From a Complicated Present, Urban Reuse Parks Look to the Future

Metropolis catches up with the High Line Network, a consortium of North American reuse projects that has been sharing notes and best practices through the pandemic.
Beltline Img 9648 John Becker

Signs along the Atlanta BeltLine Courtesy John Becker

Since the pandemic began, the High Line Network—a group of North American infrastructure reuse projects founded in 2017—has been conducting regular teleconference calls among its members, comparing notes on operations and sharing best practices and advice with fellow members. With many open or planning to reopen soon, and as the pandemic continues, many observers expect these projects will become even more popular among the public, since they provide outdoor space where visitors can walk, bicycle, and safely enjoy themselves—usually at an appropriate distance from one another. Especially now, the network believes its constituent projects can deliver tremendous and much-needed social, health, environmental, and economic benefits.

Projects that have remained open during the pandemic are placing some restrictions on activities, and adding new signage that emphasizes social distancing, covering faces, and hand washing.

Anne Olson, president of Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Partnership—which includes Buffalo Bayou Park, a 160-acre green space that opened in fall 2015—said the park initially was “overrun” with visitors at the beginning of the pandemic, with throngs of visitors exercising on its hills or picnicking with family, though rising temperatures have dampened such activity. And the children’s play area, dog park, and café are closed.

Dequindre Cut Destinations Credit Detroit Riverfront Conservancy

Dequindre Cut Courtesy Detroit Riverfront Conservancy

Similarly, Mark C. Wallace, president and chief executive of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, said visitors to the Dequindre Cut, a two-mile greenway that occupies a former Grand Trunk Railroad line, have increased by 20 percent. He attributes this, in part, to the large number of deaths in Detroit since the start of the pandemic: Detroiters are “experiencing a high level of anxiety,” he said, adding that spending time with nature provides “profound benefits to our emotional well-being.”

One way the conservancy adapted to the current climate was to convert its annual spring Riverfront Run 5K/10K run and walk to a virtual event. Registrants ran the race whenever and wherever they could, reported their results to the conservancy, and received a t-shirt.

On the other hand, the Atlanta BeltLine—a loop of parks, trails, transit, and affordable housing built alongside abandoned railway corridors—had two million visitors in 2019. Its chief executive, Clyde Higgs, said visitorship fell between March and June but has slowly been rebounding.

Throughout the last several months, the BeltLine has consistently used social media to reinforce its message to locals that they use its trails for “essential” purposes only. It also has been providing guidance to infrastructure reuse projects in Rhode Island, Texas, and Ontario that are outside the High Line Network.

Buffalo Bayou Park 6 Cyclists Credit Buffalo Bayou Partnership

Cyclists in Buffalo Bayou Park, Houston, before the age of social distancing Courtesy Buffalo Bayou Partnership

The High Line—the network’s namesake 1.5-mile greenway on the Far West Side of Manhattan, built on a disused elevated freight line—closed in mid-March after the pandemic began and plans to reopen on July 16.

But access to the High Line will not be completely unimpeded upon reopening: Entrances and exits will be restricted and pedestrian traffic will only flow north. To ensure adequate social distancing and avoid crowding, it will offer only advance, timed-entry reservations and a limited number of walk-up passes.

Tourism to New York has fallen drastically because of the pandemic, but Robert Hammond, the High Line’s cofounder and executive director, believes this could be a plus for local visitors; at least for the time being, they will not be outnumbered by tourists. (The park receives eight million visitors annually, sometimes as many as 60,000 in one weekend.)

“It’s a different kind of feeling if the park is full of New Yorkers,” he said.

Hammond predicts the pandemic ultimately will lead to “increased investment in outdoor public space in cities, with free access to all visitors.” Olson, in Houston, believes people will “want to get out more in nature” and wonders if parks such as Buffalo Bayou can become “wilder, more nature-oriented.”

Highline Aerialchelseamarket Credit Timothyschenck

An aerial view of the High Line with Chelsea Market. The park plans to reopen, with certain restrictions, on July 16. Courtesy Timothy Schenck

“Instead of measuring our success by the number of people who come, we are most concerned about the quality of the experience and the space we provide,” said Wallace, of the Detroit conservancy. He added that he is optimistic people “will continue to seek out opportunities to spend time in these spaces,” noting the conservancy would encourage visitors to explore specific destinations such as the Cut’s Freight Yard—nine shipping containers that have been converted into a retail, entertainment, and gathering space.

The High Line Network—which seeks to share ideas and strategies that improve urban well-being among projects across different regions and in different stages of development—last month added 15 new members to its existing 24. These include a second project in Canada—the Meadoway in Scarborough, a section of Toronto—and the first in Mexico: La Mexicana Park in Mexico City.

New members were selected through the network’s first-ever open call this spring, which was created in response to a growing recognition of the infrastructure reuse field as a powerful tool for increasing public green spaces across cities.

New members of the network in the United States include the Riverline in Buffalo; the Memphis Riverfront in Tennessee; the Riverwalk in Milwaukee; Hemisfair Park in San Antonio; CicLAvia in Los Angeles; India Basin Park Project in San Francisco; and Bergen Arches in Jersey City, NJ.

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Categories: Cities, Landscape