the community where once there was a burden with benefits rippling outward.

From Idea to Action

The High Line Network’s just-concluded 2022 Symposium in Miami represents a continued shift from the project itself to a global focus on underutilized infrastructure everywhere. The High Line organization continues to transition from best-case example to clearinghouse for ideas with outreach from offshoot groups, like the Public Space Alliance, which creates peer-to-peer stakeholder learning opportunities promoting solutions for equitable urban design and social and climate action.

The Verdugo Wash now has a practicable vision for a linear park: making the river accessible and visible, adding pedestrian and bicycle paths, and incorporating ample space for events and activities. PHOTO: courtesy Buro Happold

To spur the movement’s growth, Buro Happold currently is leading a four-part workshop series for Public Space Alliance to illuminate the stranded assets process, sharing nuts-and-bolts information project leaders need to realize a vision for infrastructure reuse:

  • Assessing cost and impact.
  • Supporting a climate action plan.
  • Addressing mobility and equitable access.
  • Finding public sector champions to take projects over the finish line.

It’s critical to articulate a clear vision for reusing an infrastructure element effectively. Project leaders must also program for the future, tying the reuse strategically to parallel efforts in planning and economic development to see the project completed and the new use endure. Thorough visioning wins allies, which are key to long-term success.

Synergy: Climate Action, Social Equity

One reuse project gaining steam out west provides a valuable window into the early stages: The Verdugo Wash—a 9-mile tributary to the Los Angeles River located entirely within the city of Glendale, Calif.—was lined in concrete almost a century ago as a flood-control strategy. This utilitarian form had multiple unintended consequences, reducing public access to the waterway and dividing communities, as many highway projects of that era did, while negatively impacting the local ecology. In an effort helmed by Glendale’s assistant director of community development, Bradley Calvert, AICP, a call for proposals was issued.

Working with urban design firm !melk, we fashioned a practicable vision for a linear park: making the river accessible and visible, adding pedestrian and bicycle paths, and incorporating ample space for events and activities—a community asset. The proposal also included strategies aligned with the city’s plans for growth and resiliency and with L.A. County’s new climate action plan, such as establishing connections between Glendale neighborhoods, improving existing flood-mitigation strategies and reintroducing natural habitat for wildlife.

Buro Happold’s Cities Practice team helped form a Reimagine the Canals Task Force for adaptive reuse of the 524-mile-long Erie Canal system. The vision will return use of the canal to adjacent communities while celebrating its heritage and history with ecological restoration, climate resiliency and economic regeneration as guideposts. PHOTO: Buro Happold, Office for Visual Interaction, Michael Van Valkenburg Associates

The plan’s components supporting climate action and addressing social justice for adjacent communities of color are precisely what ensures its long-term success and what helped win support from Glendale’s city leaders by creating synergy with existing development plans. Construction for portions of the plan has already commenced.

Planning for the Future

Late in each project it becomes essential to develop a management team for the infrastructure’s new use. This is essential; management of a park or cultural site has very different requirements than that of a railroad spur or a flood-control waterway.

This is the current stage of the “Reimagine the Canals” project for the New York State Canal Corporation and the New York Power Authority, which Buro Happold supported with a strategic visioning effort for adaptive reuse of the 524-mile-long Erie Canal system. The Cities Practice team’s work concluded with helping form a Reimagine the Canals Task Force composed of key stakeholders and experts to realize the vision of returning use of the canal to adjacent communities while celebrating its heritage and history with ecological restoration, climate resiliency and economic regeneration as guideposts.

Following the 2020 announcement of a redevelopment initiative by the New York governor’s office, work is underway on multiple components, including an interactive, hydro-powered series of illuminated “movable dams”, a tribute to the canal’s history as an engineering marvel. The task force supports client stakeholders to ensure sustainable management for recreational and cultural uses.

Widening the Lens

As this global movement grows, more stranded assets opportunities emerge. Not every project needs to be an adaptive reuse with a radically new program for the infrastructure; underutilization is just as important to address as total abandonment. A strategic vision for taking what is already there and making it more accessible and appealing is just as valuable.

Buro Happold led an effort to enhance the use of Chicago’s Pedway, an underground network of pedestrian corridors connecting public and private buildings across downtown Chicago. RENDERING: Davis Brody Bond, courtesy Buro Happold

This is the case with Jamaica Bay Great Urban Park on New York City’s eastern edge, where 10,000-plus acres of land surround a biodiverse urban estuary. Historically, sections of the parklands were separately owned and managed by the National Park Service and city. Now, a joint effort has created one massive unified park. This complex project involved developing new models for alternative means of governance and collaborative park management; coordinating efforts by interested groups; and re-envisioning transportation, access, mobility and ecological preservation. The revitalized parkland has delivered new opportunities for enjoyment by residents and tourists while protecting wildlife.

Similarly, Buro Happold led an effort to enhance the use of Chicago’s Pedway, an underground network of pedestrian corridors connecting public and private buildings across downtown Chicago. Starting with analysis of the network, our team led an effort to attract more traffic, improve wayfinding and create areas of interest—even spectacle—to enliven the experience. The project has been a success, and the return on investment realized could foster additional future enhancements.

The moment is ripe for stranded assets revitalizations. The recent federal Inflation Reduction Act legislation will soon pour massive amounts of funding into infrastructure projects nationwide, which could energize reuse plans and kick off synergies through public-private partnerships. Meanwhile, infrastructure everywhere around the world is getting a second look. The ongoing redevelopment of the Battersea Power Station is a perfect example in which a decommissioned coal-fired power plant now is home to such uses as residential, entertainment, dining and shopping with new transit connections and other strategies for access, bringing people back to the Thames River in southwest London. Assets like these require effort, time, resources, and careful analysis and guidance to transform effectively and sustainably, but the results speak for themselves.

About the Author

Alice Shay and Ubaldo Escalante, AICP
Alice Shay is principal and Ubaldo Escalante, AICP, is senior cities consultant with Buro Happold, a firm working at city and building scales with clients worldwide.

Be the first to comment on "Investing in Underused Infrastructure Is Transforming Communities"

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: