Sustainable urban landscapes - 21st-century ideas meet 19th-century infrastructure

February 19, 2019


Realizing “nature’s ability to rejuvenate the mind and body”


In the United States, Boston Common (in Boston, Massachusetts) is regularly considered to be the first public park. Dating to 1634, this plot of land in what is now central Boston was held "in common" for use by the public, primarily for cattle grazing and occasionally for militia exercises. By the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century (in New England), rural garden cemeteries—such as Mount Auburn Cemetery outside of Boston (1831) were designed to provide crucial space for the increasing number of burials in growing urban areas and to provide passive recreation grounds for those who resided in these cities. By the mid-19th century, however, a very forward-looking man—Frederick Law Olmsted—realized that cities needed open "natural" spaces specifically designed to provide city residents with the benefits of a stroll through nature. The first result was Central Park in New York City!


The history of the railroad in the United States follows numerous themes in the growth of the nation. The first transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869, opened up the vast interior of the North American continent to expanded US settlement. By the late 1800s, the railroads in the New York area helped the Vanderbilt family create a vast fortune resulting in one of the great architectural masterpieces, Grand Central Station (or Terminal). Henry Flagler extended a railroad along the coast of Florida dramatically changing the landscape as tourists flooded the sun-drenched beaches.


So what do mid-19th-century parks and railroads have in common? By the mid-20th century, the growth of automobile industry and the interstate highway system led to a reduction in passenger rail use, and many rail lines were re-prioritized for freight while other lines were simply abandoned. Abandoned rail lines even include inner city lines that had been used for freight. In 1986, the Rails to Trails Conservancy was formed to convert abandoned rail lines to vibrant public spaces. And in 2009, the first portion of the celebrated High Line opened in New York City, leading numerous architects, planners, and preservationists to re-imagine abandoned or obsolete infrastructure in new ways.


The success of the High Line and the re-birth of inner cities in general – sparked by continued support for historic preservation of older parks and buildings – has led numerous cities to undertake similar projects. Increasing green space in urban areas is intended to serve several goals – providing urban residents and workers with nature’s respite from urban congestion and providing natural ways to help urban areas deal with effects of climate change, from absorbing the effects of rising sea levels in coastal cities and providing more sustainable means for dealing with the runoff from rainstorms rather than sending it all down sewage drains.


The article blow provides a pictorial essay on such projects in Rail Park in Philadelphia, Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, and the Belt Line in Atlanta.



Bringing Nature Back to the Urban Core

Text by Gregory Smith

The New York Times

February 12, 2019



Also see

From graveyards to Central Park: the role of urban parks as public space

IHN Network April 18, 2017


Railways: re-imagining abandoned or obsolete infrastructure

IHN Network June 28, 2017



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