Embracing the city by transforming industrial blight into urban amenity
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SWA Group masterminded and designed the Buffalo Bayou Promenade, in Houston, converting a trash-lined eyesore into a 20-acre, 3,000-foot-long urban park.
Courtesy Bill Tatham
Ever since I took a boat ride last summer down Newark’s Passaic River, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between the man-made world and the natural environment. After an afternoon spent marveling at the undersides of the New Jersey Turnpike and the Pulaski Skyway, as one might gaze at old stone bridges over more bucolic rivers, Newark’s chief urban designer, Damon Rich, said to me: “I would say we have a truly metropolitan version of nature, at least in this part of New Jersey.”
A metropolitan version of nature: I liked that idea and it’s stuck with me. Urban nature isn’t a phenomenon unique to the twenty-first century, but as city supermarkets add rooftop farms and downtown hotels incorporate bee colonies, the distinctions between urban and rural have become somewhat blurred. Sure, there have been lots of planned encounters between city and country in the past. Most notably, there was Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision of the city park as a pastoral retreat: “We want a ground to which people may easily go after their day’s work is done,” he wrote in an 1870 essay, Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns, “and where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets, where they shall, in effect, ﬁnd the city put far away from them.”
What’s happening today is different. Twenty-ﬁrst century metropolitan nature is about embracing the city, not ﬂeeing it. “Central Park was meant to be an escape,” says Robert Hammond, one of the activists who conjured the High Line into being. “On the High Line, you’re in nature, but you can hear the trafﬁc; you can see the Empire State Building.”
This is the aspect of the High Line that’s most worth emulating. Every city doesn’t need an elevated linear park, nor should every old railroad viaduct be converted for recreational use. But there are features of our cities that we commonly regard as eyesores that should instead be valued as part of our unnatural natural environment. We can ﬁnd ways to immerse ourselves in these oddities as if they were the uncanny rock formations of some southwestern canyon. Even the most obstructive, no-man’s-land-generating form of urban infrastructure—the elevated expressway—can, with skill and imagination, be incorporated into metropolitan nature.
The natural channel and the soil along the bayou were stabilized by gabions and the anchoring of 14,000 tons of rock and recycled concrete.
Courtesy Tom Fox
Perhaps the best example of this trick turns up in Houston. The photos I’ve seen of that city’s Buffalo Bayou Promenade show a network of bike and pedestrian trails running alongside a river (long regarded as a dumping ground) beneath a spaghetti weave of highway overpasses and interchanges. The images make the concrete columns supporting the highways look strangely elegant, like a futuristic colonnade.
Buffalo Bayou (a river to us Northerners) is the main reason Houston’s founders built a city on a swampy inland site. They had sailed up the bayou as far as they could go, and planted a settlement on the spot where they were forced to stop. According to Kevin Shanley, the CEO of SWA Group, the landscape design ﬁrm that masterminded the revival of the Buffalo Bayou, the city grew up around this little port, positioning sawmills along the river to take advantage of the cypress trees growing on its banks. “That’s where they got their drinking water,” Shanley says. “Of course that’s where they dumped all their sewage. That’s where the slaughterhouses were and all the offal was dumped there.”
Floods eventually ﬂattened much of the riverfront development. While early attempts had been made to set aside the land alongside Buffalo Bayou for a city park, the postwar highway-building boom overwhelmed good intentions. The riverfront provided an open space in which new roadways could be easily inserted. “And so they clobbered the poor bayou with freeway overpasses and interchanges,” Shanley says. Since the 1980s, citizen groups have emerged and tried to clean up the bayou and turn the area around the historic riverfront landing into a park. That effort spawned a linear stretch of green, scheduled for completion next year, which has become a beloved conduit for bikers and pedestrians. The trails along the bayou will eventually be the centerpiece of a 150-mile, $200 million network of trails along the city’s various bayous, which most Houstonians had been accustomed to thinking of as drainage ditches. “People are realizing that we don’t have inﬁnite amounts of money for infrastructure and we don’t have inﬁnite amounts of land in these urban areas, so you’ve got to be creative about ﬁnding joint uses,” Shanley says.